Social and Ethical Effects of the Computer Revolution

The growth of the computer industry has been truly amazing. Nonexistent forty years ago, the computer seems to be here to stay and to become a part of our lives just as television, radio, and the automobile did before it in this century, and as the plow, the wheel, and the tool did in prehistory. Each of these is a tool, a method by which humans perform work, whether it be an interaction with the environment or each other. As each basic tool has been introduced, society and culture have been irrevocably changed. In every case, the tool is just a tool; how humans use it determines whether it is beneficial or detrimental to society. Sociologists are only now turning their gaze at this newest tool in our culture, trying to determine its impacts on existing structures and helping to formulate guidelines for future development and use. Recently published by McFarland & Company is a collection of papers on this subject entitled Social and Ethical Effects of the Computer Revolution, edited by Joseph Migga Kizza.

I’m not going to try and fool you into thinking this is entertaining reading, although some of you might find it so. Kizza and his contributors are academics who are both avidly interested in the subject, yet also writing for publication. Some of the articles here suffer the usual problems of academic writing: belaboring the obvious, repetitious, lecturing rather than discussing, and the inevitable “more research will be needed.” For readers willing to persevere, however, there are some jewels hidden here. First off, skip “The Development of the ‘Killer Robot’ and Professor Cleareye, Outstanding Teacher Award Recipient” by Richard Gary Epstein, even though it looks to have potential. You are better off not having to suffer the poorly written fiction describing Professor Cleareye; Epstein may be an excellect computer studies teacher, but I wouldn’t take a class in creative writing from him. Do, however, take a dive into “The Internet and Ethics: Dilemma and Decisions for Institutions of Higher Education,” a study by B.C. Chic Day and Pat C. Day that describes their study of a hypothetical study viewing pornography on the Internet using university resources. Their findings illustrate that, while most students understand the ethics of the situation, a firm policy regarding the university’s actions in this event are required by both new and older students. Similar in nature is the study by Andrew B. Morris (“Effective Information Management: A Question of Ethics?”), worthwhile reading for Information Technology managers having to deal with fresh college recruits. Morris study effectively gives you a window into the current ethical thought of today’s graduates.

There are other useful articles for IT managers and workers elsewhere in this volume, including the entire section on “Software Reliability and Computer Security.” The three articles that make up this section elaborate various cases for information management responsibility in a world increasingly dependent on both the functions of software and the storage of data. The section entitled “The Professions and the Workplace Issues” details various stances on the issues of professional accountability for information workers, including the possible establishment of a certification system (now handled informally by software vendors for their various products, such as the Novell Netware Certified Engineer certification, rather than by an independent association such as those for lawyers and medical doctors). Looking towards the future, the authors of the articles within “Artificial Intelligence and Cyberspace” attempt to codify what we mean by human values versus the possible mechanistic values inherent in our systems. While this may seem the stuff of science fiction and true artificial intelligence may never emerge from the laboratory, it is imperative that AI is not created independent of human ideas.

Social and Ethical Effects of the Computer Revolution is not meant for the general reader. It is a specialized book that is useful for both computer academics and information management professionals as a means to shape the future role of computer technology. Likely to be best utilized as a textbook in a class on information technology ethics, it should also be read by IT managers who make long-range plans regarding systems growth and future use, including those on the governing boards of the Internet and Internet access policy makers. Likely the first volume of many to follow, this book is a good start to the necessary codification needed in this newborn field.

[Finished 7 June 1996]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *