Technological developments

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Nora and Minc also identified the relationship between the control of knowledge (social memory) and the hierarchy of social power. In an effort to socialize information, they proposed that a smooth functioning society must permit individuals and groups to be able to express their aspirations and dislikes but that information concerning the constraints be received and accepted. The State can synthesize information from decentralized units of society, confronting the long-term difficulties and taking into account the collective plan.

The results (social policies) must be returned to groups and individuals in an acceptable and effective way, to produce desirable reactions. They envisaged a computerized society in which homogeneous communities would be networked to their counterparts and to the centre. The two-way flow of information would achieve agreement and compromise involving ever larger communities and increasingly long-range views. The idealistic views of Nora and Minc seem unrealistic from today’s viewpoint.

In a more recent study (Fast Forward and Out of Control, 1989), Heather Menzies describes the approaching enclosure of our society in a technological monopoly of knowledge, which includes a way of knowing and doing, which is coming to dominate all institutions of private and public life, including biological reproduction and public education. Evidence of the gravitation to a systems view of society, with its emphasis on rationality and economic efficiency, can be seen in the redefinition of such institutions as work (and unemployment), health care, and retail customer service.

A revealing example of the systems approach to revamping social institutions is described by Menzies in the computerization of a women’s residence at a large Canadian university. The dean of women ran the residence, in which many years of experience allowed her to carry out all the required administrative requirements in a way which addressed the personal needs of the students.

In an effort to bring the residence in line with the growing computerization of the other administrative and academic departments of the university, and to save money in the long run, the systems expert’s proposal was to eliminate the night clerk and employ automatic control systems for the doors and lights. Computerized payment of residence fees was also proposed which would eliminate the need for a senior staff member to carry out the twice yearly collection. The dean of women disagreed with the system expert. The night clerk acted as a safety net for the residents returning at night and to generally see that all was well.

The collection of fees permitted the opportunity to for the staff member to talk to each of the girls and to offer help with personal and financial difficulties that might arise. The computer, she argued, would be blind to these complexities and sensitivities. Sadly, she was offered early retirement and the computerized system was installed. There are many similar scenarios, the most familiar of which is the elimination of the human operator from the telephone system. In all cases there is an uncontrolled growth in the range of application of the technology in the name of system efficiency.

Our initial look at the history of information technology should serve to remind us that there is nothing fundamentally new in the lack of control and choice which individuals feel in responding to unrelenting technological development. History is in fact filled with accounts of individuals who fought, usually unsuccessfully, against the onslaught of misdirected technological “progress”. Today, individuals and groups must engage in a difficult struggle with political leaders, international and local business interests, technologists, and educators to have their needs, desires, and opinions heard.

The economic assessment of technological solutions must take into account social and environmental factors, even when they are difficult to quantify in a cost-benefit analysis. Engineers and scientists must assume greater moral responsibility to publicly criticize inappropriate and misdirected technological developments such as the U. S. “Strategic Defence Initiative”, or the substitution of human expertise by cost saving computer systems. Educators must help to foster both critical and creative facilities in students so that they are better equipped to make and articulate choices and assume effective control of new technologies.

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