The societal impacts of information and communication technology in the 21st century

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Information technology today has had a very pervasive effect on people’s daily lives and will continue to have such an effect in the years to come (Hall and Ritchie, 1997).  We are surrounded by information technology, whether we are at work, at school, at home, or at our community, and even take it for granted as a natural part of our day-to-day activities.   The huge advances in the development of information technology in the past decade has resulted in a highly global community, with the growth of IT resulting in a huge impact on different aspects of civil society (Independent Sector, 2001), information technology investments and productivity (Subirana et al., 2003), social life (Meadowcroft, 2005), and economic life (Stiroh, 2001).

Information technology (IT) can be defined as “the technology used to store, manipulate, distribute or create information” (Meadowcroft, 2005).  The type of data is not important – what is important in this definition is that IT pertains to any mechanism or method which is capable of processing information or data.  These mechanisms include, but are not necessarily limited to, computers, personal digital assistants (PDAs), among such common examples, but may also extend to concepts such as e-businesses, or Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP).Without a doubt, technology has served to bring all of mankind together (Brenner, 1998).

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IT has enabled people around the world to access information about another country, society, or citizen, by a mere click of a button.  Current events, travel, health information, technological advances, inventions, innovations, science, and the like have become virtually borderless.  The presence of technology in our daily lives governs most of human activities, from the houses we live in, the cars we drive, the computers we use at work and at home, the mobile phones we use, and even the devices we use to entertain ourselves.  According to Brenner (1998), the presence of technology in fact is so prevalent in our lives through the gadgetries we use at home and at work to stay informed and entertained.

As a general rule, IT professional unanimously agree that computer technology has had and will continue to have a profound impact on society.  However, there may be conflicting views as to why computer technologies have an impact on society in the first place.  For purposes of this study, it becomes imperative to clearly delineate certain characteristics of computer technologies which may have an impact on society.  A clearly defined listing of characteristics will assist in evaluating why and even how computer technologies have an impact on societal life.

As such, this dissertation will adapt the social impact characteristics identified by Liffick (1995).   These social impact characteristics may likewise serve as a basis for evaluating the designs of new technologies, in order to understand and identify the potential social effects of these new products.The following characteristics as identified by Liffick (1995) will be used for this study as the root of the impact of computers, and corollary, other new technologies, on society:§  Ubiquity.   This characteristic pertains to the fact that computers are present everywhere in every aspect of a person’s life.

Whether such technology is encountered directly, through actual computers such as desktops or laptops, or indirectly, in transactions which are essentially processed through computers, such as answering machines, supermarket scanners or VCRs.   These devices are encompassed in the term “computer technology” since the information, transactions, and activities generated from these devices are channeled or processed through a computer system (Liffick, 1995).§  Magnification.  Computers can “generate, collect, and store an ever-increasing amount of raw data” (Liffick, 1995).

The result of this is that there is a continuously increasing amount of information available from the data generated from computers.  However, the converse is also through – just as there is an increasing amount of information which becomes available to users, these very same users are also increasingly prone to computer errors and viruses.§  Accessibility.   The growth of the World Wide Web makes any type of information available virtually anywhere in the globe, as long as you log on and have access to the Internet.

The Internet in fact has been typically described as “information superhighways” (Liffick, 1995) since by simply logging on, a huge number of individuals, wherever they are, can access an equally huge and equally diverse amount of information.  The accessibility of information is not however limited to the Internet – other forms of media such as videos, audio files, text messages, allow people access to unprecedented sources of data.

That information superhighways have allowed all kinds of information and data to be accessible to anyone in the world has also allowed people to reproduce this data – even without permission by the creators, owners, writers, or artists who originally made such data available, whether over the Internet, or through MP3 files, and the like.

For instance, the movie, music, and television industries have been plagued by the proliferation of bootlegged songs, videos, movies, and TV series.  Since songs, videos, movies, and TV series are in digital forms, people can simply duplicate these digital forms even without permission or authority to do so.   According to Oz (1994), the concepts of hypertext and hypermedia has allowed for non-linear accessibility to information through computers – and now the Internet – which has, in turn, increased the reproduction and distribution of these digital forms.

With regard to computer errors in particular, it has become very difficult to pinpoint the individual responsible for any particular error.   Computerized systems may crash, malfunction, reboot, or basically fail us sometimes when we need them most.   According to Nissenbaum (1994), with voice-mail messaging system alone, it is very common to lose messages even if the individual person involved followed the standard procedure for recording and retrieving such messages.

Computers allow for information to be retained for long stretches of time, and allows for information to be available immediately, at the click of a button.  Computers, through the Internet, have bridged the gap between long distances, wherein people do not have to travel far and wide to get information which would otherwise normally be available in a particular country, office, place or building.§  Surveillability.

Computer technology has likewise allowed for surveillance to become easier and more efficient, with surveillance data from cameras, recorders, microphones, credit cards, and practically all types of transactions being transmitted and encrypted into a computer system.§  Shifting of Relationships/Changes in Intercommunication Protocols.  Liffick (1995) points out accurately that this characteristic is the most difficult one to track.  How computer technology has shifted relationships and changed communication styles between people and groups is something that has not been easily measured in previous research.

People often perceive computers as being error-free simply because they are machines and removed from human error.  In truth, computer hardware involves a large set of numbers susceptible in error during conversion into binary forms – especially in the case of conventional binary computers (Liffick, 1985).   Yet, since the computer generated the calculation, value or solution, people willingly accept them as accurate even if such is not the case (Liffick, 1995).

These societal impact characteristics, though originally intended to be applied to computer technologies by Liffick (1995) will likewise be applied to the analysis of other technological trends presented in succeeding sections of this dissertation.  These characteristics will especially help in evaluating the advantages and disadvantages of current and potential applied technologies and information systems.

Moving Pictures Experts Group (MPEG), Audio Layer III, or MP3, was originally developed by a German company called Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft in the 1980s.  The same company developed the first ever MP3 player in the 1990s, way before the rise of the Apple iPod.  The first prime-time MP3 player was created by Tomislav Uzelac in 1997, and was called the AMP MP3 Playback Engine.

MP3 technology allows for the compression of audio files without much impairment to its sound quality.  Portable MP3 players allow people to listen to music through those compressed audio files.   Early MP3 players contained small hard disks that stored MP3 files downloaded from a computer, and transfers these files into the player.   The individual can listen to the music files on his or her player by selecting a specific song or randomly playing the song list (Bellis, no date; Jones, C. , 2000).

When the AMP engine became mainstream over the internet, Justin Frankel and Dmitry Boldyrev created the Winamp in 1998, by taking the AMP engine and adding a Windows interface to it.   Winamp was immediately offered as a free music player, and spontaneously produced the MP3 boom.  Copyrighted music were being offered online for free by various MP3-related software and search engines.

The most prominent of these software was Napster, which allowed any person online to connect and download any song or kind of music they wanted over the internet, in a matter of minutes, by connecting users to other users’ hard drives (Jones, C., 2000).  In other words, through file-trading, music lovers could share their music files in their hard drives with that of other music lovers from other parts of the world, as long as they all logged into Napster.  The file-sharing network came under attack by recording companies and recording artists, such artists such as Metallica and Madonna who have experienced their songs being made available over the Internet even before they were official released.

In 1999, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed a lawsuit against Napster, which resulted in the latter’s temporary shutdown.  In 2002, barraged by a series of lawsuits and infringement accusations, Napster was forced to declare bankruptcy.  However, despite the criticisms against Napster, it nevertheless paved the way for a slew of file-sharing software such as Kazaa, Limewire, iMesh, Morpheus, and BearShare  (Jones, C., 2000; McCourt and Burkart, 2003).

Unfortunately, the MP3 technology experienced a steady decline in popularity in recent years with new innovations in the digital music industry by Microsoft and Apple Computer.   In particular, people have started to shift away from file-trading network to services such as Apple’s iTunes Music Store.In 2004, research has shown that people were disposing of their MP3 files as fast as they were downloading them, with an estimated lost of about 742 million MP3 files from US hard drives between August 2003 and July 2004 alone.     In that same period, research reported an increase of 537 million Windows Media files in US hard drives.

The digital music formats offered by Microsoft and Apple allowed people to build a more permanent digital music collection, most especially through the proliferation of iPods (Borland, 2004).Compared to its competitors, Apple enjoyed a lion’s share in the new wave of digital audio players.  The main strength of the iPod is that it is extremely easy to use (ExtremeTech, 2005), and apart from storing music files, some versions also allow for movie and video storage, while most iPods work simultaneously as a flash drive.

In 2005 alone, Apple is reported to have sold more than 28. 2 million iPods, with the latter resulting in the sixfold increase of Apple’s share price since 2001 (Goldsmith, 2005).The iTunes Music Store provides for a catalog of over a million songs being sold at 99 cents per song.  Users can simply purchase the song and create their own personal playlists in their iPods where they can likewise transfer music files from CDs.  However, research has shown that music lovers still prefer to transfer songs to their iPods from CDs, as opposed to downloads (Goldsmith, 2005).

Yet despite the popularity of the iPod, Apple has nevertheless suffered from fiscal setbacks.  The number of songs purchased in iTunes remained small, despite the fact that between April 2004 and January 2006, iTunes services grew seven times in capacity and efficiency, while the number of sales made dropped by 58%.  The decline of music downloads over the Internet has not been limited with iTunes alone, due to the proliferation of illegal downloads available online still (Avery, 2006; Bernoff, 2006).  People simple prefer to copy songs from CDs, and merely use iTunes to supplement their playlists (Duncan, 2006).

These figures have not hindered Apple from continually improving its iPod services however.   One of their latest innovations involves the nekFIT, which allows an iPod user to wear their iPods behind their necks, making it convenient for walking or jogging or any other physical activity where they need their hands free (Duncan, 2007).

The societal impact characteristics of technology, as discussed in of this study, pertains to how the very characteristics of technology may have a negative and positive impact on social and cultural life.   To reiterate, these characteristics are as follows:

  • ubiquity;
  • magnification;
  • accessibility;
  • reproduction and distributability;
  • lack of accountability;
  • temporality;
  • spaciality;
  • shifting of relationships/changes in intercommunication protocols;
  • illusion of precision.

IT is present everywhere – it is something we cannot escape and run from simply because our lives are surrounded by technology.   From our mobile phones, to our PC and laptop at home and at work, to our digital audio devices,  IT is inevitable in our personal and professional lives.  It is accessible anywhere and everywhere with internet or Wi-Fi connection, and allows us to access virtually any type of information online as well, allowing for the further reproduction, distribution, and innovation of such data retrieved and gathered.The internet has bridged the gap between long distances, between countries and societies, and allows for more efficient surveillance of people by agencies and other government institutions, as well as business organization through the mere input of one’s credit card information in an online purchase.

We receive an increasing amount of information and data through IT, and in turn this opens up to a host of risks and security issues as well, from hacking to Internet predators to plagiarism to identity theft to spam to fraud.However, the IT market is expected to continue growing in giant leaps in the near future.

The growth of e-businesses will also allow developing nations and less fortunate individuals to avail of inexpensive services, receive quality education, and to gradually participate in the global ICT community, as indicated in the discussion on NIEs such as Taiwan and Israel, and the opportunities for growth outlined for developing nations such as India and Mexico in  of this study.It is important for countries to recognize that there is a close connection between ICT and economic growth, and that government support for the private sector, investors, and IT research and development will greatly improve the country’s sectors, such as business, education, health, and agriculture, as discussed in  of this study.

The positive effects of IT thus will far outweigh the disadvantages, as it breeds the way to developing a truly global community.  Developers and innovators of new technologies should bear in mind the 9 societal impact characteristics enumerated and discussed by way of examples in this study.   By taking note of such characteristics, developers can at least determine the potential impacts of new IT developments to society and determine its role as a social change agent.

The study strongly recommends the following measures to minimize the negative impact of IT on society:

  • More stringent laws and rules to regulate access of students and minor over the internet, to avoid security issues, internet predators, and to encourage reading and the building of personal relationships with one’s family and friends.  Isolation should be limited for a particular period, and parents must monitor the sites their children access online.  The wide range of data that a child can access over the Internet requires that both parents and government agencies take steps in ensuring protection of minors online.
  • Improved personnel policies in the workplace which respects an employee’s time away from the office.  BlackBerries and smart phones should not be used as devices to constantly keep employees at the employer’s beck and call.  Office workloads must be set at regulated amounts so that it does not require the employee to constantly have “work” on the brain, and to get too attached to their workplace by obsessively monitoring their BlackBerries or mobile phones for updates or orders.§  The Internet should be used as a true mode for building a global community, by bringing together groups of citizens united by shared values working for the public good, preferably by spanning international borders.
  • The Internet should likewise be used by businesses to strengthen relationships with its current customers, or to build a wider market base, and to improve customer service and communication.
  • The IT and technological devices should not be used as tools to isolate one’s self from the world, but must serve to enhance one’s life and to make work functions more efficient without removing one’s self from the reality of the immediate world around him or her.


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