The first modern digital computers were developed in the 1940s for military purposes that arose during World War II. These computers filled entire rooms, and at rates of a few thousand calculations per second, they took hours to perform complex mathematical operations. In the 1970s, the first personal computers were sold. Fitting on a desktop, they were exponentially faster and more powerful than the computers that had once filled large rooms. They were also affordable to individual consumers, making it possible for many people to use them for personal, business, and academic needs. By the mid-1990s, laptop computers capable of millions of calculations per second had been developed. Currently, nearly half of American homes have a personal computer, and businesses have come to rely on computers for nearly every function. Futurists prognosticate that computers will continue to become smaller and more powerful and that they will be used in almost every facet of people’s lives.
Among those who are excited and optimistic about the changes that computers will bring in the near future is Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, which produces much of the software that runs business and personal computers. According to Gates, now that computers are small, powerful, cheap, and affect every part of our lives, the next step will be the formation of a network connecting all of these computers to each other. On this network, which some people are calling the information highway, “computers will join together to communicate with us and for us,” Gates predicts. The changes to society will be as revolutionary as those of the Industrial Age and the Renaissance, he believes. Not only will people shop and conduct business through their computers, he says, but they will also engage in every type of human activity, from reading to simply hanging out with friends. In Gates’s vision, the increased level of communication made possible by computer networks will bring many benefits in the areas of business, education, and social interaction, producing widespread sharing of knowledge and wealth and a worldwide cultural renewal.
A few social critics, however, are skeptical of the futuristic optimism of computer enthusiasts such as Gates. They question whether the apparent benefits of computer technology will outweigh the potential harms. According to Christopher Scheer, a freelance writer and editor, “Technology has done nothing to lessen . . . our all-too-immediate social problems,” such as environmental degradation, economic inequality, and the decline of cities. In many ways, the development of technology has exacerbated rather than ameliorated these problems, he contends, and in much the same way, the changes to society that computers will bring may be as harmful as beneficial. For instance, Scheer asserts, the communication that takes place over computer networks pales in comparison to real human interaction. Since computers tend to decrease actual human contact, he argues, their use may weaken people’s sense of community and widen existing social divisions. Though it is inevitable that computers will become more prevalent and will bring changes to the way people work and play, Scheer maintains, at a minimum, a critical eye should be cast on the rosy visions of the future presented by computer enthusiasts.
One area in which the optimism of computer enthusiasts comes into immediate conflict with the skepticism of critics is education. Those who believe that computers will bring revolutionary changes to society contend that schools should prepare children for that future with computer education. In the opinion of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), which advocates providing computers to students and wiring classrooms to networks, education needs to be totally revamped to prepare today’s students for a computerized world. In the present system, according to CoSN, teachers are expected to “pour knowledge into students’ heads,” while students are expected to be passive learners. To function in the future, CoSN asserts, students must become active learners, learning to collaborate and to adapt to changing situations and roles. By giving students access to information through networks and challenging them to collect, analyze, and organize that information, CoSN believes, computers help students to become active learners. Through computerized education, CoSN states, students “acquire skills and attitudes that they will need as information-age workers.”
But critics dispute the need for networked computers in schools, contending that computers may actually hamper real learning. According to Clifford Stoll, author of Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway, education requires interaction between good teachers and motivated students, and computers get in the way of this relationship. If students merely gather information from computer networks, in his opinion, they will miss the context and connections that only an experienced teacher can show them. Teachers inspire and educate students in methods of creative problem solving in a way that computers cannot, Stoll contends. He argues that classroom time spent on computers detracts from the real learning that occurs when teachers and students interact. Stoll concludes that it is more important to teach analytical thinking and creativity than computer skills, even if computers are becoming prevalent throughout society.
As computers become ubiquitous and more powerful, their impacts on education, society, personal lives, and business will continue to be watched and debated. The viewpoints included in Computers and Society: Current Controversies present a range of views exploring the beneficial and harmful ways that computers may affect individuals and society.