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Roger Clarke's 'I.T. Impacts


Roger Clarke **

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 1996


This document provides an overview of some of the most important ways in which IT is having an impact on people. If you've come to this page because you're enrolled in a computing or information systems unit, then you should pick one or more topics that interest you, and follow them through, starting here and with your text-books, and following it through hard-copy resources in your library, and electronic resources here on the web.

Some of these topics may seem to you to be extremely uninteresting; and that's fair enough. But if none of them strikes a chord, your score on the civilisation index is terribly low: if you want to be a participant in society rather than just a passenger, you'd better start getting interested!

The document is divided into the following sections:

In addition to identifying the impacts that IT has, we also need to do something about it!

* Security of Computers, Networks and Data

This topic is concerned with harm arising from disruption to computer and communications services. This is a vast area. I suggest that you start by looking at one specific area: the security of data transmission. You need to understand the nature of the risks involved, and of the kinds of protective measures that can be used.

The same kinds of consideration needs to be given to other aspects of data handling, including collection, storage, processing, use and disclosure.

Here are a couple of starting points for study of these topics:

* Public Safety

This is such an important matter that it's worth a document in its own right.

* The Workplace

The patterns of activities which employees undertake are also being affected, in such areas as:

IT can be used to simply automate the procedures currently used in organisations; but existing activities are much more likely to be at least rationalised, in order to take advantage of new possibilities that the technology creates; and in some cases they need to be substantially re-invented. The impacts on organisational processes are therefore generally noticeable, and can be quite profound.

The expectation is that the changes will have considerable benefits, but these will often be felt only in the medium-term. Commonly, the short-term impact on the organisation and its profit is negative, as investment is undertaken, once-off expenditure is written-off, and disruption occurs to the existing routine.

The impacts on employees are almost inevitably significant. Many people currently in the workforce have not been well conditioned for change by their education and training, and are not mentally well-prepared for it. Quite commonly, those workplaces most in need of radical re-design are those in which the employees have been in a settled (and increasingly inefficient) mode of operation; and hence the shock of change is all the greater.

People's work-patterns, and the skills required of them, may be quite different from those that have, until recently, been conventional. Capabilities in relation to computers and communications are vital. The conventional approach of deferring particular kinds of transactions, and processing them occasionally in batches, may be replaced by on-demand handling of clients' needs. There may also be impacts on working-hours, such as customer support extended beyond the traditional 9am-5pm time-frame. The location at which the work is performed may also change, with more performed on client's sites, or at home.

These changes can result in major impacts on organisational structure as well. Increasingly, the primary focus is on business processes, and the hierarchy of managers and supervisors is being regarded as less important.

Organisational units that run as mini-empires are often inefficient because they are resistant to change for extended periods. When IT is implemented, such units are likely to be dis-established. The looser workgroups which replace them, rather than being associated with other, similar groups (i.e. organised along functional lines such as Marketing and Production Divisions) are more likely to be linked along the business chain by which value is added to the organisation's raw materials to produce its finished products.

* Community Impacts

Beyond the workplace, communities are functioning differently because of I.T. Some of the more important impacts are in the following areas:

One of the tendencies of 'successful' I.T. applications is that they deliver a great deal of what each individual needs at a workstation or playstation. So there is less reason for each individual to get up and walk around. Apart from being physically unhealthy, this also reduces people's direct interactions with one another, which is the cornerstone of existing communities.

Another negative impact is the reduced need for humans to work, arising from the productivity in white-collar work which I.T. is delivering. For many people, this results in lowered self-respect, and reduces their commitment to themselves, their community and their society. The effect on incomes is discussed under the heading 'Economic Impacts' below.

New forms of communities are emerging, based on USENET, Fidonet and the Internet during the last 20 years, and the explosion in popular use of the Internet during the last 3-5 years.

Electronic communities have quite different characteristics from traditional communities based on physical proximity, and on cultural, ethnic, religious and professional commonalities. They have upsides, which are discussed in such places as Howard Rheingold's book on 'Virtual Communities'. They also have downsides. For a set of mini-cases of Mini Case Studies of dysfunctional human behaviour on the net, see my Netethiquettecases page.

* Social Impacts

Society as a whole, and individuals within society, are being significantly affected by IT. Some of the more important impacts are in the following areas:

In a society that claims to offer equality of opportunity, there is a need for equity of access to information, and hence to the infrastructure whereby information is accessed. Currently, the Internet and the world-wide web are accessible for relatively low costs. Will this remain the case? Will a form of 'universal service' emerge, which everyone will enjoy; or will critical aspects of the information infrastructure be restricted to particular classes of people, such as the well-off, and those in urban areas (or even, as the installation of cable suggests, to those in well-off urban areas)?

A related issue is that of pricing, particularly of information gathered and made available by government. This raises questions about Crown copyright, statutes and court judgements, statistical collections and spatial information.

The information infrastructure comprises many components, including high-bandwidth backbones, regional capacity, 'tail-ends' out to user sites, and workstations in public institutions such as schools and libraries. The cabling, network hardware and software, and communications protocols need to respect a sufficiently common set of sufficiently advanced standards and protocols that inter-operability can be achieved; and yet the whole undertaking must incorporate sufficient flexibility and adaptability that future advances can be exploited. It is also important to appreciate that the scheme is intrinsically supra-national, or global rather than just regional, national or local.

Many difficulties must be confronted, however. One which has attracted attention is the question of regulation of the information infrastructure. A great deal of attention has been focussed on sexually explicit material, particularly that which would be refused classification by the Censor, and which would accordingly be illegal to possess or distribute in printed or filmed form. Other risks exist, however, such as incitements to violence, including extreme forms of racist behaviour, and instructions on how to prepare explosives, commit crimes and perform terrorist acts. Additional information about the regulation of the Internet in Australia is available.

Concerns also arise about the impact of IT on consumer rights. Will laws that protect consumers in such areas as door-to-door selling and payment using plastic cards be enforceable in the new electronic contexts? Will advertising standards laws be sustainable, or will, for example, those banning tobacco advertising be subverted through use of the global information infrastructure? And will consumers be able to protect their intellectual property in materials and software that they produce, sell and distribute using the information infrastructure?

The challenge for governments is to impose controls in support of the public interest, without destroying the free, open and self-regulatory nature of the Internet.

The 'equity of access to information' issue was discussed earlier. The other side of the same coin is the question of the privacy of personal data and personal communications. In general, activities on the Internet and the world-wide web are identified: the postings individuals read, the goods and services they enquire about or purchase can be monitored and recorded.

The growth rate in traffic on the information infrastructure has been so great that its impacts on privacy have so far been more theoretical than real. But both commercial, marketing interests, and government agencies whose functions include data surveillance, are taking an increasing interest in the information that can be gleaned about individuals from their behaviour on the Internet.

This is a massive area, and is treated in detail on my Dataveillance pages. If you find any other sources I should know about, please tell me!!

You may also want to consider the way in which we are leaving increasingly intensive trails of personal data behind us, which can be used to analyse our past and present behaviour, and manipulate our future behaviour.

Many people are arguing for considerable electronic freedoms for individuals. One example is the movement to ensure that any individual is free to use any form of cryptography. This means, on the one hand, that individuals will have the same rights in cyberspace as they do in the real world, to obscure their conversations from people who may be listening. On the other hand, it makes the tasks of national security and law enforcement agencies in combating organised crime and terrorist groups more difficult than it otherwise would be. Additional information about electronic freedom issues is available.

* Economic Impact

At a more general level, IT is affecting aspects of the national economy, in particular in the following areas:

A pair of related concerns are employment levels and the distribution of income. It appears that the capacity of advanced societies to produce may be starting to outstrip their ability to consume. Productivity tools of many different kinds are enabling organisations to perform functions with fewer resources, and in many industries this means that fewer humans are being employed. The rate of new job creation by emergent industries appears not to be high enough to take up the slack. The result is that, even when the economy is improving, unemployment levels are staying high, participation rates are falling, and more people are in part-time employment than was the case in the past.

Some people are fairly well-adapted to part-time pay for part-time work, especially at particular stages of their lives, such as the period when young children are at home or needing care after school, and in the years preceding full retirement from the workforce. Unfortunately, many of the people out of work in Australia at present are recent school-leavers, many of them matriculants, and in some cases even tertiary-trained graduates. In the past, people who had never been employed, and had therefore never had an occupation, were rare exceptions; but we may be seeing the emergence of a whole class of permanently unemployed and unemployable. Many others among the currently unemployed are people who have not only an economic, but also a psychological, need to be in employment.

IT is succeeding for the organisations that use it, and may do so for the customers of those organisations (variously companies, consumers and clients of government agencies). It may also do so for the people who continue to be employed. There is therefore a need for society to deal fairly with the people who don't have jobs as a result, at least in part, of IT's success.

Measures of several kinds are needed:

- to ensure that the distribution of income is equitable;

- to enable the unemployed to achieve individual quality of life; and

- to address the problem of whole communities within which few members are employed.

A related need is means of ensuring that access to education and training is equitable, such that everyone has an opportunity to gather the knowledge and develop the skills needed to gain employment.

* Legal Considerations

The law establishes the framework within which people's rights and responsibilities exist, and can be enforced. IT is having an impact on some aspects of the law, including:

One difficulty that arises is whether data that has been created and stored in electronic form has evidentiary value in a court of law. If uncertainty exists, doubt arises as to whether organisations can enforce contracts, and gain judgements against recalcitrant debtors.

Another legal issue is that of intellectual property law in general, and copyright in digital materials in particular. Similar concerns arose with the widespread use of photocopiers, and of audio and video tape recorders. Digital technologies are much more complex, and their impacts more profound. Copyright statements accompany many on-line databases, but it is not entirely clear how enforceable these statements are, and what steps governments need to take to protect the rights of the authors.

Another matter of concern is whether organisations providing electronic services to other corporations and the general public may be incurring unintended contingent liabilities. For example, the contents of some web-pages might be interpreted by the courts as representing advice, and a person who relied on it and suffered because of that reliance, might have a case in negligence against the publisher. Alternatively, a page might breach another person's copyright, or contain material whose display is illegal in some other jurisdiction (e.g. a conservative southern state of the U.S.A., or an Islamic country).

* Cultural and National Sovereignty Issues

At a more abstract level still, IT is having an impact on the larger communities to which people belong. Relevant topics in this area include:

Some people are concerned about the cultural integrity of their regional or lingual groups. The President of France has expressed concern about the predominance of english on the Internet, despite the fact that 47 countries in the world speak french. Critics suggest that the use of english is a convenience, and not an attempt by the U.S.A. and other english-speaking countries to dominate the world and destroy local cultures. On the other hand, equity and freedom of speech and information may be considered to be basic rights within the so-called 'advanced western world', but this is not the case in all cultures, particularly those in which a particular religion plays a major role. What will happen to those cultures once they are exposed to the diverse and abundant information available on the Internet?

There are also ways in which national sovereignty is threatened by the global information infrastructure. The law can be difficult enough to impose within a geographical jurisdiction; but when data storage, information communication, and funds, all flow freely across national borders, the ability to enforce the law, and to collect the taxes on which government agencies depend, may be greatly reduced. Many people are sceptical about the ability of nations to survive the challenges that the global information infrastructure represents, and anticipate breakup of large countries into smaller communities.

An important part of the national sovereignty question is the integrity of the currency. During most of the twentieth century, currency has been mainly issued by national governments. Things approaching supra-national currencies have emerged (such as Eurodollar bonds and the forthcoming common European currency), but these have been subject to considerable influence by national governments.

Now new forms of currency are beginning to appear that may within a few decades completely undermine the ability of central banks to provide a framework within which all flows of funds take place, and to influence the level of activity within the national economy through the instrument of monetary policy. Stored value schemes using 'smart' chip-cards, of which several variants were launched in Australia during 1995-96, are one threat. A much larger one is electronic cash, also referred to as E-cash, or digital cash.

Electronic cash is based on cryptographic techniques, and enables organisations and individuals to make payments in a secure manner, directly over the information infrastructure. It performs several functions, including that of:

- a medium of exchange, which is immediate, convenient, cheap, and relatively difficult to trace; and

- a store of value, which is no more intangible than existing deposit balances recorded on a remote computer, but is much more readily spirited across national borders.

Depending on how it is implemented, electronic cash is capable of subverting traditional monetary controls. And it is technically proven, and in the course of being implemented.

Approaches to Dealing with These Problems

Rather than just listing problems, we need to work out what to do about them. The key terms that are used in this regard are:

Ris Management Strategies encompass the following alternatives:

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The content and infrastructure for these community service pages are provided by Roger Clarke through his consultancy company, Xamax.

From the site's beginnings in August 1994 until February 2009, the infrastructure was provided by the Australian National University. During that time, the site accumulated close to 30 million hits. It passed 65 million in early 2021.

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Created: 18 May 1996 - Last Amended: 18 May 1996 by Roger Clarke - Site Last Verified: 15 February 2009
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