Chapter 1: Has Technology Harmed Society?
Chapter 1 Preface
The recent explosion in information technology has sparked controversy over what has been termed the “digital divide”— the alleged gap between those who have access to personal computers and the Internet and those who do not. While most people agree that some disparity exists between the haves and the have-nots, the debate lies in whether technology should be provided free of charge to poorer neighborhoods and schools.
Many people argue that the digital divide unfairly equips wealthy citizens and their children with more information and opportunities than those with lower incomes. According to Maureen Brown Yoder, associate professor of telecommunications, multimedia, and media literacy courses, “Until we enjoy universal access to technology, the Internet, and ideas on how to use them responsibly and productively, many people will wield an unfair advantage in their learning environment, in the job market, and in their daily lives.” Yoder and others contend that free access to information technology should be available to all segments of society.
Others claim the digital divide is exaggerated, because even if poorer households do not own personal computers, Internet access is available at schools, public libraries, and community centers. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Michael Powell perceives technology as a luxury to be enjoyed by those able to afford it. He writes that “The term [digital divide] is dangerous in...
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Technology Has Harmed Society
Something has gone wrong with the Information Age. The microprocessor, the capstone product of our time, risks symbolizing technology run amuck.
There is a wide and growing perception that we no longer have a handle on technology, but rather get mis-handled by our technology. Twenty years ago we bragged, “Progress is our most important product.” Now the young—the ones most comfortable with technology—wear T-shirts proclaiming, “Rage Against the Machine.” Apparently the human spirit doesn’t run under Windows.
Industry leaders eye new markets—“grab the consumers’ eyeballs”—to provide even more intense entertainment to a public that is already over-entertained, overindulged. Meanwhile, during the latest Computer Dealer Exposition, the industrial world couldn’t find a way to FedEx a can of Spam to Rwanda.
A single Pentium-based desktop computer has more processing power than NASA had at its disposal when it put men on the moon in 1969. Yet more than 90 percent of these machines today are used to turn memos and reports. An 8086 can do so much.
Confusion of Priorities
There is something profoundly out of joint when so much engineering ingenuity is frittered away while desperately needed for more pressing matters. Sixty percent of the world lives in abject poverty, but we don’t see it because we desire more intense entertainment and less disturbing information. The sight of 50,000...
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Technology Has Improved Society
The twentieth century will be remembered for consciousness-raising and scientific/technological breakthroughs. This century made racism a shameful practice; recognized gender oppression as a social evil; proclaimed human rights as transcending race, caste, and religion; pleaded for international economic justice; began to celebrate diversity and to care for the disabled; and condemned exploitation of the young. It released millions from colonial shackles and established world organizations in which free nations join to solve problems of food and health, promote trade and education, and resolve political differences through discussion.
The twentieth century also made more scientific discoveries, introduced more technologies, and launched more assaults on the environment than all previous time spans combined. As one example, consider electricity: Through minibatteries and mammoth generators, from wind and waves, from sun and coal, energy is extracted to make electrons flow as the currents that light up the dark, heat the oven, and serve a hundred other needful or luxurious purposes. Humanity and electricity are forever bound together. And so it is with dozens of other profound contributions to science and technology. . . .
From the moment speech began, human culture evolved. Indeed, society cannot continue without communication. Landmarks in communication have transformed civilization significantly....
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Technology Has Created a Digital Divide
Not long ago, I found myself at a Kinko’s in Washington, D.C., not far from the Capitol in a neighborhood that—like a lot of D.C.—is mostly African American and struggling. I spend a lot of time at Kinko’s all over the country, but this one was different. I was the only person there that the computer services clerk didn’t know by name. Everyone else, hunched in front of a Mac or PC, or waiting by the self-serve copy machines to get on a computer, or pacing back and forth while the printer went through its paces, was clearly a regular. And everyone—save the sprinkling of folks working on resumes and fliers, but in the end, including them too—was at Kinko’s to use the Internet.
At $12 an hour, that’s expensive access. But when your need not to be left out of the Internet Revolution is intense enough, and you don’t have a computer at home or at your job or at your neighbor’s house, and the library’s few machines are booked for hours a day, it’s a price you apparently find a way to pay. Especially if it also buys you hands-on, nonjudgmental help from Mrs. Johnson at the computer services desk.
Despite the recent outcry from various quarters that access to technology should hardly be the first priority for improving the plight of the underserved, that D.C. Kinko’s nevertheless brought home for me just how real the digital divide is—and also how complex and nuanced it is. . . .
Equity at School...
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Technology Has Not Created a Digital Divide
Outside an August 1998 trade show in Santa Clara, Calif., a coalition of left-wing Bay Area groups denounced Silicon Valley for failing to share its wealth with minority consumers and employees. “Intel, Intel you’re no good, / bring computers to the ’hood,” the protesters chanted. An Intel spokesman complained to the San Francisco Chronicle that the giant chip-maker was being unfairly singled out; the company had a racially diverse workforce, she said, and besides, in the previous year Intel had donated $100 million in cash and equipment to education groups.
The spokesman had failed to grasp the essence of the fastgrowing social justice movement that aims to end the “digital divide”—inequality between the rates at which rich and poor, black and white, use high-tech goods and the Internet. It’s precisely because booming tech companies are progressive, charitable, and loaded with cash that the civil rights movement and anti-poverty activists have targeted them. And for the tech companies themselves—always keen on building market share—the idea of giving equipment to the poor is an attractive one, especially if their philanthropy is defrayed by government subsidies. The political class, for its part, . . . has proved highly enthusiastic. Few things can be more appealing to a politician than fighting for the poor by hobnobbing with billionaires. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given everything that’s in it for them, the crusaders have...
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The Government Should Regulate Technology
Public power is the result of a serendipitous arrangement formed more than 100 years ago. The most important ingredients were the human desire for a better life through the use of electric power and the philosophy of affirmative government—the idea that government has a responsibility to ensure that all its citizens, rich and poor alike, have access to technologies that can improve their lives.
A new technology—broadband telecommunications— could eclipse even electric power in its capacity to improve our lives. This system of fiber optic cables and electronics, capable of delivering competitive cable television, telephone service, and high-speed computer networking to every home and business, has the potential to invigorate local economies and improve the lives of citizens in the same way that electric utilities did in the first half of the 20th century. It needs only affirmative government to democratize it.
Contrary to popular belief, the development of electric power did not begin in the United States. The first serious experimentation on electricity took place in Europe in 1730 with the invention of the Leyden Jar, a device developed to build up and store an electric charge. But for decades the phenomenon remained a curiosity with no practical application. The real potential for electric power began to take shape during the early 1800s with the development of the electromagnet, the telegraph, and...
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The Government Should Not Regulate Technology
Let me just read a little bit from [Friedrich von Hayek’s 1944 book] The Road to Serfdom on the subject of technology. John Blundell of the Institute for Economic Affairs in London was just telling me that this book was written during the Second World War. Hayek was an Austrian who had fled to England. He was in Cambridge, and was writing the book as he served as an air raid warden. He was a spotter, a fire warden, and he jotted down these thoughts in his spare time, writing one of the great books in history. He wrote:
Well, it is true of course, that inventions have given us tremendous power. It is absurd to suggest that we must use this power to destroy our most precious inheritance, liberty. It does mean, however, that if we want to preserve it, we must guard it more jealously than ever, and we must be prepared to make sacrifices for it. There is nothing in modern technological developments that forces us toward comprehensive economic planning. There is a great deal in them that makes infinitely more dangerous the power a planning authority would possess.
And that’s what bothers me. A planning authority at work on technology. My concern today is to help Americans and people all over the world to lead better lives through freedom. And technology is the engine for that improvement.
The Commerce Department reports that the communications, computer, and software industry accounted for an...
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Chapter 1 Periodical Bibliography
Jonathan Coleman “Is Technology Making Us Intimate Strangers?” Newsweek, March 27, 2000.
James Fallows “Technology We Hate,” American Prospect, January 31, 2000.
John Gray “The Myth of Progress,” New Statesman, April 19, 1999.
Daniel S. Greenburg “Delete the Revolution,” Lancet, February 27, 1999.
Timothy C. Hoffman “Finding the Blessing, Curses of Technology,” Computerworld, August 14, 2000.
Herbert W. Lovelace “Technology’s New Manners—Notebooks and Cell Phones Are Changing Our Social Behavior—For Better or Worse,” InformationWeek, March 27, 2000.
Peter G. Neumann “Information Is a Double-Edged Sword,” Association for Computing Machinery, July 1999.
Craig Peck, Larry Cuban, and Heather Kirkpatrick “Schools Are Illsuited to Close the Digital Divide,” Los Angeles Times, May 14, 2000.
Norman Podhoretz “Science Hasn’t Killed God,” Wall Street Journal, December 30, 1999.
Ray Roth “You Can’t Shoot Down Technology,” High Volume Printing, June 1999.
Kirkpatrick Sale “We Love Technology Even as It Harms Us,” Los Angeles Times, October 10, 1999.
Robert R. Selle “What We Take for Granted,” World & I, December 1999.
Royal Van Horn “Technology: Violence and Video Games,” Phi Delta...
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