A Brief History of Information Technology

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In prehistory, humans who possessed knowledge of value, which we call information, transferred it to others verbally and in some cases by means of drawings and physical constructions (e. g. Stonehenge). Early written communications (e. g. hieroglyphs and cuneiform writing) permitted information to be stored and then read by others at a later time. Transportability of knowledge could be achieved by writing or drawing on clay, wax, stone, or parchment.

The storage and transport of information using this early technology was labour intensive, slow, and hence costly. As such, in most societies, it, and the information itself, was used and controlled by the rich and powerful. With the invention of the printing press, information could be transferred to more people in more places, more cheaply. The impact of this technology is well known. The attendant spread of knowledge and ideas was instrumental in the development of modern Western society.

Until comparatively recently however, the stores of knowledge in the form of libraries were largely accessible only by the privileged and powerful, in universities, religious institutions, and private holdings. The advent of public libraries placed written information in the public domain but not always under public control. Even as magazines and newspapers became widely available and affordable, the information itself was often controlled by a few powerful individuals (the information rich) or by public regulatory control (e. g. censorship).

In this century, the development of electronic media, including radio, television and the telephone, has brought about a dramatic reduction in the time required for information transfer and hence in the apparent spatial separation of the communicators of information. The cost of storing and transmitting information electronically has been to a large extent determined by public policy. Thus, the price of making a telephone call is more related to public regulatory policy than to the actual costs incurred.

With the exception of the telephone, and until recently, most information transmitted by the electronic media has been one-way in nature so that the creation and control of information has resided in the hands of broadcasters, journalists, and commercial advertisers operating within a public regulatory structure. Digital computers and the mass information storage media associated with them have made possible the assembly of large databases together with the capability of processing and manipulating the stored information.

Unlike written information, data stored electronically are “invisible” except to the decoding hardware or software (e. g. a computer, magnetic card reader, or bar code reader) which has the effect of limiting access to the information. Taken alone, the electronic media and digital computer technologies are powerful enough but it has been the synergistic union of the two in what is broadly known as computer communications which has generated unprecedented technological possibilities.

Time, space, and effective cost are continually being reduced by new combined applications of computer, mass storage, and electronic and optical transmission technologies. The control of information within this new technological framework is more dispersed and decentralized than ever before and the roles of governments, commercial interests, and private individuals are often difficult to determine and understand.

From the above short history, it should be clear that the development of information technology has altered the relationships between three dimensions: time (how quickly can I get or send a piece of information? ), space (from how far away can I access or send a piece of information in a given amount of time? ), and cost (given a time and distance, how much does it cost me to send or receive a piece of information? ). There is also a strong interdependence between knowledge, power, and information. Technology and Society

Before considering the social role and impact of information technology in particular, it is helpful to consider the characteristics of technology in general in terms of its development, distribution, and use. First, when considering relationships between technology and society, it must be clear just what society we are talking about. Failure to do this is one way in which inappropriate technology is applied in some societies (even our own). I will be talking about Western, post-industrial societies, and Canadian society in particular.

We must not lose sight of the fact that it is very difficult to objectively assess technological impact on our own society because we have already been affected by both the society and the technology we are studying. This is the first known effect of technology: it impairs our ability to assess its effect on us. One way it does this is described as technological determinism which is a choice limiting phenomenon resulting from the application of a technology by society.

As defined by Heather Menzies, it is the effect of combined technical and social systems which fix the relationships between machines and their users and which institutionalize the ways in which technology can be used or further evolve. Seen this way, technology is more than a collection of tools from which we select the most appropriate for the task at hand or use as a basis for developing new tools. Finally, the philosophical and psychological facets of technology cannot be ignored in relation to technology and society. Here, we are dealing with a second order effect arising from technological determinism.

Not only does the current state of technology determine our choices for the future but it also influences our intellectual and emotional responses (our mind set) to technology and to socio-economic problems generally. Despite the above difficulties in assessing technology’s impact, we have no choice but to try. As we shall see in the following section, failure to address the impact of the new information technology may well result in increasing control of information by a powerful few, and in further erosion of the rights and choices of individuals regarding the application of new technology.

Information Technology and Society: Establishing Social Control It seems reasonable that if technology is at least partially the response of society to solving its problems and the desire to achieve progress by some measure, members of society should have some control over its application. Control includes the choice between alternatives, the timing and location of the application of a particular technology, the means of human interaction, and the means of regulation.

The report to the President of France by Simon Nora and Alain Minc (published in 1978 as The Computerization of Society), was one of the first efforts to make a serious estimate of the future implications of what was then the emerging interconnection of communications and computers. Nora and Minc introduced the French neologism ti?? li?? matique to describe the new technology, and were remarkably successful in identifying many of the social transformations which have occurred in the succeeding 15 years.

They concluded that data processing makes possible and accelerates the rise of a very highly productive society, with work and jobs much different than those required in the industrial society. They suggested that these changes could produce a less structured society with a danger of confrontation between innumerable mobile groups. They felt that telematics would affect both language and knowledge (which they defined as collective memory) resulting in both equality and discrimination between social groups. These effects have in fact been seen throughout much of the word and are still taking place.

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