New Internationalist


Issue 286

Seduced by technology

Illustration by VLADO PALANKOV

Computers are changing the world, and not always for the better. Wayne Ellwood measures the human costs of the micro-electronics revolution.

My neighbour, Nick, is a soft-spoken, easy-going fellow who owns a big, ungainly hound named Duffy and has a passion for music. He's been a freelance musician all his adult life and plays the double bass for a living - an imposing, upright, stringed instrument that's virtually the same size as he is. But things have changed in the music business: it's not as easy to earn a living as a freelance musician today as it was a few years ago.

A lot of the well-paid 'session work' (making commercials and advertising jingles) has disappeared and been replaced by pre-programed, computerized synthesizers. Nick still plays in the 'pit' when he can - in splashy, touring musicals like Miss Saigon or Phantom of the Opera. But today he also works part-time in a music store, helping to ship out trumpets and French horns to school bands and re-stocking inventory when new shipments arrive.

Nick is not untypical these days. In fact his story is just one of millions that unveil the other side of the computer revolution - the human costs and consequences of the new 'wired world' which receive little attention from government bureaucrats or industry boosters.

Fantastic, science-fiction tinged claims about the benefits of the coming 'information age' are hard to escape. The press is full of hacks extolling the liberating virtues of electronic mail and tub-thumping about how the Internet will unite the masses in a sort of electronic, Jeffersonian democracy (at least those with a personal computer, modem and enough spare cash to pay the monthly hook-up fee).

'If you snooze, you lose' is the underlying message. Jump on board now or be brushed aside as the new high-tech era reshapes the contours of modern life. This is not the first time that technology has been packaged as a panacea for social progress. I can still recall a youthful Ronald Reagan touting for General Electric on American television back in the 1950s: 'Progress is our most important product,' the future President intoned.

That ideology of progress is welded as firmly to computers in the 1990s as it was to the power-loom in the early nineteenth century, the automobile in the 1920s or nuclear power in the 1960s. Yet the introduction of all these technologies had disastrous side effects. The power-loom promised cheap clothing and a wealthier Britain but produced catastrophic social dislocation and job loss. The car promised independence and freedom and delivered expressways choked with traffic, suburbanization, air pollutionand destructive wars fought over oil supplies. Nuclear power promised energy 'too cheap to meter' and produced Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.

There is a lesson here that can and should be applied to all new technologies - and none more so than computers. One of the century's more astute analysts of communications technologies, Marshall McLuhan, said it best: 'We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.' In his cryptic way McLuhan was simply summing up what a small band of dogged critics have been saying for decades. Technology is not just hardware - whether it's a hammer, an axe or a desk-top PC with muscular RAM and a pentium chip. Limiting it in this way wrenches technology from its social roots. The conclusion? It's not 'things' that are the problem, it's people.

This has the simple attraction of common sense. Yet the more complex truth is that technologies carry the imprint of the cultures from which they issue. They arise out of a system, a social structure: 'They are grafted on to it,' argues Canadian scientist Ursula Franklin, 'and they may reinforce or destroy it, often in ways that are neither foreseen or foreseeable.'1 What this means is that technology is never neutral. Even seemingly benign technologies can have earth-shaking, unintended, social consequences.

The American writer Richard Sclove outlines what happened when water was piped into the homes of villagers in Ibieca in north-eastern Spain in the early 1970s. The village fountain soon disappeared as the centre of community life when families gradually bought washing machines and women were released from scrubbing laundry by hand. But at the same time the village's social bonds began to fray. Women no longer shared grievances and gossip together; when men stopped using their donkeys to haul water the animals were seen as uneconomical. Tractors began to replace donkeys for field work, thus increasing the villagers' dependence on outside jobs to earn cash needed to pay for their new machines. The villagers opted for convenience and productivity. But, concludes Sclove: 'They didn't reckon on the hidden costs of deepening inequality, social alienation and community dissolution.'2

When it comes to introducing new technologies we need to look less at how they influence our lives as individuals and more at how they impact on society as a whole.Let's consider computers for a moment. Over the last decade new technologies based on micro-electronics and digitized data have completely changed the way information is transmitted and stored. And word processors and electronic mail have made writing andsending messages around the globe both cheap and quick. 'Surfing the net' (clicking around the Internet in a random fashion for fun and entertainment) has become the fashionable way to spend your leisure time. But these are benefits filtered through the narrow prism of personal gain.

What happens when we step back and examine the broad social impact? How else are computers used? Let's look at just four examples:

The money maze: The computer that allows us to withdraw cash from an automatic teller, day or night, is the same technology that makes possible the international capital market. Freed from the shackles of government regulation corporate money managers nowshift billions of dollars a day around the globe. 'Surfing the yield curve,' big money speculators can move funds at lightning speed, day and night - destabilizing national economies and sucking millions out of productive long-term investment. The global foreign-exchange trade alone is now estimated at more than $1.3 billion a day.

Computer games: They come in all shapes and sizes and you can find them as easily in Kuala Lumpur as in Santiago or Harare. They vary from the jolt-a-second, shoot-'em-up games (often offensively sexist) to the mesmerizing hand-held and usually more innocuous variety. Now think of 'Desert Storm', the world's first (and certainly not the last) electronic war. Lethal firepower as colourful blips on our TV screens, charred bodies reduced to the arcing trail of an explosive starburst.

The ability to kill and maim large numbers of our fellow human beings is not a new skill. We've been able to destroy human life many times over for more than half a century and computers have not changed that reality. What they have done is sideline humandecision-making in favour of computer programs - making catastrophe ever more likely. As one software engineer has pointed out, complex computer programs require maintenance just like mechanical systems. The problem is that 'every feature that is added and every bug that is fixed adds the possibility of some new interaction between parts of the program' - thus making the software less rather than more reliable.3

Information as power: This is the mantra of those who suggest that both the Internet and the World Wide Web will establish a new on-line paradigm of decentralized power, placing real tools for liberation into the hands of the marginalized and the poor. That?s a tall order but it is nonetheless true that the new communications technologies can be used positively by political dissidents and human- rights activists. Examples abound. At the 1995 UN Conference on Women in Beijing the proceedings were posted instantaneously over the Net thus bringing thousands of women, who would have otherwise been left out, into the discussions.

This 'high-tech jujitsu', as critic Jerry Mander calls it is both valiant and necessary. But it doesn?t change the key fact that computers contribute more to centralization than to decentralization. They help activists, but they help the centralizing forces of corporate globalization even more. This is what the communications theorist Harold Innis described as the 'bias' of technology in the modern era. Computers, as the most powerful of modern communications tools, reflect their commercial and military origins.

Efficiency and employment: Technology has always destroyed jobs. In the economy of industrial society that is its main purpose - to replace labour with machines, thereby reducing the unit cost of production while increasing both productivity and efficiency. In theory this spurs growth: producing more and better jobs, higher wages and an increased standard of living. This is the credo of orthodox economics and there are still many true believers.

But evidence to support this view in the real world of technology is fading fast. More widespread is the pattern detailed in a recent Statistics Canada report which underlined the growth of a 'two-tiered' labour market in that country. On the top tier: long hours of overtime by educated, experienced and relatively well-paid workers. And on the bottom: a large group of low-paid, unskilled and part-time workers ?who can be treated as roughly interchangeable?.4 And then there are those who miss out altogether - the chronic jobless, the socially marginalized who form a permanent and troubling underclass.

This same trend is repeated throughout the industrialized world. In the US author Jeremy Rifkin says less than 12 per cent of Americans will work in factories within a decade and less than two per cent of the global work force will be engaged in factory work by the year 2020. 'Near-workerless factories and virtual companies' are already looming on the horizon, Rifkin claims. The result? 'Every nation will have to grapple with the question of what to do with the millions of people whose labour is needed less or not at all in an ever-more-automated economy.'5

Computerization is at the core of the slimmed down, re-engineered workplace that free-market boosters claim is necessary to survive the lean-and-mean global competition of the 1990s. Even factory jobs that have relocated to the Third World are being automated quickly. In the long run machines will do little to absorb the millions of young people in Asia, Africa and Latin America who will be searching for work in the coming decades. Slowly, that sobering fact is beginning to strike home. A Chinese government official recently warned that unemployment in the world's most populous nation could leap to 268 million by the turn of the century as Chinese industries modernize and automate.

In the long run computers don't eliminate work, they eliminate workers. But in a social system based on the buying and selling of commodities this may have an even more pernicious effect. With fewer jobs there is less money in circulation; market demand slackens, re-inforcing recession and sending the economy into a tailspin. The impact of automation on jobs is a dilemma which can no longer be ignored.

Though thinkers in the green movement have been grappling with this issue for over a decade, most governments and even fewer business people are prepared to grasp the nettle. Both cling to the increasingly flimsy belief that economic growth spurred by an increasing consumption of the earth's finite resources will solve the problem. It won't. And serious questions need now to be raised about alternatives.

First, we need to think about democratizing the process of introducing new technologies into society and into the workplace. At the moment these decisions are left typically in the hands of bureaucrats and corporations who base their decisions on the narrow criteria of profit and loss. This blinkered mindset that equates technological innovation with social progress needs to be challenged.

But there is also the critical issue of the distribution of work and income in a world where waged labour is in a steady, inexorable decline. We can't continue to punish and stigmatize those who are unable to find jobs just because there aren't enough to go around. Instead, we need to think creatively about how to redefine work so that people can find self-esteem and social acceptance outside of wage labour. This may mean redesigning jobs so that workers have more control and input into decisions about which technologies to adopt and what products to make. Up to now this has been exclusively a management prerogative. But it also means developing strategies to cut the average work week - without cutting pay. This would be one way of sharing the wealth created by new technology and of creating jobs at the same time. The Canadian paperworkers union featured later in this issue has been a leader in this area. Hard work also needs to go into designing a plan for a guaranteed annual social wage. This is a radical (some would say outrageous) idea for societies like ours that have anchored their value systems on the bedrock of wage labour.

But how can we deny people the basic rights of citizenship and physical well-being simply because the economic system is no longer capable of providing for them?

1 The Real World of Technology, Ursula Franklin, Anansi Press, Toronto, 1990. 2 'Making Technology Democratic', Richard Sclove, from Resisting the Virtual Life, eds James Brook and Iain Boal, City Lights, San Francisco, 1995. 3 Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, Edward Tenner, Knopf, New York, 1996. 4 Canadian Economic Observer, Statistics Canada, July/96. 5 The End of Work, Jeremy Rifkin, Putnam Publishers, New York, 1995.

The Internet... a brief history

1950s: Cold war paranoia
In the late 1950s when the average computer would have filled your living room, Pentagon planners dreamed of a computer system to manage military affairs that would be resilient enough to survive nuclear attack. Instead of centralized control, information would be accessible simultaneously from every entry point. If one part of the system was destroyed the rest of the network would remain intact.

Washington spent millions on the system. In 1969 the precursor of today’s Internet was developed by the US Government-backed Advanced Research Prolects Agency (ARPA) and the National Physical Lab in Britain. The original network, ARPANET, had four users. It was turned over to the US Defense Communications Agency in 1975.

1987: NSFnet
A network catering to academic institutions and military researchers was launched by the US National Science Foundation in 1987. Regional networks were connected to the NSF ‘backbone’ and to a similar network developed by the NASA space centre in Houston. By 1989 the number of ‘host’ computers connected to the Internet had ballooned to more than 28,000 — mostly institutional users. And the system was largely paid for by NASA, the NSF and the universities and research centres that used it.

1989: World Wide Web
The Internet took off in 1989 with the arrival of the World Wide Web (WWW) developed by a Swiss physicist at the European Centre for Particle Research. He was looking for a new way of organizing on-line scientific data.

1993: Hypertext
Then in 1993 an American undergraduate wrote a programme called MOSAIC which used a ‘hypertext’ system to link documents (text, images. sound and video) to each other. His system eventually became Netscape, currently the most popular of the Web ‘browsers’.

1995: Privatized cyberspace
The Internet became a commercial operation in early 1995 when the US Government pulled out of the ‘backbone’ business and tumed over the operation to private corporations like MCI and IBM.


Resources for action...

Alliance for Progressive Communications (APC)
A global communications consortium of 21 member networks dedicated to serving NGQs and citizens working for social equality, economic justice and environmental sustalnability. Provides e-mail, Internet and other communications links to more than 40,000 NGOs, activists. educators and community-leaders In more than 133 countrIes. If your country is not listed below contact the APC Secretariat for further information.

APC International Secretariat,
Rua Visconde de Ouro Preto 5, Seventh Floor, 22250-180 RIo de janeiro, Brazil.
Tel: +55 (0)21 553 0676; Fax: +55 (0)21 552 8796;
Web site;

UK: Greenet,
74-77 White Lion Street, London, NI 9PF.
Tel: 0171 713 1941; Fax: 0171 837 5551;
Web site:

Canada: The Web,
NirvCentre, 401 RIchmond Street West, Suite 104, Toronto, ON M5V 3A8.
Tel: 416 596-02l2; Fax: 416 596-1374
Web site:

South Africa: SangoNet,
P0. Box 31, 13th floor Longsbank Building, 187 Bree Street, Johannesburg 2000.
Tel: (11) 838-6944; Fax: (11) 492 1058;
Web site:

Australia, Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, Asia: Pegasus Networks,
P0 Box 3220, South Brisbane Qld 4101 Australia.
Tel: 73255 0255; Fax: 7 3255 0555
Web site:

Aoetearoa/NZ: PlaNet(NZ),
78 Straven Rd, Christchurch. Canterbury 8001.
Tel: 3 343-2633
Web site:

USA: Institute of Global Communications (IPC)
Includes PeaceNet, EcoNet, ConflictNet, LaborNet, WomensNet
18 De Boom Street, San Francisco, CA 94107.
Tel: 415 442 0220; Fax: 415 546-1794;
Web site:

New Internationalist Web Site
We now have our own World Wide Web site where you can check out back issues of the magazine and get all the information you need to know on subscriptions and ordering our other range of publications. Our Web site is:

One World Online,
Hedgerley Wood, Red Lane, Chinnor, Oxon, UK 0X9 4BW
Tel: 01494 481629; Fax: 01494 481751;
Web site:
UK-based organization working with NGOs involved in global justice issues. Helps launch and support Web sites using the Internet for publicity, recruitment, fundraising and education.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

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