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Social impact of

By Zeeshan M

It is inaccurate to talk in terms of social impacts of technology. Technologicaldevelopment and use happens within society, not outside of it. Technologies arethemselves shaped by social forces, as are the ways in which they are used andthe results of this use; social actors are not (or not all) passive recipients of influences from an apparently autonomous technology. Let us articulate anumber of fundamental elements of the society-technology relationship

General principles
Societies are complexes of social relationships among social groups (the latter composed of individuals and subgroups, related together through institutions andless formalized practices, as well as by factors such as biological relationships,propinquity, and shared experiences). Societies exist within a material, naturaluniverse, within which evolutionary processes have brought human beings intoexistence. Technologies are ways in which human beings work with the featuresof this universe to transform elements of the universe with which they are incontact our environments and health, the soil and crops, raw materials andartefacts, and the material phenomena (from smoke and ink to electrons andphotons) where data is stored and communicated. (Whether we should consider language and speech to be technologies, or the products of evolutionaryprocesses working on humans, is a difficult question.) Social relationships maybe mediated by, and transformed by, the use of technologies. Goods areexchanged; weapons are used; status is displayed through conspicuousconsumption of artefacts; tools are used to gain new resources; and so on

Technologies thus exist within societies, and there are ways in which we canthink about (particular sets of) technologies as constituting subsystems within thebroader social system. The technology-society relationship, in any case, is arelationship between a system and some of its components, rather than arelationship between two distinct systems. This may not always be the case, buthas been the overwhelmingly dominant state of affairs in human history to date.

Society and technological development

Certain social actors create new technological capabilities; they and other socialactors identify and attempt to build on opportunities to employ these capabilitiesto realise their goals; yet other social actors respond to these actions, makingtheir own assessment of how changing technological capabilities may be appliedin their interests. All of these social actors are behaving in the context of uneven access to resources and knowledge, in institutional structures facilitating variousforms of competition and collaboration. Technological change and the outcomesof this change are mutually produced within these social contexts.

Specific Issues around Information Technologies

New Information Technologies (ITs) are particularly interesting in terms of theevolution of technological capabilities. These capabilities involve thecircumstances (cost, size, speed, etc.) of technologies capable of creating/capturing data, transmitting/ communicating data, processing/ transforming data;storing data; displaying data and using information to actuate devices. The upshot of these trajectories of development is that (a) new IT is a complexevolving phenomenon, and it is important to examine how different capabilitiesmay be combined in concrete circumstances; (b) different generations of new ITmay imply such substantially different sets of capabilities that it is unwise togeneralise across these phases as if technology adoption in different phases willhave similar effects.

The uses of information vary considerably across societies. Farmers and fishersin remote communities may require all sorts of information and communicationcapacity to know about weather forecasts and the market prices for their products, to be able to communicate with suppliers, family members, emergencyservices, for example. Elderly people in large cities may be more concernedwith information about social facilities and high street prices, and communicatingwith remote family members and social welfare services. It is easy to constructstereotyped images such as these concerning the uses of information in work,entertainment, personal care, and social affairs, among different social groups.Some of these uses may merely improve the quality of life of individuals, byenabling them greater access to friends, entertainment, and health services, for example. Some of these uses may contribute to localised creation andaccumulation of wealth, for example by providing people with information oninvestments, educational opportunities, jobs, and the like. Perhaps the greatestreason for concern about digital divides is the possibility that uneven access tonew ITs can thus reinforce existing social inequalities

Society and Information Technologies

Different social groups also have different access to resources and knowledge,as noted. Beyond individual differences in terms of experience, social capital,and economic and other resources, there are structured variations across socialgroups. Although there is evidence to the effect that some of the classicdimensions characterising different social groups are becoming less significantthan in the past, these dimensions retain much of their power in correlating withsocial inequalities. They include: social class; ethnicity; gender; national,regional and urban/rural location; and age, among others; just setting out such alist immediately implies the diversity of forms of inequality in our societies.Inequality varies in many ways, for example in terms of its intensity, its long-termtrends, which particular resources are unevenly distributed, the mechanisms thatgenerate inequality, and so on.

1. New IT is associated with continual creation of a wide range of newtechnological capabilities, which offer scope for new or improved applicationswith the potential of meeting a wide range of social interests. What is the most useful way of classifying and describing, on the onehand, technological capabilities, and on the other hand, social interests?How readily can the two be mapped on to each other (along the lines of alogic which might be presented in either direction such as: social needs for X are potentially met in improved ways by systems A, B, C,which are based on improved technological capabilities alpha, beta,gamma)

2. Different social groups, varying in terms of resources and quality of life (aswell as other characteristics), vary in terms of capabilities to assess the suitabilityof new IT for achieving their goals and needs, and of ways of accessing andemploying the new technological potentials. What are the most useful ways of delineating distinct social groups andidentifying on the one hand their advantages/disadvantages and major quality of life issues, and on the other their degrees of access toknowledge of new technologies and to these technologies themselves?How readily can the two be mapped on to each other (along the lines of alogic such as: social group I has potentially unmet needs for quality of lifeimprovements in X, Y, Z, but their access to and awareness of systems A,B, C is constrained by social characteristics i, ii, iii )?

3. The two points above give the bones of a first-order assessmentof technology adoption and use. However, there are second-orderissues to bear in mind, in that the adoption of new technology by onegroup may well influence the behaviour of another group providingdemonstrators and role models, or creating competition and disruptiveinterventions into the latter groups circumstances. What are the most useful ways of examining the role of evolvingtechnologies in intergroup relationships (collaboration, competition, andbeyond)? Short of building an elaborate model of all existing groups andtheir relationships, what can be said about the typical relationships thatexist between social groups of various kinds, and the ways in which newtechnologies may be used to reinforce transform these relationships?(along the lines of a logic such as: social groups I and II are in large part defined by their relationships around specific axes such as working relations, occupation of territory, possession of wealth, control of cultural apparatus, and so on; such relationships are characterized by a definableset of informational activities, and new IT can be employed to shape theseactivities in a variety of ways) These three points are not exhaustive, but together they should provide a fruitfuland rigorous way of examining what have been termed the social impacts of Information Technology. It will be important to develop the analysis bearing inmind that we can consider various stages and locations in the invention andexploitation, and the diffusion, implementation and reinvention of technologies in all of these points some of the range of social relations outlined above willcome into play.