Mixed Blessings: A Perspective on the Coming Computer Age


This article originally appeared in Issue# 22

The "Information Age" is dawning. We all know it, we see it around us in new products and services which come on the market almost daily.

To the average consumer, this might appear to be a helter-skelter evolution of new hardware gadgets for the home, all based on miniaturized integrated circuits.

There are computer "chips" in our toasters, cars, shavers, calculators, microwave ovens, radios, clocks, and in some of our television sets. Computer power of a proportion unthinkable even ten years ago is thus already in millions of homes.

Institutions in the vanguard of this new age know that the diffusion of telematic hardware into the home is not helter-skelter, but is instead a process which moves toward integration of nearly all information, entertainment, and household management technologies into one or a very few service networks, to be accessed by terminals in the home.

These networks in turn will be managed by central "switches," which are actually a series of central processing units, or mega-computers working in concert with one another as a grid, to bring the fruits of the 'Information Age" to our fingertips.

We have all heard of the services which are to be managed by these merged technologies. Telephone, telex, entertainment television, banking, shopping, home security, decentralized training, electronic mail, teleconferencing, data processing, and personal computer software will all be parts of the electronic age in the home.

Already we are hearing voices around us touting the wonders these developments will bring. The new "electronic highway" into the home is said to carry with it untold opportunities and challenges. However, a note of caution may be appropriate. Most of the futuring we have seen so far has concentrated on the wrong questions. The visionaries of the electronic age have tended to only look at what it is possible for the new Age of Information to bring to us, not what the probable outcomes will be in a larger social or moral sense.

It is not the discrete patterns of marketing and consumer acceptance of various services, "program content' or "software" which deserve our greatest attention. I am enough of a Chicago-school student of economics to believe that the market can be left to determine what is best for given felt needs, provided the market is properly organized and managed. That deserves far greater attention is the area of network-grid configuration, management and control. It is not that we should not be interested in what sorts of services might evolve, It is just that ignoring more basic, underlying dynamics undermines the critical value of our plans and projections.

We should remember that technology is not just "hardware." It cannot be removed from its social context or consequences. A given piece of equipment is never "neutral," but always carries with it assumptions regarding its use and its effects.


"In these new communication systems, it is not technical skills and feasibility, but skills of social organization which are most demanded and least evident."
Robert F. Cramer

A printing press is never just a printing press. It is placed in a certain location, used in a certain way, and destroyed or modified for certain reasons.

Communication technology is particularly far from neutral because the very act of communication is an act of ordering or regulating.


Not much thought has been given to the social implications of the services of the new age.

Technological change is also unlikely to provide any panaceas for currently-perceived social ills. The popular fantasy of a more democratic, decentralized future based on new "wonder grids" is just that, a fantasy.

Communication-technological innovation is introduced to meet the needs and wants of preexisting authorities who have the power to introduce it, and it acts to extend, not undermine, that power. When the new computer is installed at Spacely Sprocket Company, Chief Executive Officer Spacely is not about to let it override the power relationships which exist there.

Communication is above all else order, and communication innovations support regulation and order, rather than freedom and flexibility in such situations.

In addition, for the diffusion of these innovations to meet the economic goals of their sponsors, they must be made palatable and accessible to intended recipients. It is not the case that innovations must be made maximally advantageous to intended recipients' own felt needs and wants, only that they be made as palatable as is possible within the limits established by the purposes of their providers and managers.

Already, Direct Broadcast Service marketers are plotting to use the "modified Trojan Horse" technique to market their home terminal equipment. That means that their strategy is selling viewers an attractive device (which brings them more and "better" entertainment television) while other potential services are hidden within it.

Accessibility is also a great problem. Here I mean the problem of "human-interface complexity," not the thornier ethical question of the "information poor" households who may be left out of the "Information Age" altogether.

In even so technologically-advanced a society as ours, appliance dealers report that an astonishingly high percentage of their first-service calls are instances where the device is simply unplugged!

This "human-interface" dilemma will naturally place more control than ever in the hands of network managers and less in the home. To be sure, early owners of home computers will be quite able to command a certain measure of power over their use of these devices.

However, the marketing of informatic technologies to more and more unsophisticated households further along the "diffusion curve" will be accomplished through simplification of their controls, and increased centralized management and control by interests outside the home. Thus, as the Age unfolds, home terminal devices will become less complex rather than more.

Often-stated projections that "…schools will need to provide training..." or that "... children of the video age are already more sophisticated than their elders..." may turn out to be true. I would suspect that the schools cannot be counted -on to make up this gap in knowledge, and that children today do know more about Pac-Man than their parents.


The popular fantasy of a more democratic, decentralized future is just that, a fantasy.

But interface with computer software of any complexity would benefit more from acquaintance with a McGuffrey's Reader than with Space Invaders. In other words, you have to speak, read, write, and understand the English language at a certain level in order to control software effectively.

Moving to another level, it appears that spectrum allocation and management, which has been the basic economic and policy dynamic underlying broadcasting, will also vex the "Information Age."

Just because there will be 130 channels of cable service into my home does not mean that the problem of scarcity, which has dominated broadcasting policy debate to this day, will go away. Those 130 channels will all be provided by one company, and with current cable regulations that company must answer only to itself for how it allocates them.


We should remember that technology is not just 'hardware.' It cannot be removed from its social context or consequences.

It is clear that most cable companies wish' to provide as much of the programming service as possible themselves, thus retaining the income. The cable industry has made its wishes in this area clear by opposing any moves to common carrier status for cable, where cable operators would have little or no control over content and services.

We may also see scarcity operating in computer-managed alphanumeric services, the descendents of today's videotext technologies. Most current projections see three parties involved in those systems: system owners, who will build, install, and manage the system; Information Providers (I.P.'s) who "program" various services; and the users, who will access various I.P. data bases for a fee.

Scarcity here will be introduced as a dynamic by the user, instead of by the physical limitations of spectrum. A subscriber, or group of subscribers, have only so much time, money and interest available. What has proven to be the unlimited raw material of broadcasting — audience attention — will finally become a scarce resource by the year 2000.

Those I.P.'s will survive who can maximize their circulation and hold their prices down. The pressures will be, as in network broadcasting, for fewer, larger providers to rule, as opposed to more, smaller ones. And, as there will be no limitation on I.P.'s also being system owners, a few large Information Providers will evolve.

The pressure toward maximal centralized management will also stem from users' natural tendency to spend less time managing their own interface with the system and leave management control to central authorities.

The question of user vs. central control should be a concern to us as we think about which services will be offered by the planned networks. "Working at home" may be a major application, but probably more prevalent will be the banking and marketing services offered. There is the potential for nearly every aspect of our private lives to be interfaced through these systems.

Very little relevant information about each of us would be lost if we were to tabulate only where, when, how, and why we spend our money. Thus the management of Electronic Funds Transfer systems, the basis of "home banking" and "home shopping" in the Age of Informatics, presents a potential threat to privacy.


"The novel institution and expanded technical bases of the new media make it easy for fundamental rights to be snatched aaway on technical grounds (which may be secondary and temporary) or in the name of some social right or principle which may be wrongfully understood or simply false."

Will the ultimate manager of the network be capable of handling the polling, marketing, banking and working from home? Will the AT&T-Westinghouse-RCA-Warner-Amex-Exxon-IBM Home Data Services Corporation which will evolve be sensitive to the nonbusiness "sector" of their intervention in our homes? Will there be psychologists, political scientists, ethicists, theologians, on staff?

I fear, and recent studies have found, that no such plans exist, and that, in fact, not much thought has been given to the social implications of the services of the new age.

It should be clear from these cautions that we must not devote the majority of our time to the consideration of the wondrous services offered by the new age, unless we are also prepared to consider in some detail the implications of the new system's management and control.

There are certainly many issues besides the ones I have raised here to which we should pay close attention as well. Otherwise, we may find ourselves to have been merely lowering our own resistance thresholds to "human-interface complexity" while legions hide in our terminal equipment.

Author Bio: 

Stewart Hoover is a professor of Media Studies and Religious Studies at the University of Colorado/Boulder, where he directs the Center for Media, Religion and Culture, and has been a board member of the Center for Media and Values.