Information Technology and Social Change: The Effects on Families, Communities, Workplaces and Civil Society.

June 19, 1998

Executive Summary

On June 19, COSSA held its second congressional breakfast seminar, entitled “Information Technology and Social Change: The Effects on Families, Communities, Workplaces and Civil Society.” Three scientists offered their views on information technology and its effects on society before a crowd of approximately 60 people, including Representative David Skaggs (D-CO).

After a brief welcome by COSSA Executive Director Howard Silver, David Hakken discussed the nexus between information technology and the worksite. Hakken, Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Policy Center at the State University of New York Institute of Technology, noted that “understanding the relationship between technology and social change is important for several reasons.” He said the key reason is the idea of the “Cyberspace Revolution” — or the “notion that we are currently in the midst of a profound transformation to a new way of life brought about by computer technology.” Hakken said that computing at work is a key to broader social change. In fact, he said that computers or “Advanced Information Technology (AIT)” have “complicated American workspaces.” Today, according to Hakken, “representations of any work process that can be computerized can now be communicated anywhere there are computers.”

He proceeded to discuss some of the common misconceptions about the impact of computers on the workspace. He noted that many believed that computers would replace humans. This, according to Hakken, has not been the case. The overall growth in the number of jobs in the United States contradicts this incorrect presumption, he said. Also, many believed that computers would “democratize work.” Specifically, computers would allow for the quick free flow of information which would lead to a “decentralization of the decision-making process.” Hakken noted that this too has not occurred. Despite the misconceptions, Hakken noted the importance of computers or AIT. For example, he said that a large proportion of the stock market growth is “attributable, directly or indirectly, to the successful promotion, production, and sale of AIT.”

The Impact on Families

Jan English-Lueck, Associate Professor of Anthropology at San Jose State University, addressed how information technology affects the family and the community. Working with a team of anthropologists, she has been studying technology and the community in Silicon Valley. The team has “sampled the intersection of technology and community in a variety of ways” through an extensive seriesof interviews.

She noted that “one of the most strikingly obvious impacts of information technology is the shift in the work-home relationship.” She said that the team has encountered people who swore that they did not take work home. However, these same people, according to English-Lueck, have separate rooms for their computers and work-related magazines “littering every flat surface.” What the team found, therefore, is that “a large proportion of supposedly free time was spent thinking about ‘work-work’ while in the shower, eating, or driving.” Thus, she said that “information technologies have been instrumental in redefining the scope of work.”

She proceeded to note that the “penetration of information technology into the home leads to an access dilemma.” She said that people want immediate access to others, but want to limit others access to them. Therefore, “the non-use of devices is carefully managed — by turning off the phone, avoiding using cell phones in the cars, or checking for email or voice mail at only certain hours.” Families, according to English-Lueck, are increasingly viewing “themselves as management problems to be solved.” Specifically, “pagers, cell phones, and answering machines, and now palm pilots, are used in tandem to coordinate complex household schedules.”

She discussed several assumptions about information technologies and the home that are “misleading.” One false assumption, according to English-Lueck, is that information technologies do not transform families into “wholly new things.” Instead, “technologies allow families to put old behaviors and relations into new contexts.” For instance, “the old family game of control and resistance to control is still being played out, but now it is being played out on email.” In conclusion, she said that information technology is only one of a host of forces that shape communities and families.

Impact on the Political Process

Phil Agre, Associate Professor of Communications at University of California, San Diego, concluded the seminar by discussing the role of information technology in the political process. Agre started his discussion by posing a question: What effect has information technology had on the political process? He said the answer had two parts.

The first part of the answer is that “nobody knows.” He noted that there is very little empirical research about the impact of information technology on the political process. Agre added that the second part of the answer to the question is “not much.” Television, according to Agre, “is still, by far, the most important media.”

Agre discussed a quote by an academic scholar regarding information technology and the political process. The unnamed scholar noted that “telecommunications technologies are breaking down the barriers of time and distance that originally precluded the nation92's people from voting directly for the laws that govern them.” Agre said that he has read this quote many times and it “oscillates back and forth between being common sense and absolute absurdity.”

He noted that the idea that information technologies will lead to direct democracy or direct voting (voting from one’s house over the Internet) and the “disintermediating of government . . . doesn’t make sense.” He said that even though information technologies have facilitated the distribution of information, there “are still a large number of things that go on in the political process that nobody has any idea how to automate.”

In addition, Agre said that the notion of voting from home is “impossible” to envision. He noted that the idea of voting from one’s house is a notion that technologists have a hard time conceptualizing. “There is a good reason for voting booths ... to prove that votes are not being coerced,” he said.

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