Social Implications of the Computer Revolution. Advantages and Disadvantages

Autore:Vittorio Frosini

1. Marconi's invention and the dawn of the information age - 2. The computer and the information society - 3. The artificial man and the computer civilization - 4. The State as an enterprise and administrative automation - 5. Towards the factory of the future without human resources - 6. New labour relations in the office and the factory - 7. Company directors and Information technology - 8.... (visualizza il riepilogo completo)


    Paper presented at the Conference held on 19th May 1987 at the Centre for Commercial Law Studies of Queen Mary College, University of London.

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@1. Marconi's invention and the dawn of the information age

Two events of singular chronological importance occurred at the end of the last century and at the beginning of this century, which were destined to become emblematic as the historical link between two different epochs in human civilization. The former of these events was the first radio news service transmitted by Guglielmo Marconi between 20 and 22 July, 1898 from the coast of Ireland during the yacht races sponsored by the Royal Yatch Club. Thanks to the radio link, the ´Daily Expressª of Dublin was able to publish an account of the race even before the yachts had come back into port.Page 180 The latter event, to which we refer, occurred on 12 December 1901 and once again Marconi was the protagonist. On that date he received a radio message, whilst on the island of Newfoundland, off the coast of Canada, transmitted across the Atlantic from the Poldhu Station in Cornwall1.

A new century had begun and with it a new epoch in the history of mankind. Let us briefly reflect on the significance of these two events. Firstly, they marked a real turning-point in human communications when information comes to be seen as an accumulation and transmission of experience which is acquired and organized in a symbolic system. Information, up until then, had as its constant feature been linked with, or indeed incorporated in, a sentient phenomenon: the human voice, visual and acustic signals, and the written word. The use of electromagnetic waves gave the message the ethereal character and rapidity of human thought; across seas and oceans, until the limits of space disappeared and time was cancelled as communications became instantaneous at any distance. Secondly, communications always took place previously between one point and another, between one person and another, between the transmitter and the receiver, and were therefore linear (even along the telephone lines which already utilized electric impulses). From then on, it became widespread, radiating and omnicentric2. And, thirdly, by crossing the ocean and establishing contacts between people living at the antipodes one from the other, information became planetary, spreading throughout the word and common to all men.

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@2. The computer and the information society

Marconi, by opening the gates of heaven to information, indicated the direction the new century would take until reaching the information society of today, where information is the primary characteristic of society and this is information received, processed and transmitted by computer which can more accurately be called an electronic informant. It should, in fact, be noted that the computer can no longer be merely considered, as it was at the beginning, as a calculating machine since it has become, according to Herbert Simon's definition, a physical symbol system3, or, in other words, a physical machine capable, however, of producing, modifying and combining symbols which carry out logical processes in the same way as the human mind. Starting off from increasingly complex mathematical calculations, informatics has now, after entering the realm of human intelligence, reached the stage of the artificial intelligence of expert systems, that is, at the era of computers capable of acquiring experience in order to modify their own functions. The most famous example is still that of the automated chess player who adapts to his opponent's strategy up to the point where he completely imitates it. However, this is also a serious limitation because, although the computer has an incredible capacity to imitate, it does not have the creative power of the human mind. It has, therefore, been defined as a simia hominis4 but it would be better to describe it as a simia hominis intellectus.

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The information society is, therefore, a society which gains information through information retrieval systems or, in other words, through informatics and telematics. We have utilized two neologisms (although they can no longer be considered as such due to their common use in technological language) coined by Simon Nora and Alain Minc in their report on ´the information societyª presented in 1978 to Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who was, at that time, President of the French Republic5. The two key terms of the most advanced sociological research are ´information technologyª and ´telematicsª on which the critical essay of the two French writers was based and which became rapidly and justifiably successful because it identified the new nature of informatics. This was represented by its growth from a technique for making scientific calculations restricted to a small circle of experts, if not only to the initiated, to a social reality in which people from industrially advanced societies took part.

@3. The artificial man and the computer civilization

What we are discussing is the computerization of society, not meaning of every kind of society but of human society as a whole. Indeed, the historical evolution of a new society is different not only in the social conventions preceding it throughout the ages, but also differs from other co-existing societies or from societies called the Third World (an analogy with the Third Estate, analysed in the famous pamphlet of E. J. SieyËs published in 1788) which are commonly known today as ´developing countriesª.

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The new technological society which has at its disposal computers, artificial intelligence, artificial satellites and atomic energy (defined as ´the artificial sunª due to its heat) is a society where man has undergone a radical transformation, or, in other words, an actual anthropological mutation. Man has become an ´artificial manª6: he can be conceived in a test tube, his genetic characteristics can be altered, he lives in a largely artificial environment to the point of being able to reach the astronaut's lack of gravity and, alas, dies more and more frequently of unnatural causes from a car accident to poisoning from toxic gases escaping from a nuclear power plant. Even the society in which he lives out his existence, which is increasingly less subjected to the laws of nature, is a profoundly different society in its relationships, and therefore, in its very structure, from its forerunners.

Not only that but an advanced industrialized society is a society composed of men and machines, just as primitive societies were made up of men and animals, blended in a living symbiosis. Man in earlier societies could not live without a horse for covering the long distances involved in following his prey, without a dog for going hunting and for protecting his flocks, without a bullock for breaking the hard earth nor without sheep for providing him with woollen clothing. Likewise, it is impossible to imagine modern man living in big cities without electricity, cars, lifts, refrigerators, to mention only a few of the consumer goods essential to daily life although we could add a great many more which are not less indispensable for comfortable living. Today's advancing society, regarded as still being open to future development, will be marked by progressive and irreversible involvement with artificial intelligence: from its simplest forms, such as electronic credit cards orPage 184 identity cards which everybody needs to have containing a microprocessor and an electronic file7 to its most complex forms encompassed by telematics.

@4. The state as an enterprise and administrative automation

The material way in which it produces and consumes is not the only change society has undergone. It has also changed its ideological image in as far as it has changed its structure or, in other words, the internal order of relationships within it. The transformation, whilst underway, was brilliantly analysed by Max Weber8, who identified the physiognomical features of this new society as the rationalization of collective behaviour and bureaucratization both of which were already evident by the beginning of the century.

With the advent of computers came Norbert Wiener's new concept of cybernetics as ´the science of control and communication in animals and machinesª, in which models were proposed by him (in 1950) as general interpretative schemata for application to social structures. This genial hermeneutic hypothesis, which threw new light on the social structures of the technological age, was subsequently picked up and built on by other authors, such as Karl Deutsch in his book The Nerves of Government (published in 1963) in which the State is considered and interpreted according to a cybernetic model for the processing of data about information, communication and decision-making in political behaviour9.

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The idea, advanced a quarter of a century ago, of considering the modern State as an information system, has undergone an interesting evolution: as the idea has progressively been converted into a factual process, the interpretative hypothesis has become a reality or, to put it another way, social reality has increasingly adapted to the hypothesis that had previously been formulated.

The concept that the public apparatus is a self-regulating information retrieval system coincided with the automation of the public administration thanks to the spread of automated systems which have created a new form of administrative organization. Reliance could, therefore, no longer be placed on the traditional image of the State portrayed as a living organism by ancient philosophers who were the forefathers of a tradition which continued up until the time of the positivists in the latter part of the nineteenth century: that is, the State as a Leviathan, according to Thomas Hobbes, its best known exponent. Today, instead, the State is seen as an enterprise: Henry de...

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