Chapter 9

The social implications of computers

Paul Bieleski & Jim Higgins

Paul Bieleski, a national councillor of the New Zealand Computer Society, has had a long involvement with computers, both teaching at university level and as a systems analyst/engineer with IBM. He is now operating a consulting agency from his home on the Coromandel Penilisula.

Jim Higgins, Deputy President of the New Zealand Computer Society, is Data Processing Manager of the Palmerston North City Council. He has been very active in Computer Society affairs and, with his special interest in education and training, is the convenor of the society’s National Education Committee.

Technological innovations have always had their social effects. From the wheel to the steam engine, changes in society have come about through the adoption of new technologies. The advent of computer technology, and the associated advancements in communications technology, are likewise having an all pervasive effect akin to, if not exceeding, that which followed the introduction of electricity. It is a technology that is not directed at a specific area of human affairs but has an impact on all aspects of our life.

Even before birth we will come under the influence of computer technology. Health workers use computers to a considerable degree in their work. This means that each child being born has a considerable backup system ready to go into action if the birth is not normal. Later, life support systems use the micro-processor to monitor the critically ill patient and many people alive today can thank this sophisticated technology. There are some, however, who believe that by interfering too much with natural mortality and the process of natural selection the genetic base of the population will decline. Microprocessors which help keep people alive, would then be playing a part in the general decline of the human species.

The child grows and develops. There is an education system that has been built to help in this developing process and computers are involved here. As human knowledge and experience increases, the difficulty for an individual to be knowledgeable about the world increases. Society over the years has had to pay ever more attention to formal systems of schooling, to accelerate the acquisition of the necessary knowledge and skills required to participate in society. It is quite apparent that in recent times schools, in their current form, are experiencing great difficulty in adequately preparing their pupils for the future.

Because of the costly nature of schooling, the systems used in schools have lagged behind the state of the art. The extraordinary communication medium of television has been slow to find a role in the education process. Computers provide a tool that has potential in education also. Computer suppliers some time ago saw possibilities when time-sharing computer systems were developed but had to await the advance into micro-processors to make the direct use of computers in education feasible.

While there remains a residual push to use time-sharing computers in education, the micro-processor is now leading the way. These small computers with a display unit can present material to a student and test the student’s acquisition of ideas and knowledge. The computer has the capability to determine what material should be presented next. Follow-up material or revision material can be displayed according to the answers obtained from the previous computer questioning. The important thing is that the education program can be individually tailored to the person receiving the information.

Teaching programs have developed to the point where the student can be closely involved in the subject, using various means of computer simulation and modelling. The student can be exposed to a more realistic environment than with traditional forms of schooling and at much less cost. The computer can store any number of separate education programs which can be matched to individual needs. This means that the straight-jacket of traditional schooling can be broken. The computer can enable learning to take place away from the classroom and at a rate and time appropriate to the individual pupil.

In fact learning will soon become a lifelong hobby, with computer learning programs on just about any topic under the sun available from libraries. However, one of the risks is that the learners may become isolated and lose interpersonal communication skills. The computer simulations could be so sophisticated that the real situation becomes ordinary and unrecognisable. There is also a possibility that this medium can be used as a way of propagandising a particular point of view. To counter this it has been suggested that academic learning could take place at home using the computer, while schools become a place for social and sporting activity.

As a person matures and gets involved in the affairs of society, the computer will continue to make its impact. The mere act of shopping brings about interaction with computers. Where a purchase is made on credit, a computer can be used to verify credit-worthiness, and a computer is more than likely to have been used to send out the bills.

Computers are involved in ‘point of sale’ machines that price goods and arrange for stock replenishment. Payments are more often being made by credit cards which depend on computerised banking facilities to keep track of debts. Already there are computer links that allow a direct transaction from a person’s bank account to the supplier where a sale is made. Sooner or later most shopping will be able to be done from home, using television sets for the selection of purchases and the computer for the mechanism of buying. Money in the form of notes and coins will lose much of its present purpose and people will need to be vigilant to ensure that the funds transferred out of their account were correct.

Quite apart from the convenience, facilities such as these should bring down the merchants’ overheads and be of benefit to most. The danger lies in such systems becoming unduly dominant and thereby disadvantaging those who are unable easily to demonstrate their credit worthiness.

Those involved in sports will find that fixtures, matches and scores are being organised by computer systems. Already clubs make use of computers for keeping their membership records and mailing list and sending subscription notices. Participants in sports such as sailing and flying will depend on computers for advice on the best course and the optimum trimming for their craft. Is it possible that over-use of computers in leisure will reduce some of the fun? If a person has legal dealings then computers are involved. The lawyer will have an ‘Expert System’ to help him in his research, and uses a computer to produce his bill or look after trust account moneys. The Police and Justice Departments now link into their computer for all their information needs. If you have any reason to be stopped by police, they will have the use of a portable computer terminal to display any Police Department information held on you, on the spot. The same will apply for traffic officers.

If a person is handicapped then the computer will play a very important part in his or her support system. New Zealanders, in such organisations as the Technical Aids Trust, are already bringing computer technology to the service of the disabled. For the blind, the computer will be able to assist with such tasks as reading documents, and as a speaking typewriter. For the deaf, a computer system will translate the unheard words into text displayed on a computer terminal or television screen, while for others with partial disability it will provide greatly improved hearing aids even to the extent of using implants to by-pass defective parts of the nervous system. For those who are immobilised the computer will be able to act as arms and even legs and, for the severely disabled, provide the sole means of communication with the outside world. The computer will be a useful, untiring slave in many different forms.

For someone who wants to be involved in public affairs, the computer will prove a boon, whether it is an individual or a public body researching a case to be made on some issue, preparing submissions, organising fundraising, or mobilising public support. Computer and communication links will enable more participatory democracy by allowing popular views on any topic to be fed to the decision makers. The trend for open government will enable anyone to seek out public documents from a government data base computer using a private computer in the home. Computer software in the form of ‘expert systems’ will enable activists to do battle with technocrats on an equal footing.

There is another side to this that concerns some people. For ‘efficient’ govern­ment, each citizen can be numbered with a universal identifier and all personal records controlled and centralised by the state. This would make administration of all aspects of government much simpler and efficient, provided that the personal records accurately represent reality. Many feel that this dehumanises them. It would, of course, be a boon to any form of totalitarian government wishing to control and manipulate its citizens. People’s lives could be seriously affected by incorrect data kept in computer databases.

When the student leaves full time study and training to enter the work force, the chances are that he or she will immediately be introduced to the effect of computer technology. While in the past the computer was likely to be encountered only in the office environment, and even then only ‘second hand’ through the use of computer print-outs to obtain information and the use of coding forms to enter data, all this is now rapidly changing. In some organsiations the time has already arrived when it is just as usual to have a computer screen on the work desk, as it is to have a telephone.

The new recruit communicates with other staff — both in the same building and in different cities or countries — using electronic mail. Facilities now available allow many to choose between working at home or in the office, depending upon their own domestic, geographical and physical circumstances. While the possible ‘dehumanising’ of this type of working situation is a matter for some concern, the ability to choose the environment which best suits the individual should prevent this situation from seriously affecting the quality of life.

Managers now find that a vast amount of information is available, literally at their fingertips. No longer the tedious searching through vast stacks of paper files or the endless mechanical adding of long columns of figures. Business decisions of all types are made with the aid of computer models, instantly able to compute the effects of possible changes in financial circumstances or rates of sales.

Those involved in the typing of documents find themselves operating powerful computer systems. They have a new challenge in applying creativity to their jobs now that the drudgery of endless retypes, through error or a change of mind on the part of the author, has disappeared.

Engineers once crouched over their drawing boards, slide rule in hand, now sit before a computer screen and use a ‘mouse’ or ‘joystick’ to design buildings, roads, machines — virtually anything. As in the cases described above, the tedium is removed and the engineer can devote all available time to creative design work. A myriad of specially developed programs can be accessed through computer terminals to check stresses on beams or diameters of pipes or steam pressures in mere moments, saving weeks of manual calculations.

Sales staff on their rounds are able to collect orders using small handheld computers and, at the end of the day, quickly and accurately communicate these directly to the warehouse for speedy delivery. The system cuts down the paper work and gives the customer quicker delivery with fewer errors.

Moving into the factories we find the school leaver working with a vast array of computer systems in the production control area, monitoring the progress of manufactured goods and ensuring a steady supply of raw materials and labour to produce the end product. On the production line computer controlled machine tools drill, cut, press, weld, bend and even paint the finished product. Our new recruits soon find themselves programming and operating many of these very sophisticated systems. In the transport industry the worker is aided by the computer in scheduling deliveries, maintaining equipment and, in the case of shipping and aircraft, aiding navigation.

The application of computers provides its own career opportunity. Already New Zealand is gaining recognition as a potential supplier of software in the international market. New Zealand’s experience has been with more limited computing resources than elsewhere, so we have learned to make better use of the technology. We have had to become more skilled at integrating separate systems of computer application. These skills have become a very marketable product, to the extent that a number of software houses have sprung up around the country providing work opportunities for a large number of people, many of whom are involved in developing systems which are in demand overseas.

Young people are becoming involved in the technical side of the computer industry as engineers and in the service area. In these jobs they find themselves working closely with technology, not just in repair situations, but also using com­puters as diagnostic tools.

While one would expect those working in agriculture, horticulture and in fishing to be out of doors growing and harvesting nature’s output, there is a place for computers to help in primary industry. In the modern world primary industry must take a professional, business-like approach. This means that the computer will be there as one of the tools used by the industry. Farmers, endeavouring to expand or develop and requiring resources, will use a computer to formulate the funding and execution of their plans. The computer will be used to monitor output of such things as grass growth for grazing animals and hence enable better utilisation of the resource. Each animal will be tagged in such a way that each beast’s progress will be monitored and recorded. Stock weights will be taken more frequently with the computer system recording the data automatically. Culling of stock will be efficiently guided by the computer.

The computer will be used for the selection of plants and animals from which agricultural products are derived. In some cases the computer will take over work such as adjusting irrigation and growing climates by remote control. The computer will be able to give early warning of damaging meteorological situations such as frosts and even initiate countermeasures.

The computer will provide farmers with the best market information available. This means that the economic signals that are so important to the efficient allocation of resources in a free market can come into play. The farmer will be spending more time indoors managing the farm with the help of the computer. Farming will become an unsentimental sophisticated business activity, managed efficiently with the help of computer software.

Pressures on secondary industry from adverse economic changes have led industry leaders to search for ways of shielding themselves from these economic fluctuations. Automation, in the form of computer technology, has been fastened upon as a means by which escalating costs of labour may be held and the quality of the product improved, with the result that fewer rejects will provide an improvement in the base cost of the product itself. The drive for increased productivity has led to the introduction of computer technology throughout the whole range of manufacturing.

Production control systems explore the componentry of the individual items being produced, compare the requirements to current inventory, automatically order required materials and finally construct the production schedule. Problems with equipment and slippages are entered into the system as they are encountered. The system regroups the resources, issues instructions for reordering of materials or reallocation of equipment and produces an amended production schedule.

The availability of such a facility has a fundamental effect on the working environment of the organisation. Staff handling the production planning functions are able to use their creativity in using the computer as a tool, to reinforce their decision-making abilities and remove much of the stress arising from the necessity of processing a large volume of information and making many important decisions in a very short time.

The system also reduces the time during which production is held up, relieving stressful situations from the point of view of the workers on the production line, as well as keeping down the end cost of the product to the user.

Further down the production line we find the use of machine tools in almost every area. These machines range from simple computer-operated lathes and drills, to complex fabrication, welding and assembly tasks. The programming of this type of equipment is carried out in a number of ways. In some cases the machine supervisor uses a computer language to explain the requirements to the machine. In the newer systems, where the activity requires physical movement rather than complex and highly accurate machining (e.g. painting), the computer is able to learn the task by following the movements of the operator. This effectively puts the operator into the role of trainer rather than being limited to carrying out a monotonous recurring task.

Control of the quality of the item produced is often handled by a plethora of computerised measuring, testing, and weighing machines, reducing the incidence of dangerous and defective units delivered to the consuming public. Apart from the reduction in risk to the public, the improvement in overall quality reduces the stress factor to the consumer.

Finally packaging and distribution are often aided by computer systems, ensuring that the product gets rapidly to the consumer in good condition.

In the effort to shorten the time lag between initial conception of a product idea and the direct marketing of the finished item, manufacturers are turning to computer-aided design. This technique involves the use of a sophisticated computer program to simulate the finished product. Designs may be instantly altered and drawings produced in a fraction of the time needed under a purely manual system. Benefits to the consumer include a much wider selection of goods and a higher level of safety in the finished article.

The vast increase in consumer goods, with its attendant expansion of manu­facturing resources, is resulting in an equivalent expansion within the service industries. Under this category may also be considered the transport area as it strives to distribute goods and move more people around the country.

Looking firstly at maintainance and support areas we find that many companies are using computerised systems to provide better response to customer calls for service, by scheduling calls and tracking locations of support vehicles. Similarly there are now databases of technical product information which may be searched using the symptoms of the problems encountered. Computerised parts systems enable rapid access to stock held in any part of the country and even outside New Zealand. Databases of installed equipment enable rapid recall of equipment found to be defective in manufacture. The aim in all of these cases is an improvement in service to the customer and an increase in safety standards.

The computer industry itself, of course, is providing employment opportunities in the rapidly expanding world of computer support. It is impossible to predict the magnitude of this particular area of the service industry as the sophistication, reliability and reduction in size and cost of computer componentry is gradually leading to the situation of the ‘disposable computer’. How do we see these factors affecting the quality of life in this country? Firstly, the consumer having purchased more aids to assist with work and leisure, is assured of rapid service and response to calls. This knowledge, that support is at hand, reduced the frustrations caused by breakdowns when they occur.

That part of the transport industry involved in moving people around the world has made effective and spectacular use of computer technology. Travellers sit back relaxed in their aircraft seat secure in the knowledge that they are protected by a network of computers constantly monitoring the progress and status of the aircraft. Their tickets and seats have been reserved well ahead of time and any special requirements for their comfort noted and attended to. Onboard computers handle navigation using satellite locational data. These, combined with computerised radar systems checking ahead for bad weather conditions, assist the pilot to make appropriate course corrections. The flight engineer is constantly fed information by another set of on-board computers monitoring fuel-flow, temperature, airspeed, icing conditions, etc, ensuring that any slight malfunction will result in immediate detection and corrective action. On the ground computerised radar and locational systems follow the aircraft’s every movement, ensuring that the many thousands of aircraft moving around the world each day maintain safe distances from each other.

In order to ensure their customers’ comfort the airline uses many sophisticated computer systems to schedule flights, ensure supplies of food and drink, maintain the aircraft wherever it goes and even to train its staff. A large proportion of pilot training is carried out by flight simulators, incredibly complex and sophisticated computer systems which realistically produce, on the ground, every possible situation which might be encountered in the air. In short the airline passenger is probably the most computer-protected person in the world and the record is a good one. But here too the technology must be treated with care, as instanced by the ill-fated flight which crashed into Mt Erebus, at least in part due to over reliance on the on-board computer navigation system.

Computers are making their presence felt in the area of leisure activities. Even the smallest towns have a video entertainment centre, where a dazzling array of computer games test the ingenuity and dexterity of the nation’s young (and not so young). This fascination for competing with the computer is now being carried over into the home, where a great variety of home computers are being connected to the family television set and the battle with pacman and the space invaders joined. On a more serious and challenging level the computer can provide chess enthusiasts with a more competitive partner than they might ever encounter in real life.

For many years now computers have been used for keeping track of sporting results, records, participants etc. This type of leisure use of the computer is seen at its best in the computer-controlled complexities of the Olympic Games. The advent of teletext and videotex enables people to obtain information on the host of leisure-time activities available and even to reserve tickets from their living room. The computerised local public library will provide the facility for the rapid access to books from libraries throughout the country. Computers are undoubtedly changing and extending the lifestyle of the human race. The difference between this and previous occasions where new innovations have had an impact on our society, is the speed with which it is all taking place.

Comment by the Editor

The above contribution does, I believe, present a reasonably balanced picture of the impact electronic computer technology is having, and will have, on our community. It does not attempt to look too far into the future even if that were possible.

It is not hard to see that significant changes are going to be made in our lifestyle; some good, some the opposite. While the advance of computer technology in the workplace is beginning to have an overall effect on the number of jobs available in certain areas, especially offices and factories, the total effect is in part offset by the number of jobs created from within the computer industry itself. It is not that, at the moment, jobs are necessarily being lost but that new positions are not keeping pace with the increased amount of work being generated. In the long term it is likely, bearing in mind that the labour force is increasing, that the result will be an overall reduction in the ratio of jobs available to job seekers. Whichever way it goes, there can be little doubt that the increasing use of computers will mean a substantial decrease in the amount of time that the average person will spend engaged in the activity we now describe as ‘work’. One of the results could be an earlier retiring age but almost certainly the net effect will be that leisure activities will assume a far greater importance than hitherto.

Many people are concerned that the replacement of workers by machines will cause mass unemployment and the fact that there is already unemployment in the western world is not reassuring. The question they are asking is, ‘If most productive work is done by computerised machines, how will people gain an income with which to buy the goods the machines produce?’ Others fear that nuclear war could be triggered by too great a reliance on computer systems.

As far as the first point is concerned some of the answer must lie in changing our concept of what constitutes work. Many of our social services which rely heavily on voluntary labour could be improved by an increased, and paid, labour force. Again, the displaced ‘production’ workers could, given the opportunity, be found to be talented artists or skilled entertainers and be suitably rewarded for developing their talents. In the ultimate it could be that means other than work as we know it today, will need to be found to distribute the wealth of a nation.

Both here and in ensuring that we are not led into a nuclear holocaust or a world dominated by ‘Big Brother’, the solution will be found in maintaining our control of the technology. Among the favourite phrases to be found in old copy books drawn up by our Victorian forebears to improve both the calligraphy and wisdom of the young is one stating, ‘Fire is a good servant but a bad master’. How much more so does this apply to the power of the computer? Here is a great challenge and it is surely inconceivable that we shall not successfully meet it, even if the pressure is on and the pace faster than anything we have ever experienced before.