INFORMATION COMMUNICATION TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION:
A SOCIAL AND HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
SCOPE OF INQUIRY
Computers and networks have generated an enormous amount of controversy and debate. Depending on whom you ask, computers and networks either:
- create political turmoil, or promote democracy;
- invade privacy, or promote transparency;
- increase social isolation, or expand social and professional networks;
- provide new opportunities for minorities, or create a digital divide;
- destroy literacy, or produce new forms of creative expression;
- make us stupid, or increase our cognitive capacities;
- encourage unnecessary purchases, or expand the consumer economy;
- enable greater exposure to media, or encourage copyright violations;
- assist law enforcement agencies, or enable new forms of crime; and
- eliminate teachers’ jobs, or improve teaching and learning.
Many journalists, pundits, and social scientists have recently made all these somewhat contradictory statements. Some evidence supports each one,but very few are based on valid and reliable research. Most are the result of limited observations. Such statements contribute to a great deal of confusion and add to the general public’s misunderstanding of the many changes that are occurring in our society. Indeed, social change is escalating at an increasing rate, and computersand networks are major contributors to those changes, particularly in the past fifty years.
Yet most of the public discourse lacks adequate consideration of both historical and sociological perspectives. This book is an attempt to provide those perspectives.
Following the contemporary practice of using a lowercase “e” as a prefix, eSocial Change might have been used as the title of this book. This format is increasingly used to denote that the following word or phrase refers to something taking place in an electronic environment. For example, email, ebook, and elearning convey that mail is transmitted over the Internet, a book is read on a computer screen, and learning is conducted via an interactive network. In addition, many terms use the prefix “i.” For example, iPhone, iTunes, and iPad all refer to systems that enable interactions via connections to networks.
Increasingly, much of our lives are taking place in “e” and “i” environments mediated by systems enabled by computer capabilities. Most people are aware that new electronic capabilities are becoming commonplace in our lives, but they do not recognize that many of these changes are not fundamentally new. Rather, they are continuations of long-term trends of social changes that date back to the beginning of recorded history. The objective of this book is to demonstrate the continuity of those lines of historical social change and examine them in the context of the information communication technologies (ICTs) that increasingly permeate our world, affect our lives, and influence how we see ourselves as well as others.
It has been almost four decades since the late Daniel Bell, the eminent sociologist, analyzed trends of social change and described the emerging post-industrial society. According to Bell, this new social order would be founded upon the then-emerging information technologies. He foresaw a future in which production would gradually be automated by machines, and a new economy would emerge in which information drove the provision of services. Furthermore, economic and political power would be based on the knowledge and the expertise of the information industries. Henry Ford and the automobile industry were the icons of the industrial era, and Bill Gates and the Internet personify the post-industrial one. In the intervening years since the publication of Bell’s prescient book, many of the trends he predicted have come to fruition. The time has now arrived to examine systematically how the distribution and utilization of information technologies are influencing the major trends of social change. This book is a first attempt to examine patterns of historical social change in the context of the growing use of ICTs for the creation, processing, storage, retrieval, dissemination, and use of knowledge. A broad definition of ICT is employed in this book, and three terms, information, communication, and technology, describe the focus of these explorations. Metaphorically speaking, information is the content, communication is the process, technology is the vehicle, and social change is the outcome.
Since the Industrial Revolution, society has been undergoing significant transitions at an escalating rate. All the major social institutions, including the family, the economy, religion, polity, and the law, are constantly changing, adapting, and evolving into new forms. Within just the past half century, ICTs have become pervasive in society, and they are exercising profound influences on major social transformations. This book examines both the obvious and more subtle patterns of change brought about by ICTs. In addition, the book speculates on the future direction of some of these transitions. This inquiry seeks both comprehensiveness and comprehension in the examination of social change. Comparisons across the major institutions of society will reveal new insights pertaining to social change.
Initially, it is important to be clear about the boundaries of these inquiries and declare what is and is not included in the concept of ICTs for the purpose of analyses in this book. First, the definition of each of the three words in the phrase information communication technology is explored, and then they will be combined to focus the inquiry of this book. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word information is derived from the Latin word informare, meaning “to inform, instruct, or teach.” By the late Middle Ages, the word had come to mean “knowledge or facts communicated about a particular subject, event, etc.” The OED now defines information: “Without necessary relation to a recipient: that which inheres in or is represented by a particular arrangement, sequence, or set, that may be stored in, transferred by, or responded to by inanimate things.” There are three important components to this definition.
First, information has no necessary relation to any recipient. This implies an expectation that there may be multiple contributors to, users of, and facilitators of the use of information. Global access and use are hallmarks of many current ICT systems. Second, the inherent meaning of information is represented in a symbolic form by arrangement, sequence, or set to convey some fact or knowledge. The conveyance of fact or knowledge implies the older definitions of informing, instructing, or teaching. Symbolic representation of numbers, letters, and characters is one of the fundamental design features of ICT systems. And third, inanimate objects may be used for storing, transferring, and responding to information. These operations are the basic functions of electronic computers. Whether computers are inanimate can be debated. Certainly the boxes that house computers do not move. It is true that electrical pulses move within computers of all sizes. However, when we consider robots driven by computers, inanimate certainly does not pertain. Nevertheless, the close relationship between the definitions of information and computer technology is obvious.
The OED lists 11 definitions of the word communication. Older meanings are related to the word common, and implications of sharing appear in some of the earliest recorded uses of the term. However, among contemporary definitions, the one that is most appropriate for this discussion defines communication as the “imparting, conveying, or exchange of ideas, knowledge, information, etc., whether by speech, writing, or signs. Hence, [communication is] the science or process of conveying information, esp. by means of electronic or mechanical techniques.” Information and communication are the hallmarks of literate societies and have existed for thousands of years.
The history of the definition of the word technology is both more complex and interesting. The word is derived from the Greek techne, which originally meant “art,” as in the sense of a craft. During the Middle Ages, the concept evolved to include the craft skills possessed by artisans, known as applied art. These skills for working with tools or simple machines were learned in apprenticeships. Subsequently, the concept began to imply possessing knowledge or expertise in applied arts and sciences. By the late eighteenth century, the word technology itself emerged, referring to the study of the science or discipline of techniques. The OED defines technology today as “a particular mechanical art or applied science.”
The OED includes a definition for the phrase information technology as “The branch of technology concerned with the dissemination, processing, and storage of information, esp. by means of computers.” The phrase information technology is widely used to refer to computers of all sizes, whether they operate as stand-alone machines or are tied into large networks. These machines initially were used primarily to process and analyze numerical data. An important impetus in the United States to the development of computers during World War II was the calculation of gunnery or firing tables for military cannon. That war had ended by the time computers were sufficiently sophisticated to calculate the tables, but for many years thereafter computers were used almost exclusively for numerical data processing and analysis. Many astute people realized that computers were, in fact, general purpose symbol-processing machines that could analyze patterns of both numbers and letters, thereby enhancing a wide variety of mathematical and logical problem-solving operations. During the decades following the war, many computer programs were developed to perform large and complex data-processing and analysis tasks on both numerical and textual data. However, it was not until the 1980s and 1990s that computers were used to form extensive networks, such as the Internet. At that time, communication began to emerge as a dominant feature of the technology. Hence, the phrase information communication technology has now come into common use.
ICT refers to at least two kinds of activities. First, it is frequently used by international organizations such as the United Nations, the World Bank, or the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to describe the efforts they promote and support among developing nations to participate more fully in the global economy. ICT also refers to the hardware, software, and infrastructure that support the communications necessary for a nation to function as an effective economic participant in international markets.
A second common use of the phrase ICT refers to the skills that individuals need to function in an information-rich society. The Educational Testing Service (ETS) has recently developed, field tested, and is now selling a new instrument to assess an individual’s proficiency in ICT skills. ETS defines this proficiency as “the ability to use technology as a tool to research, organize, evaluate and communicate information, and the possession of a fundamental understanding of the ethical/legal issues surrounding the access and use of information.” This test, named iSkills, is designed to assess students’ proficiency as they enter college. The iSkills test should not be confused with ETS’s long-standing college admissions examination, the Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT). ETS anticipates that iSkills test results will be used for individual remediation, program evaluation and reform, and international comparisons. Clearly, the domain included in the new ETS instrument is broader than knowledge of computers, for it encompasses the ethical dimensions of the analysis, utilization, and communication of information.
This broader definition of ICT is employed in this book. Together, information, communication, and technology encompass the foci of this analysis. An additional note will clarify further the scope of this inquiry. An examination of evidence will address whether the structure and function of major societal institutions are changing in fundamental ways as a consequence of widespread employment of ICTs for the creation, processing, storage, retrieval, dissemination, and utilization of information.
The acronym ICT is frequently used by the mass media as well as in some scholarly literature as the functional equivalent of another commonly used phrase: the information revolution. Although it is clear that the production of new information is escalating rapidly, calling this a revolution is an overstatement. The storage, retrieval, transmission, and processing of all this new information is the foundation of the now substantial ICT industry, an industry whose growth was initiated and is now sustained by computers. It needs to be stressed that information technology as defined here hardly existed only sixty years ago. It helps to understand this so-called revolution by considering it in a broader historical context. The history of the technology of information transmission as a cultural change agent extends back more than three thousand years, from clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, pen and ink, printing presses, telegraphs, radio, film, and television up to contemporary mobile computers and networks. From the perspective of the ever-changing technology, it is premature to employ the term revolution. However, the phenomenal growth in the number of people who use computers and networks for communication certainly qualifies as a major social change.
As an additional preparatory note, this book employs a systemic perspective. The term systems analysis has been used to describe a wide variety of methods for examining change. Although the term may bring to mind some complex mathematical model that simulates the interactions of economic processes, systems analysis is really quite an ancient and simple concept. A system is any collection of phenomena that are related or connected to form a more complex entity, and systems analysis is the examination of the interactions among those components over some period of time. Another definition involves the investigation of interrelatedness. Societies are systems, for the various institutions that comprise a society (i.e., family, education, and polity) are interrelated. This book examines how ICTs are being implemented in major societal institutions. It also demonstrates how these institutions are increasingly interrelated. Therefore, cross-references to analyses in different institutions are common in the following discussions.
In this introductory chapter, it is useful to point out what this book is not. First, it is not an attempt to predict how society will function in the future as a result of the increasingly widespread dissemination and utilization of ICTs. Prognosticators of all persuasions, including scholars, futurists, technophiles, and pundits alike, are all enamored with their own attempts to see into the future and engage our imaginations with vivid scenarios of what society will be like in coming decades. The reading of such books can be amusing. They are rarely based on careful analyses, and they quickly become obsolete, out of print, and remaindered.
What is offered here differs greatly from predicting the future. Rather, this book identifies patterns and trends in how the uses of ICTs are affecting changes in our major societal institutions. There are no initial assumptions that social institutions are being altered with either positive or negative consequences. The daily press is replete with stories of new developments in how computers and networks are distributed and used. However, this exploration begins with a healthy degree of skepticism as to whether these changes may be beneficial or detrimental. With a systematic exploration, a global assessment of the extent of societal changes is possible. Furthermore, the effort illustrates some of the underlying dynamics with which ICTs may possibly affect social changes that have been in process for many years. Rather than striving for the unattainable goal of currency, this exploration seeks both comprehensiveness and comprehension within a historical and sociological perspective. By making historical comparisons across the major institutions of society, new insights may emerge.
Almost all the accounts of ICT applications reviewed in this book have been reported in recent years in the popular media and scholarly journals. What will be original and hopefully valuable here are the insights gained from looking across the major institutions in society for evidence of patterns and trends in changes in structure and function that are associated with ICT applications. Special attention is paid to topics such as child-rearing patterns, participation in political activities, government service delivery, leisure time activities, and forms of religious expression.
This book is not about all forms of technology. Information is the sole focus of this book. Biomedical technology and genetic engineering are other forms of technology that become increasingly pervasive. The consequences of their applications are already widespread and profound. The nature of these technologies and the kinds of applications are fundamentally so different from ICTs that they will not be included in these analyses, because the scope of this inquiry would become unmanageable. If anything, criticism might be directed at this effort for being too inclusive. However, this the first attempt to examine the major social institutions to identify common patterns of accommodation to the emergence of ICTs.
One further comment pertaining to scope is necessary. In all the discussions that follow, the focus is primarily on what until recently was called Western Civilization, which used to include Europe and North America. Amore contemporary way to describe the scope is to say that it includes nations that are transitioning from an industrial to a post-industrial or informational state, including Japan, South Korea, and Finland, three nations where ICTs are widely distributed and used. All these geopolitical areas provide the most fruitful sites to observe relationships among social structures and ICT applications. It is worth observing that the proliferation of ICTs in the so-called developing nations is also rapidly escalating. The growth rates of the use of cell phones and the Internet in China, India, and African nations are phenomenal; and future cross-cultural comparative analyses promise to be extremely productive.
A cursory historical review of the development of ICTs, ranging from large mainframes to minicomputers, personal computers, laptops, networks, and most recently smart phones covers a span of approximately six decades. Projections of where technology will take ICTs in the future include peta scale computing, in which a thousand trillion operations are performed in one second; organic computing, in which biological materials are used for input, output, and computation; and quantum computing, a technology based on principles of quantum theory. Rather than engage in that kind of guesswork about the future of computing, the following chapters will examine the underlying changes in social institutions that reveal modifications of long-standing patterns of societal change. The task of guessing what technology will next be developed is left to others. What is of interest in this book is discerning social changes that have occurred in the past, particularly in the last half century, that may be harbingers of trends of future societal forms.
It is always prudent to provide readers with chapter previews or an itinerary of a coming intellectual journey. Chapter Two presents a review of three sociological perspectives of societal evolution that frame the explorations of social change and ICT applications. The first category focuses primarily on the location and sizes of human societies, progressing from nomadic tribes to agricultural communities to large metropolitan areas and eventually to a globalized planet. The second category focuses on the evolution from preliterate to literate societies, then to information societies, and eventually to a mass and multi-media society in which iconography begins to emerge as a mode of communication. The third category encompasses theories that address the economic and political dimensions of societal evolution from the initial focus of providing food and shelter to mass production and consumption and then to an economy structured on knowledge and expertise. This third category includes a continuing focus on maintaining social order both within societies and across modern nation-states. In discussing these three categories, brief references are made to some of the writings of selected social theorists who have examined societal evolution.
Patterns of change in the normative order are the foci in Chapters Three and Four. Normative order consists of the shared values and expected behaviors that account for the vast uniformities of the activities of individuals and groups in society. The shared values are incorporated in the norms, mores, folkways, common practices, rituals, and customs that guide human behavior. Many aspects of the normative order are formally stipulated in rules, standard operating procedures, administrative laws, judicial rulings, and legislation. In the absence of normative order, social chaos ensues. All societies strive to maintain order and minimize chaos. It should be pointed out that normative order is not a static phenomenon. Values, norms, and laws are constantly changing. Some aspects of normative order change slowly; others change quickly. Normative order, then, is a constantly evolving set of asynchronously shifting values. When rapid changes occur in society, the normative order almost always lags behind. Conflicts frequently arise between those who champion the new norms and those who resist the changes. The current debates over globalization reflect some of these patterns. Chapter Three examines changes prompted by ICT applications in the patterns of social inequality in the division of labor. It also examines the role ICTs play in changing patterns of government and political activities. Chapter Four takes up the issues of intellectual and property ownership, individual and organizational privacy, the role and practice of religion, and new forms of deviance and crime.
The changing patterns of socialization and education are the topics analyzed in Chapter Five. At birth, all humans are capable of a vast array of behavioral acts. Yet, over the course of a person’s life, only a small subset of those potential acts is ever executed. In the process of growing from an infant to a fully independent adult, each person becomes aware of and, in most instances, abides by the prevailing normative order. Through mimicking or modeling the behavior of significant adults, children learn or become socialized to what most other people recognize as appropriate and inappropriate behaviors. From the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, patterns and agents of socialization have undergone substantial modification. In agricultural societies, extended families were the principal agents of socialization for children. Parents, older siblings, and grandparents guided children to develop their value systems and their accompanying behavioral repertoire. In many societies, the church also played a major role in socialization.
As the Industrial Revolution progressed and schools opened to provide an educated labor force, teachers became important socialization agents. At the same time, nuclear families became more common, and the presence and influence of members of the extended family diminished. More recently, female-headed households consisting of mothers and sometimes grandmothers, unmarried couples, same-sex pairs, and various other forms of blended families have taken on the responsibility for childhood socialization. Concern is growing that the role of the primary agents in socialization is shifting away from the family, and the values of the popular culture are replacing those of the dominant normative order. ICTs play a prominent role in the dissemination of that popular culture. Furthermore, childhood and adolescent peers increasingly use social software enabled by ICTs to reinforce and expand that popular culture. Note that these concerns are based primarily on anecdotal evidence; as yet, little systematic social science research has examined the influence of ICTs in the context of families and socialization.
Chapter Five also takes up the changing patterns of education. One major change in modern societies is that more people of all ages participate in education and training to be effective participants in both the labor force and other adult roles. Indeed, many people now recognize the need to prepare children to be lifelong learners. This chapter explores the relationship between ICTs and changing patterns in education from four perspectives: changes in pedagogy or methods of teaching and learning, changes in the curriculum to produce students who will be effective users of ICTs throughout their lives, the extraordinary growth of online educational programs and institutions, and financial problems of schools and institutions of higher education.
The explosion in the creation, dissemination, and utilization of knowledge is a major trend common to post-industrialized societies. ICTs enable this expansion and are influencing the development of new modes of creating and using knowledge. Indeed, many people characterize the post-industrial society as being founded on knowledge, rather than products or services. Chapter Six examines examples of such changes in the knowledge industries, including research and development organizations, colleges and universities, research and public libraries, publishing houses, newspapers, magazines, and broadcast and cable television companies. The chapter then explores these contemporary developments in the context of broader historical patterns that are rooted in the various transformations of literacy.
Chapter Seven explores the trend of increasing consumerism in modern societies. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, the economies of most nations have struggled to sustain ever-growing markets. A commonly accepted notion is that expanding markets portend a healthy economic future. Mass production, marketing, and consumption are the hallmarks of developed nations. In each of these three domains, ICTs play an increasingly pivotal role. The Internet has become a major driving force in marketing and consumption. This chapter discusses how ICTs are employed to develop new methods of increasing economic growth, particularly through online consumption. Web advertising is rapidly growing and is diminishing traditional print and television revenues. Patterns of consumption are likewise changing with online shopping. The concept of niche, or finely targeted, advertising, marketing, and purchasing is replacing the older model of consumerism as embodied in the full-service department store. ICTs are enabling these new strategies.
Although the topics presented so far have been discussed by social scientists, the objects of inquiry in Chapter Eight, social time and social space have received less attention. As more social scientists begin to recognize the growing influence of ICTs, the social use of time and space will come under greater scrutiny. The perception and use of space are changing as a consequence of increasing proliferation of ICTs. In many settings, physical space is being complemented by virtual space or cyberspace. Some scholars are even discussing the death of physical space. Although that seems extreme, it is now easy to engage in interactions or conduct business around the globe without regard to distance or local time. This capability has profound influences on where and when people work and how they allocate their time among job, family, and leisure. Indeed, there is some evidence that leisure time is disappearing in some locales, and people are having difficulty getting adequate actual and virtual distance from work. This chapter explores three topics: altered perceptions, a brief history of social time and distance, and virtual communities.
The final chapter, Chapter Nine, summarizes the major findings and conclusions of the book’s analyses. It discusses topics related to future social changes that are likely to be influenced by the further proliferation of ICTs: the substance and methodology of policy-oriented research using large databases, new forms of literacy, the appropriate definition and implementation of transparency in both the public and private sectors, culture wars, and the extent to which globalization and the new mass media can promote world peace and harmony across many different cultural and ethnic groups.
Lastly, two appendices are included. The first is a brief introduction to the design and architecture of digital computers, and the second is a short history of the development of computer networks. Both are presented for readers who are unfamiliar with these topics to assist in understanding why, for example, online maintenance of bank accounts is a relatively simple task for networked computers to accomplish. The activities of a large-scale, resource-sharing system such as a bank can be broken down into the steps of basic computer instructions. Each and every step in the process of keeping track of the flow of monies or communications is known and can readily be coded as instructions in a computer program. However, creating a computer program to function as a teacher is enormously more difficult, if at all possible. The process of teaching calculus to a student requires many global and subjective assessments of the learner’s prior knowledge and understanding, relevant pedagogical strategies, and appropriate feedback on performance. No one knows yet how to specify such instruction and assessment procedures in an algorithm that is amenable to the creation of a computer program. The appendices point out that the basic instructions of computers execute only the simplest arithmetic and logical operations. Understanding this distinction between a banking system and a calculus teacher is critical for understanding some of the major themes of this book.