The Enduring Social Issues in Computing

William H. Dutton, Professor of Internet Studies, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

2013 marks 40 years since the publication of Social Issues in Computing (Academic Press, 1973) by Calvin ‘Kelly’ Gotlieb and Allan Borodin, but the social issues they identified and explicated have become increasingly central to the social and computer sciences as well as the humanities.

It was the year after its publication I began research on the social implications of computing. I was trained in political science and social research methods, with a focus on urban studies. I joined the Public Policy Research Organization (PPRO) at the University of California, Irvine, in 1974 to work with Ken Kraemer, Rob Kling, Jim Danziger, Alex Mood and John King on the Evaluation of Urban Information Systems – the URBIS Project. My initial role in the project was focused on the survey components of the project, supporting the research underpinning our assessment of the impact of computing in American local governments.

Prior to URBIS, I had used computing as a tool for social research, but had not studied the impact of computing. One of the best sources I found for guidance on how a social scientist might think about computers in organizations and society was Social Issues in Computing, even though it was written by two computer scientists. I am amazed that forty years since its publication, despite many subsequent waves of technological change – the rise of microelectronics, personal computing and the Internet among other digital media, this wonderful book remains seminal, refreshingly multidisciplinary, foresighted and inspiring – actually career changing for me.

Pioneering

The book was groundbreaking – seminal – even though framed as a more of a textbook synthesis than a research report. The early 1970s, post-Vietnam War, was seething with debate over technology and society. However, even though computers and electronic data processing – already termed Information Technology – were being increasingly employed by organizations, study of the social implications of computing were limited and not anchored in the social sciences. With rare exceptions, such as in Daniel Bell’s work on the information society, and Allan Westin and Michael Baker’s work on privacy, social scientists viewed computers as calculators. I was consistently questioned about why a political scientist would be interested in what was a technical or administrative tool.

It was primarily among a core group of computer scientists, who thought about the future of computing and who were concerned over the societal issues of computing, almost as an avocation, where some of the most insightful work was being done. And Kelly Gotlieb and Allan Borodin were among the pioneers in this group. Other influential works, such as Joseph Weizenbaum’s Computer Power and Human Reason (1976) played major roles in building this field, but came later and spanned less terrain than Social Issues in Computing, which helped scope and map the field.

Forty Years of Influence

The ultimate test of the social issues identified by Gotlieb and Borodin is that they remain so relevant today. Consider some of the key issues identified in 1973, and how they are reflected in contemporary debate (Table). Update the computing terminology of 1973 and you have most of the questions that still drive social research. The enduring nature of these issues, despite great technical change, is illustrated well by Social Issues in Computing.

In the early 1970s, the very idea of every household having a computer – much less multiple devices being carried by an individual – was considered fanciful ‘blue sky’ dreaming. Gotlieb and Borodin discussed the idea of an ‘information utility’ and were well aware of the J. C. R. Licklider’s call for a global network, but ARPANET was only at the demonstration stage at the time they wrote, and governments were the primary adopters of computing and electronic data processing systems. Nevertheless, the issues they defined in 1973 remain remarkably key to discussions of the Internet, big data, social media and mobile Internet debates over forty years hence.

Table. Social Issues Over the Decades.

Topic Circa 1973 Circa 2013
Users Staff, computing centres, user departments in governments and organizations Individuals and ‘things’ in households, on the move, and in organizations and governments
Diffusion of technologies Issues over the pace of change, and disparities within and across nations in computing, storage, speed, …, such as developing countries; focus on IT Social and global digital divides, but also the decline of North America and West Europe in the new Internet world in Asia and global South; greater focus on ICTs, including communication technology
Privacy Data banks, information gathering, linking records, government surveillance Big data, data sharing, surveillance,
Security Security of organizational and government computing systems Cyber-security from individual mobile phones to large scale systems and infrastructures, such as cloud computing
Transportation, urban, other planning systems Systems, models, and simulations in planning and decision-making Intelligent cities, smart transportation, digital companions for individuals
Capabilities and limitations Artificial intelligence (AI): Can computers think? AI, semantic web, singularity
Learning and education Computer-assisted instruction Online, blended and informal learning; global learning networks
Employment Productivity, cost cutting, deskilling, information work, training and education Reengineering work, collaborative network organizations, crowd sourcing, out-sourcing, knowledge work, women in computing
Products and services Anti-trust, software protection (copyright) Intellectual property protection across all digital content versus open data, and innovation models
Power and politics Power shifts within organizations, across levels of government, and nations; (de)centralization (Dis)empowerment of individuals, nations and others in an expanding ecology of actors; (de)centralization; regime change
Attitudes and values Priority given values tied to technology, privacy, freedom, efficiency, equality Global values and attitudes toward the Internet and related technologies, rights and value conflicts, such as freedom of expression
Responsibilities Professional and social responsibilities of computer scientists, programmers, users in organizations Responsibilities, norms, rights across all users and providers, including parents and children in households, bloggers, …
Policy and Governance Anti-trust, telecommunication policy, standards, privacy, IP Privacy (government and service provider policies), expression, content filtering, child protection, and Internet governance and standards

 

Social Implications in Context: Intended and Unanticipated

The book not only identified key social issues, but it also set out many of the assumptions that still guide social research. The book alerted readers to the direct as well as secondary, unanticipated and unplanned implications of technical change. Gotlieb and Borodin were not technological determinists. They insisted that context is critical to the study of key issues. We need to understand the social implications in particular social and organizational contexts. To this day, many discussions focused on big data or the Internet of Things are too often context free. It is when placed in particular contexts that key questions take on added meaning and the potential for empirical study.

Of course, Social Issues of Computing did not identify all of the issues that would emerge of coming decades. They did not anticipate such rising issues as the role of women in the computing professions, the shift of the centre of gravity of computer use away from North America and West Europe to the rapidly developing economies of Asia and the global South. How could they have foreseen the current focus on child protection in Internet policy. They were not oracles, but they provided a framework that could map nearly all the social issues, intended and unintended, which would be of value for decades.

The Case for Multi- and Inter-Disciplinary Research

As a political scientist moving into the study of computing in organizations, I found in Gotlieb and Borodin the case for embracing multi-disciplinary research. Their succinct, clear and well organized exposition of the technical, managerial, economic, political, legal, ethical, social and philosophical problem areas made the best case I had yet seen for focusing on computing from multiple disciplines. I quickly saw that my focus on political science was limited as a perspective on all the big issues, which required more interdisciplinary insights. At the same time, I also found their discussion of the power shifts tied to computing to provide an immediate focus for me as a political scientist, one that drove the major book emerging from our URBIS project, entitled Computers and Politics (Columbia University Press, 1982). However, it would have been impossible to write Computers and Politics had we not had a multi-disciplinary team of researchers collaborating on this issue.

In many ways, I have continued to pursue issues of power shifts from my early study of computers in government to my most recent work on the role of the Internet in empowering individuals across the world, creating what I have called a Fifth Estate role that is comparable to the Fourth Estate enabled by the press in liberal democratic societies. And throughout my career, I found the multidisciplinary study of the social issues of computing, information and communication technologies, and the Internet to be more compelling than any single disciplinary pursuit.

Inspiring Colleagues

I met Kelly Gotlieb a few years after the URBIS project had concluded. I was able to tell him how influential his work was for me as a new entrant to this area of study. Looking back over the last 40 years of my own work, I am even more struck by just how influential he and his book were, and I was simply one of many who read Social Issues in Computing. There is no question in my mind why the former students and colleagues, of Kelly Gottlieb and Allan Borodin, want to acknowledge their book, and the seminal role they much have played in their intellectual and academic lives and the broader study of the social issues in computing.

Bill Dutton, Oxford, 20 December 2012

William H. Dutton is Professor of Internet Studies at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Balliol College. He became a co-principal investigator on the URBIS project at the University of California in 1974, supported by an NSF grant led by Professor Kenneth L. Kraemer. Is most recent book is The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies (Oxford University Press 2013).

 

 

2 comments

  1. Ron

    Good read; including mention of “Social Issues of Computing did not identify all of the issues that would emerge of coming decades. They did not anticipate such rising issues as the role of women in the computing professions”.

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