Enter the maze

So What's the Problem? The Impact of Computers

By Adrian Frisicaro, Tony Crisp and Mick Meehan

This article is an edited version of an essays written for the Queen Mary, University of London, Department of Computer Science, first year Computers and Society module.

Since the advent of the microprocessor by Intel in 1971, electronic computers have made their way into more areas of our everyday life. It is now unlikely that most people in the developed world will get through a day without some use of a computer. So what are the impacts of this technological revolution which benefits and detriments our society?

A girl studying with a laptop against lockers

From Baboon to Babbage

Since the dawn of civilization (and even before!) we have used machines to help us process and organise data. The Lebombo Bone, found in a cave in Swaziland, dates back to 35 000 BC and is a baboon's fibula with 29 distinct notches thought to be early man's record of kills. During the industrial revolution mathematicians started using mechanical devices to calculate difficult or repetitive equations. Perhaps the most noteworthy of these were the Jacquard's Loom in the 1830's which was a machine that could be 'programmed' to weave different designs (though not technically a computer in today's sense of the word), and Charles Babbage's (1791 - 1871) difference and analytical engines, though these were only completed over a century later in an effort to see if the designs would actually work. They did and can now be seen in the Science Museum in Kensington. With the advent of electricity and the ever decreasing cost of components these machines became much more powerful. First we had electromechanical machines, then valve powered machines, then machines using transistors. Now we use silicon microprocessors. In the future we may even have machines based on DNA, the coding material all organic life uses to store the information of how to grow.

Today I have more than three times that number in my home alone!

As computers are now small, cheap and powerful they are found in almost all areas of modern life. My fridge uses a computer to regulate the temperature, my car uses a computer to constantly tune the engine and control the anti-locking breaking system. In work, an ever larger number of us use personal computers in our day-to-day tasks. In communications telephone exchanges are now computer controlled and mobile phones have quite sophisticated processors in them. In British schools all children use computers. Not so long ago this article would have been hand written or typed on a typewriter; I am writing it using word processor on a personal computer. In 1977 Ken Olson founder of Digital Equipment Corp said, "There is no reason anybody would want a computer in their home". In 1943 Thomas Watson the then chairman of IBM said, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers". Today I have more than three times that number in my home alone!

So what are the advantages and disadvantages of computers?

Knowledge is Power

Computers have made the dissemination of knowledge easier. Computers connected to networks have made access to knowledge via applications such as web browsers and search engines as easy as clicking a mouse button. Never before in history has so much knowledge been available to people. The Internet has enabled knowledge in the form of databases, webpage's and blogs to be connected online and then accessed by anyone who has a connection to the Internet.

Quoting Sir Francis Bacon "Knowledge is Power". That knowledge and power used to be only available to the educated and the rich, but with the increasing scope of the internet the sum of all human knowledge is gradually being posted online and the barriers to accessing that knowledge are gradually coming down. All that is needed to access the data is a connection to the Internet and the ability to use a search engine and/or browser. Open distance learning is a very good example of knowledge being made available online for access by the course students. Students can access this data anywhere they are as long as they can plug into an Internet connection. The power inherent in knowledge is also allowing people to do comparisons between different vendors online to get the best price for a particular product or service. So for example we can go online and find the cheapest flight to New York. Unfortunately this freedom to access knowledge via computers and networks does have down sides. People can post the instructions for bomb making online and terrorists and criminals, to communicate via the Internet, can use strong encryption.

Moore's Law

Gordon Moore was a co-founder of Intel, and he stated that processing power will double every eighteen months. So far, since he made that statement, it has broadly held true. What this means in practice for the ordinary person is the street is that when he or she buys a computer it will probably be superseded in a year by a new model that will have more processing power and may even be cheaper than the original computer.

What does all this mean for society? As processors get smaller and more powerful will this mean that mobile phones will usurp the position now held by PC's? Already mobile phones are beginning to merge with digital cameras and MP3 music players, with the advance in data storage as well as processing power, phones could be as powerful as current PC's within the next ten years.

If this merger of mobile devices and current desktop processing power does happen, will this mean that it will be easier for people in developing countries to have access to that power and access to the internet too? If everyone in the world has access to one of these devices what are the chances of a new Einstein emerging with a theory as groundbreaking as special relativity?

In a recent edition of the BBC programme "Horizon" the theme of the programme was the vast increase in computer processing power we will see in the next fifty years and whether this will precipitate computers that will be more intelligent than humans. The programme asks what impact this will have on the human race. It essentially presented two points of view, one which says this increase in computing power will be a good thing for the human race and a second point of view that argues that the human race will be destroyed by this advance in computing power. Given that Moore's Law has so far be proved correct we may well be facing these dilemmas in fifty years time.

Talk, Talk

Computers over the years have helped shape the way industry communicates by making communication faster and cheaper. 10 years ago the fax was a prime means of communication in business. Now computers can fax electronic documents, or use email to replace the fax. The obvious advantage of email is the ability to transmit electronic data almost instantaneously to many places at once all over the world. This is a vast saving to businesses. This ability to transmit data means that there has been a boom in people working from remote locations. No longer is your workforce tied down to an office. You now have the ability to obtain resource from around the world, to do business with other companies from all over the world. Email has increased trade from different countries and is a major benefit to today's economic markets. Recently email has started to be replaced by Instant Messages (IM). This is faster still than email, allowing real time conversations via computers.

Where's the fun?

Computer games have been used for entertainment purposes for over 30 years with games like Pong in 1972, to Doom III on current PC's. However, lately the computer has undergone a major overhaul in the entertainment arena. Computers can now be used to hold all your media such as music, video's and pictures or recorded TV. With carefully crafted interfaces, (Microsoft's media center being one of the most popular) computers are becoming a common sight under peoples' TVs. Gone are the bulky desktop cases, instead replaced by sleek looking DVD styled cases. You can hold all your music in one place in an electronic format, no longer requiring CD's. New music can be downloaded from the Internet for a fraction of the price of buying an album in a shop. TV can be recorded to the hard disc: no need to spend 10 minutes trying to program your VCR, only to find you missed the program as it was delayed. EPG (electronic program guides) know when a program has been delayed and adjust recordings accordingly. You have a large menu that organises your recorded programs, no more fast-forwarding through tapes! You can pause TV, make a cup of tea and go back to watching the TV. Pictures from your digital camera can be stored and displayed on your TV for all to see.

Today the possibilities are endless but it is safe to say that computers are improving our entertainment experience.

So What's the problem?

Scrap circuits

As computers become more and more prevalent in business it is leading to people being deskilled. Computers do more and more for us. Many examples of this are present in today's society. An airline pilot spends most of the flight watching a computer fly the plane. In industry, many jobs consist of people pushing the buttons that start the machinery, which is controlled by computers. Even in its most basic form (a calculator) we have de-skilled ourselves. Once we performed arithmetic ourselves! If it was not for my spell checker, the chances are this would have been spelt incorrectly! In our head or on paper, now we push buttons and expect to be handed the answer. How long will it be before we develop more sophisticated computer systems that will make the decisions for us too?

How Green is that?

Computers affect the environment in several ways. Firstly they are a major source of energy consumption. Whole buildings are full of desks running computers day and night, causing a major drain on our natural resources. But new computers become outdated quickly (see Moore's Law above). Manufacturers are developing hardware at such a vast rate that people feel the need to upgrade. Often the upgrade is required to use the latest software that needs 2 gigs of memory to run. But what happens to the old hardware? It's obsolete. There are a lot of harmful substances that make up a modern computer, and these should, but are not always disposed of correctly. Many end up in landfills.

As if that's not enough, not only do computers contribute to global warming by consuming vast quantities of energy, not only do they contribute to the non bio-degradable waste, but they also contribute to the ever increasing health problems in the world. More and more people spend more and more time sitting in front of the computer. Working, emailing, or playing games. From a young age our children are encouraged to sit quietly in front of the TV, or play a computer game rather than go outside and participate in some physical activity. Kids play football on their computer, not in fields. By the time they grow up and get a job, they are so indoctrinated into the computer lifestyle they continue to spend hours still in front of the PC watching TV, playing games or working.

Who's watching you

Camera watching

With the advent of the broadband ADSL connections security of PC's has become an important issue. ADSL connections to the internet, while allowing a richer user experience, has conversely made unprotected PC's highly vulnerable to viruses, worms, Trojans, spy ware, key loggers, phishing scams and the rest. A whole new software industry has sprung up to provide us with programs that will protect our PC's when connected to the Internet. PC users have to make sure when connecting to the Internet that they have fully protected their machines with antivirus/antispyware software, firewalls, operating system updates and have to be constantly vigilant for new exploits that may compromise their machines when connected. Alongside the security issues that a connection to the Internet will raise are associated privacy issues.

Whether it be filling in tax returns on line, or accessing your bank accounts via an ADSL connection, the amount of data that is held by various government departments and private companies about individuals is growing daily. Along with this data comes a myriad of privacy issues. Who should have access to this data? How long should they have access to the data? Is the data accurate? Should companies be able to exchange data on individuals? Can data on individuals be passed to companies in other countries for processing? Have other countries stringent data protection laws? Even if a person has never used the Internet, there will still be a large amount of data that exists about them that has been collected since their birth, from sources such as the electoral register, medical records, social security information, HR files, telephone directory, credit agency reports, and more.

With the arrival of the broadband digital age, the widespread use of databases by companies and governments, security and privacy issues have meant that individuals must educate themselves on the dangers that are inherent when connecting to the Internet. They must also be aware of how data they provide about themselves can potentially be used. There is of course an equally valid argument that government should be introducing legislation that protects the individual from these dangers and risks.

The Digital Divide

They are already using ICT when they make a phone call

The phrase "Digital Divide" has been attributed to ex-vice president Al Gore although there are others who lay claim to it too. The coming of the computer and Internet age has passed by some sections of society, in particular older people, poorer people, people with disabilities and people who may not be able to access technologies such as the internet because of geographical or economic/political location i.e. third world countries. There are also people who do not fit into the categories quoted above, these people may not be old, poor or live in geographically remote places but just do not make use of the new digital technologies. Do these people realise that they are already using Information Communication Technology (ICT) when they make a phone call with their mobile phone. There is no escape from ICT!

The digital divide does not just refer to access or lack of it to the Internet. It also refers to the divide between people who have ICT knowledge and those who do not. This knowledge is usually a prerequisite to using the Internet. How do people with no ICT knowledge get up to speed with using a computer and accessing the Internet? Government sponsored ICT courses are one way to start bridging the divide. People who are new to ICT, like the older generation, have first to understand the interaction between a human and a computer. Can programmers simplify the Human Computer Interface so that it is not in itself a barrier to using ICT? How will this gap be bridged? Should we put our trust in the market to close the digital divide? After all it's in the interests of computer hardware, software manufacturers and Internet service providers (ISP's) to get people using their products so that they can make a profit. Or should the state intervene and supply training and hardware so everyone has an opportunity to "get online". Is it a right that everyone should have access to a computer and the Internet? Ideas have been floated that would give everyone a PC or every child in the third world a laptop like the $100 "one laptop per child" scheme proposed by Nicholas Negroponte, which uses windup technology to get round the lack of power in third world countries.


Computer technology is pervasive throughout our modern lives. We have always looked for ways to improve our lives through new technology, but this improvement comes at a cost. All technology is morally neutral, and this is just as true of computer technology. It is the use to which we put this technology to that dictates whether it is beneficial to society or not. Many people would argue that now the genie is out of the bottle, we can't put it back, and we have become so reliant and used to computers that we would find it hard to do without them. Others (for example the Amish community) argue they can do very well without them. It is widely accepted that computers have improved our lives in some ways, whilst caused problems in others. The question is where does the balance lie? We personally believe the good points outweigh the bad quite considerably at the moment. However, if for instance we consider an Orwellesque 1984 future where 'big brother' uses computers to keep control, and the advantages of computers were removed from the masses this obviously would no longer be the case.