Computers and society
The decade of the 1980’s saw an explosion in computer technology and computer usage that deeply changed society. Computers and society seem to go hand in hand. Today computers are a part of everyday life, they are in their simplest form a digital watch or more complexly computers manage power grids, telephone networks, and the money of the world. Henry Grunwald, former US ambassador to Austria best describes the computer’s functions, “It enables the mind to ask questions, find answers, stockpile knowledge, and devise plans to move mountains, if not worlds.” Society has embraced the computer and accepted it for its many powers which can be used for business, education, research, and warfare.
The first mechanical calculator, a system of moving beads called the abacus, was invented in Babylonia around 500 BC. The abacus provided the fastest method of calculating until 1642, when the French scientist Pascal invented a calculator made of wheels and cogs. The concept of the modern computer was first outlined in 1833 by the British mathematician Charles Babbage. His design of an analytical engine contained all of the necessary components of a modern computer: input devices, a memory, a control unit, and output devices. Most of the actions of the analytical engine were to be done through the use of punched cards. Even though Babbage worked on the analytical engine for nearly 40 years, he never actually made a working machine.
In 1889 Herman Hollerith, an American inventor, patented a calculating machine that counted, collated, and sorted information stored on punched cards. His machine was first used to help sort statistical information for the 1890 United States census. In 1896 Hollerith founded the Tabulating Machine Company to produce similar machines. In 1924, the company changed its name to International Business Machines Corporation. IBM made punch-card office machinery that dominated business until the late 1960s, when a new generation of computers made the punch card machines obsolete.
The first fully electronic computer used vacuum tubes, and was so secret that its existence was not revealed until decades after it was built. Invented by the English mathematician Alan Turing and in 1943, the Colossus was the computer that British cryptographers used to break secret German military codes. The first modern general-purpose electronic computer was ENIAC or the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator. Designed by two American engineers, John Mauchly and Presper Eckert, Jr., ENIAC was first used at the University of Pennsylvania in 1946.
The invention of the transistor in 1948 brought about a revolution in computer development, vacuum tubes were replaced by small transistors that generated little heat and functioned perfectly as switches. Another big breakthrough in computer miniaturization came in 1958, when Jack Kilby designed the first integrated circuit. It was a wafer that included transistors, resistors, and capacitors the major components of electronic circuitry. Using less expensive silicon chips, engineers succeeded in putting more and more electronic components on each chip. Another revolution in microchip technology occurred in 1971 when the American engineer Marcian Hoff combined the basic elements of a computer on one tiny silicon chip, which he called a microprocessor. This microprocessor the Intel 4004 and the hundreds of variations that followed are the dedicated computers that operate thousands of modern products and form the heart of almost every general-purpose electronic computer.
By the mid-1970s, microchips and microprocessors had reduced the cost of the thousands of electronic components required in a computer. The first affordable desktop computer designed specifically for personal use was called the Altair 8800, first sold in 1974. In 1977 Tandy Corporation became the first major electronics firm to produce a personal computer. Soon afterward, a company named Apple Computer, founded by Stephen Wozniak and Steven Jobs, began producing computers. IBM introduced its Personal Computer, or PC, in 1981, and as a result of competition from the makers of clones the price of personal computers fell drastically. Just recently Apple Computer allowed its computers to be cloned by competitors.
During this long time of computer evolution, business has grasped at the computer, hoping to use it to increase productivity and minimize costs. The computer has been put on assembly lines, controlling robots. In offices computers have popped up everywhere, sending information and allowing numbers to easily be processed. Two key words that apply today are downsizing and productivity. Companies hope the increase worker productivity, meaning less working which then allows for downsizing. The computer is supposed to be the magic wand that will make productivity shoot through the roof, but in some cases the computer was a waste of time and money.
Reliance Insurance is an example of computer technology falling flat on its face, wasting a great deal of money, while producing little or no results. “Paper Free in 1983” was the slogan Reliance used because the it had just spent millions of dollars to put computers everywhere and network them. The employees had E-mail and other programs that where to eliminate paper and increase productivity. The company chiefs sat back and waited for a boom in productivity that never arrived.
Other examples of the disappointments of computer are not hard to find. Citicorp bank lost $200 million dollars developing a system in the 1980’s that gave up to the minute updates on oil prices. Knight-Ridder tried to develop a home shopping network on the television, and lost $50 million. Wang laboratories almost went under when they put all of their resources toward developing imaging technology that no one wanted. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream put in an E-mail system and out of 200 employees less than 30% used the system. Everything attempted then is currently very common today; on-line services provide stock and commodities quotes, QVC is a home shopping channel on cable television, almost every picture in a magazine has been retouched with imaging technology, and even JRHS has an E-mail system that seems to be valuable.
Other corporations have seized computer technology and used it to reduce costs, but usually the human factor is lost. The McDonalds fast food chain is an example of a company that has embraced computers to help productivity and lower operating costs. The McDonalds kitchen has become a computer timed machine, “You don’t have to know how to cook, you don’t have to know how to think. There’s a procedure for everything and you just follow the procedure” . The workers have in essence become robots controlled by the computer to achieve maximum productivity. The computer knows the procedure and alerts the worker of events in the procedure and all the worker must do is execute what the beeper of buzzer means. With such little knowledge of the making of the food, workers have become disposable, “It takes a special kind of person to be able to move before he can think. We find people like that and use them until they quit.” .
McDonalds managers work even more closely with the computers that control them. The computer generates a graph of expected business and tells the manager how many people to schedule and when, all the manager does is fill in the blanks with names. McDonalds computers also keep close track of sales and expenditures, “The central office can check . . . how many Egg McMuffins were sold on Friday from 9 to 9:30 two weeks ago or two years ago, either in an entire store or at any particular register.” . The main things computers do in a manual job is to speed things up, “Thinking generally slows this operation down.” , and for this reason computers have made manual jobs ones of extreme monotony and no creativity.
White collar jobs have remained virtually the same, computers have just helped to enhance creativity and attempted to raise productivity. E-mail, word processors, spreadsheets, and personal organization programs are widely used by white collar workers. These programs help to make impressive presentations, communicate, and keep track of everything so the worker can get more done, and therefore less workers are needed, dropping costs. This has not happened, over the last 30 years white collar worker productivity has remained the same, while blue collar productivity has almost quadrupled. This is due mainly to the fact that white collar workers are required to think and adapt to situations quickly, which computers at the moment are unable to due, they only follow code to give a planned response. The blue collar job requires less knowledge and skill, and so is easily replaceable by a computer.
Computers though have not been a failure in business, they allow information to be shared very quickly. The home office is a product of computers, people can work from home instead of going into an office. This has not become very popular due to the lack of touch between people, the loss of contact. It is the human factor that helps to make business run, the random thought that saves the day, something a computer is incapable of doing. Computers may help quicken business, but they will never replace people, only reduce their knowledge or creativity by automating the process.
Another form of computers is attempting to totally eliminate people from the picture. Expert systems are large mainframe computers that have the knowledge of an expert individual loaded into it, and makes decisions that are very complex. An expert in field is chosen and interviewed for sometimes over a year about their job and how they make decisions. All of this knowledge is refined and put into a computer. Another person then enters some statistics into the finished machine and magically a large printout will come out of the machine in minutes with the answers. Expert systems are used mainly in large investing corporations, but some have been developed to help diagnose diseases. The hope is one day a patient will lie down and a couple of sensors and probes will go over the body and then a computer printout will have the name of your illness and the drug to cure it. Expert systems have been used very little mainly due to their high price and because of the lack of trust in them.
Computers have also reached into other places besides business, schools. Children sit in front of computers and are drilled or taught about certain subjects selected by the teacher. This method of teaching has come under fire, some people believe the computer should be a tool not a teacher, while others believe why learn from a normal teacher when a computerized version of the best can teach. The technology of today could allow for a teacher in another country to teach a class through video confrencing. The attempts to spread computer technology into the class room have produced results and taught lessons as to how computers should be applied.
The Belridge school district in McKittrick California was one of the most technological school districts in America. Every student had two computers, one at school and one at home, which contained many brand new teaching programs. The high school had a low powered television station that broadcasted every day. The classes were small and parent involvement was high. Even with all of these wonderful things one-third of the first grade class was below the national average in standardized tests after the first year. Parents were enraged that after all of the money spent nothing had happened, that the technology hadn’t made the children become smarter, and so all of the computers were gone the next year and traditional teaching was put back in place.
Belridge is an extreme example of people expecting the computers to do magic and make the children learn faster and better, much like companies hoped to raise productivity. The children were left to learn from the computer, which they did, but nothing changed things actually got worse. One parent realized, “. . . good teachers are the heart and soul of teaching.” , because computers can only present facts and explain them to a certain extent, where as a good teacher can explain to the student in many ways.
The US has about 2.7 million computers for 100,000 schools, a ratio of about 1 computer for every 16 students. Experts say that, “Computers work best when students are left with a goal to achieve. . .” , and students are allowed to achieve this goal with proper direction from a teacher. After many attempts in the 1980’s to put computers into the classroom a Presidential Plan was drawn up:
1. Give computers to teachers before students.
2. Move them out of the labs and into classrooms.
3. One workstation at least for every two or three students.
4. Still use flashcards for practice.
5. Give teachers time to restructure around computers.
6. Expect to wait 5 to 6 years for change.
This plan was to help guide the use of computers into the classroom, and maximize their ability as learning tool. The computer will enhance the future classroom, but it cannot be expected to produce results quickly. One thing the use of computers in the classroom will help with is the fear of computers and their ability to confuse people. Early exposure to computers will help increase computer use in society years from now.
The biggest network of connected computers is broadly referred to as the internet, information superhighway or electronic highway. The internet was started by the Pentagon as a way for the military to exchange information through computers using modems. Over the years the internet has evolved into a public resource containing limitless amounts of information. The main parts of the internet are FTP (file transfer protocol), gopher, telnet, IRC (internet relay chat), and the world wide web. FTP is used to download large files from one computer to another quickly. Gopher is much like the world wide web, but without the graphical interface. Telnet is a remote computer login, this is where most of the hacking occurs. The IRC is just chat boards where people meet and type in there discussions, but IRC is becoming more involved with pictures of the people and 3-D landscapes. Besides IRC, these internet applications are becoming obsolete due to the world wide web.
The most popular of the internet applications is the world wide web or WWW. It is a very graphical interface which can be easily designed and is easy to navigate. The WWW contains information on everything and anything possibly imaginable. Movies, sound bytes, pictures, and other media is easily found on the WWW. It has also turned into a business venture, most large businesses have a “page” on the WWW. A “page” is a section of the WWW that has its own particular address, usually a large business will have a server with many “pages” on it. A sample internet address would be “http://www.sony.com/index.html”, the http stands for hypertext transfer protocol, or how the information will be transferred. “www.sony.com” is the serve name, it is usually a mainframe computer with a T-1 up to T-3 fiber optic telephone line. The server is expensive not because of the computer but because of the telephone line, a T-1 line which transfers up to 150 megabytes of information per second costs over $1000 a month, while a T-3 line transferring 450 megabytes of information can cost over $10,000 a month. The “index.html” is the name of the page on the server, of which the server could have hundreds.
The ability for all of this information has made for a virtual society. Virtual malls, virtual gambling, virtual identities, and even virtual sex have sprung up all over the internet wanting your credit card number or your First Virtual account number. First Virtual is a banking system which allows so much money to be deposited at a local bank to be spent on the internet. Much of the internet has become a large mail order catalog. With all of these numbers and accounts, questions come up about the security of a persons money and private life, which aren’t easily answered.
Being safe is a new craze today, protection from hackers and other people who will steal personal secrets and then rob someone blind, or protection from pornography or white supremacists or millions of other things on the internet. The recent communications bill that passed is supposed to ban pornography on the internet, but the effects aren’t apparent. There are still many US “pages” with pornography that have consent pages warning the user of the pornography ahead. Even if the US citizens stopped posting pornography, other nations still can and the newsgroups are also international. Programs such as Surf Watch and Internet Nanny have become popular, blocking out pornographic sites. The main problem or beauty of the internet is the lack of a controlling party, “It has no officers, it has no policy making board or other entity, it has no rules or regulations and is not selective in terms of providing services.” . This is a society run by the masses that amounts to pure anarchy, nothing can be controlled or stopped. The internet is so vast many things could be hidden and known to only a few, for a long time if not forever. The real problem with controlling the interenet is self control and responsibility, don’t go and don’t see what you don’t want to, and if that amounts to a boring time, then don’t surf the net.
When speaking of computers and the internet one person cannot go unmentioned, Bill Gates, the president of Microsoft. Microsoft has a basic monopoly on the computer world, they write the operating system and then the applications to run of the system, and when everyone catches up, they change the version. Bill Gates started the company in the early 1980’s with DOS, or Disk Operating System, which just recently was made obsolete by Windows 95. Bill Gates has now just ventured into the internet and is now tangling with Netscape, the company with the Internet monopoly. Netscape gives away its software for free to people who want the basic version, but a version with all of the bells and whistles can be purchased. Microsoft is hard pressed to win the internet battle, but will take a sizable chunk of Netscape business. Bill Gates will likely keep running the software industry, with his recent purchase of Lotus, a popular spreadsheet, he further cornered the market.
Computers are one of the most important items society posses today. The computer will be deeply imbedded in peoples lives even more when the technology progresses more and more. Businesses will become heavily dependent as video confrencing and working from home become increasingly more feasible, so businesses will break down from large buildings into teams that communicate electronically. Schools may be taught by the best teachers possible and software may replace teachers, but that is highly unlikely. The internet will reach into lives, offering an escape from reality and an information source that is extremely vast. Hopefully society will further embrace the computer as a tool, a tool that must be tended to and assisted, not left to do its work alone. Even so computers will always be present, because the dreams of today are made with computers, planned on computers, and then assembled by computers, the only thing the computer can’t do is dream, at least right now.