In 1965 Gordon Moore, cofounder of Intel, discovered that the performance of a computer’s memory chip doubled about every eighteen months. Known as Moore’s Law, his observation has proven to be remarkably accurate, as computing power increased over 18,000 times from 1971 to 2000.
This explosion in computing power fueled the technological accomplishments that characterized the twentieth century. The invention of the microchip in 1958 spawned a generation of silicon-based technological wonders that have recently become mainstream, including personal computers and the Internet. In 1990 only 15 percent of households in the United States owned a personal computer; by 1999 ownership had increased to close to 50 percent. In 1998, sales of personal computers in the United States totaled $36 million, and households with Internet access rose from 26.2 percent in 1998 to 41.5 percent in 2000. The widespread use of personal computers and the Internet has provided previously unfathomable conveniences to society.
As the world’s fastest growing communications medium, the Internet merges thousands of computer networks into one international system. According to the Internet Society, an international professional membership group that focuses on issues surrounding the future of the Internet and Internet infrastructure standards, the Internet is best described as a “global network of networks enabling computers of all kinds to directly and transparently communicate and share services throughout much of the world. Because the Internet is enormously valuable, enabling capability for so many people and organizations, it also constitutes a shared global re13 source of information, knowledge, and means of collaboration, and cooperation among countless diverse communities.” The World Wide Web, the Internet’s most popular system, combines business, government, personal, and educational “sites” and “pages” that present relevant text, images, and even audio and video data. Users may access information with the help of “browser” software, such as Internet Explorer and Netscape, and “search engines,” such as Yahoo! and Excite. They may also contact other users through electronic mail (e-mail) and connect with others with similar interests using online discussion groups, bulletin boards, and “chat rooms.”
By creating databases of educational resources for various businesses, libraries, nonprofit organizations, research institutions, branches of government, and others, the Internet has transformed the storage of and access to information. As stated by several leading computer scientists in their essay A Brief History of the Internet, “The Internet has revolutionized the computer and communications world like nothing before. The invention of the telegraph, telephone, radio, and computer set the stage for this unprecedented integration of capabilities. The Internet is at once a world-wide broadcasting capability, a mechanism for information dissemination, and a medium for collaboration and interaction between individuals and their computers without regard for geographic location.” By opening up easily accessible pathways to a wide range of information, the Internet has created new opportunities for personal, educational, and business growth and has fostered the exchange of knowledge and customs of cultures around the world.
Many describe the Internet as a global “equalizer” that provides an unprecedented store of information to anyone with Internet access. These people claim that information technologies can provide the benefits of a large city to developing countries and rural communities around the world. Education may be brought to small villages that do not have teachers or classrooms via satellites and PC technology. The expertise of doctors can be instantly accessed thousands of miles from the actual location of the doctor. Many countries utilize “tele-medicine,” or virtual appointments and examinations between doctors and patients. Finally, the information capability of the Internet is nearly unlimited, and the World Wide Web offers seekers information on virtually every subject imaginable. As stated by Michael C. Maibach, vice president of government affairs at Intel Corporation, “The Internet transmits digitized audio, video and data to any corner of the globe at any time. The people ‘communicating’ do not have to be on-line at the same time, nor share information in the same language. The Internet collapses space, time and language differences. The sources of data do not tire or misspeak. Information is limited not by accessibility but only by whether the information exists at all. In the Internet world, the word ‘infinite’ applies.”
While most would agree with Maibach’s assessment, some people have concerns about the effects of computers and the Internet on society. The most extreme of these critics are often referred to as Neo-Luddites. The original Luddites were a group of early nineteenth-century English rioters who waged war on technological advances in the textile industry, which they perceived as a threat to their way of life and livelihood. Neo-Luddites strive to break society’s dependence on machines by rejecting technology and society’s current ideology of progress. Neo-Luddites and other critics argue that despite the communication and information opportunities created by computer technology and the Internet, meaningful and fulfilling interpersonal relations have been replaced with relatively superficial e-mail and instant messaging. A study titled the HomeNet project, conducted by the Carnegie Mellon University in 1998, found that Internet use led to small but statistically significant increases in misery and loneliness and a decline in the overall psychological well-being of the participants. The project found that as people used the Internet more, they reported keeping up with fewer friends, spending less time talking with families, experiencing more daily stress, and feeling more lonely and depressed. Ironically, these results occurred even though interpersonal communication was their most important reason for using the Internet. Neo-Luddites and others argue that the avenues for communication opened by the Internet merely serve to connect people to machines rather than to other people.
Another concern is that technology and the Internet will increase inequality in society, as nearly 50 percent of Americans do not have personal computers in their homes. Minorities, the poor, and less educated citizens are the least likely to have computers; this disparity has been termed the “digital divide.” A study released in 2000 by the Department of Commerce titled “Falling Through the Net” found that people with college degrees are eight times more likely to have a personal computer (PC) at home than those with only an elementary education. A high income household in an urban area is twenty times more likely to have Internet access than a rural, low-income household. Also, a child in a lowincome white family is three times more likely to have Internet access at home than a child in a comparable black family and four times more likely than a child in a Hispanic household. According to the Economist, “Although Internet penetration has risen across all demographic groups, the digital divide remains only too real. It has also become a poignant proxy for almost every other kind of disadvantage and inequality in society.”
Advances in computers and the growth of the Internet are among the incredible technological achievements of the twentieth century that have wrought significant changes upon society. While some consider such changes beneficial and embrace them, others, such as Neo-Luddites, perceive certain technological advances as threatening to personal relations and social dynamics. Technology and Society: Opposing Viewpoints examines several issues of contention in the following chapters: Has Technology Harmed Society? Are Technological Advances In Medicine Beneficial? How Has Technology Affected Privacy? How Will Technology Affect Society in the Future? Examination of these arguments will give readers a more thorough understanding of the impact of technological discoveries upon society.