Engineering Paper on Impact of Computers on Society

  1. Introduction

The report analyzes the impact of the computer on the society focusing on its economic, political and social effects. In addition, the report discuses the impact of computer use on the health and wellbeing of the society and the environment. The opening section presents a brief history of the computer technology including its meaning and purpose.  The discussion of the economic effects focuses on organizational change and employment. The social impact section addresses the role of computers in social segregation, social inequalities and the digital divide. The section on political impact highlights the role of computers in the political process including political participation, political activism and the exercise of democratic rights. Finally, the effects of computers on health and environment are presented.

  1. Background

A computer is an electronic gadget that is programmed to accept and process data according to a given set of commands to yield feedback in the form of information. The use of the computer is called computing or information processing because the ultimate product of a computer is information (Hoganson 4). The computer’s value is mainly attached to its ability to process information faster than manual techniques, capacity to store large volumes of data without occupying much space as other materials such as paper, and its unquestionable accuracy. Many types of computing gadgets are now commonplace including supercomputers, digital audio and video devices, telephones and mobile phones.

The computer as it is known today is a product of a long process of evolution with each level corresponding to the needs of the society at that specific point in history. Although the computer is widely viewed as an invention of the 20th century, it has roots in the 17th century mechanical calculators used to perform navigational and other scientific calculations. These early computing technologies emerged to meet the needs of social movements such as the scientific revolution in Europe and international commerce. The first programmed machine, Jacquards’ Loom, was developed in 1801 in response to the need to automate weaving to enable profitable mass production in factories (Schneider and Gersting 18). The need for quick and complex computations rose in the 20th century following the advancement of engineering and scientific research applications. Electronic computers first came into use in the 1940s to meet the military and strategic planning needs of the Second World War (Edwards 2). Today, computers are used in nearly every aspect of society including communication, commerce, education, architecture, science, art, transportation and many others. The functions of the computer in the 21st century are either to organize, store and retrieve information or to coordinate the complex processes involved in the performance of automated tasks such as controlling aircrafts, printing and manufacturing.

  1. Socioeconomic Impact of the computer

Computers have had a tremendous influence on numerous aspects of the economy including the organization of the workplace, work itself, and the nature of workplace relationships. Initially, computers were used to automate a few tasks that had previously been performed manually such as scientific calculations (Edwards 2). The advent of general-purpose computers in the late 20th century led to the automation of most information processing tasks such as record keeping and payroll management. Tasks that mainly involve data entry such as accounting, payroll, banking, inventory and airline booking are now performed with much ease, accuracy and speed using the computer thus reducing labor costs for firms. However, the high cost of early generation computers led organizations to centralize their information processing tasks to minimize the use of computer resources and associated costs (Edwards 25). This meant that employees and departments that performed information-related tasks had to be pooled together to facilitate access to computer resources, which explains why most 20th century organizations had their main offices and computer resources under the same roof. The advancement of computer technology particularly the personal computer enabled organizations to decentralize their information processing activities cheaply. Personal computers were more affordable and dispersible than their earlier bulky counterparts. Coupled with the development of computer networking in the 1980s, personal computers enabled organizations to decentralize their informational processing activities (Edwards 25). Firms could now disperse their employees over a wider geographical area and still provide them with adequate computers to perform their tasks. Through networking, employees in remote locations could access information from other computers in distant locations within the network. Today, information processing using computers has become a significant part of an employee’s responsibilities.

Besides changing the workplace structure, computers have transformed work. The ability to control machines using computer programs led to the development of computer-aided manufacturing whose impact has been felt in car manufacturing and other engineering fields involving repetitive tasks. In addition, the service sector has grown rapidly thanks to computer technology and networking. In some countries such as the United States, service jobs have surpassed manufacturing jobs due to a combination of positive and negative effects of computing (Rao 14). Through automation of tasks initially performed manually, manufacturing jobs have declined. Layoffs, loss of value of certain specialized skills, and the constant need to learn new skills to survive in the manufacturing sector have led people to seek alternatives in the service sector. At the same time, computers have contributed to the expansion of the service market by creating new jobs and relocating existing jobs. Firms can now offer jobs to distant locations through networked computers if local labor is more expensive (Edwards 25). Furthermore, the traditional concept of work is changing as companies and individuals begin to appreciate telecommuting. Aspects of traditional work such as supervision through physical presence are disintegrating in the favor of accountability as more and more workers opt to work from home using their home computer and internet.

  1. Social Impact

The rapid computerization of service provision has been associated with the fear that humans will lose their interpersonal component or become dehumanized. Such fears abound in many service sectors such as healthcare and social services whereby interpersonal engagements are particularly needed, For example, computer-aided psychotherapy has been criticized for its fraudulent nature since it encourages humans and computers to interact as equals (Garson 8). Similarly, users of an online library may experience dehumanization if the option of interacting with a human librarian is not available. Furthermore, computerized patient monitoring and treatment equipments can cause the feeling of dehumanization in patients left under their care for hours without seeing a nurse (Detmer and Friedman 561). Moreover, the computerization of customer care services and essential transactions in industries such as banks and telecommunication has reduced opportunities for interpersonal interactions thus contributing to the fear of dehumanization. Such dehumanization is accompanied with the feeling of disempowerment especially for people who have limited computer skills because they may have to incur higher costs to obtain services from humans than from computers. For example, many banks charge higher fees for over-the-counter withdrawals than for ATM withdrawals to encourage people to use ATMs so that they can cut down the cost of hiring cashiers.

Apart from the fears of dehumanization, computerization has increased social segregation by enabling digital divide and expanding the dimensions of gender inequalities. Digital divide refers to the disparity in access to information caused by the lack of computers and related resources (Compaine 18). Although computer use and internet connectivity is rising throughout the world, many people especially those from low-income households are being left behind. Compaine reported that graduates and middle class households are more likely to have personal computers and internet connectivity than low-income and low education households (18). The disparity in access to computers has negative effects on people because it promotes poverty, low political participation and social inequality associated with lack of access to important information.

Concerning gender relations, computerization has widened gender imbalances by its construction as male through education and socialization systems. The stratification of computer work is gendered (Edwards 27). Women tend to find computer jobs that are of low pay and low skill such as data entry and computer assembly. As the skill levels rise, the participation of women in computer operations decline by more than 50% from the lowest to the highest skill set. Similarly, gender gaps in computer education increase with age and education level. Only about one third of bachelor’s degrees in computer science were conferred to women in the 1980s and the trend has not changed significantly (Edwards 28).

  1. Political Impact

The computer has shaped government action and political processes significantly. For example, the promise of military prowess that the electronic computer offered led the United States and other international political players to invest heavily in computer-aided military technology (Edwards 4). The United States created the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator (ENIAC) during World War II to ease the computation of ballistics tables and improve the effectiveness of antiaircraft and artillery warfare. During the same period, Colossus developed the first successful electronic device for military purposes, mainly for breaking German communication code systems and consequently enabling Britain to remain in the Allied offensive. These capabilities of a relatively new technology at the time triggered an overflow of interest and investment in computer technology by governments especially the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union. The Cold War conditions of the 1950s-1980s provided additional incentives for the use of computer technology to achieve military prowess. Generally, the political climate of the war-time and post-World War II characterized by the need for more sophisticated weapons created ideal conditions for the computerization of military tools. The computer remains an integral part of strategic military planning and equipment development. Missiles can now been guided to their destinations over long distances without the need for physical presence, thanks to computers and telecommunication technologies.

Another effect of computers on politics is enabling electronic voting and voter registration. The concept of electronic voting began in the 1970s upon the launching of a computer-aided interactive communication panel, Delphi, which enabled users to participate in discussions with other users, vote and view the results in real time (Griffin and Moorhead 256).  However, electronic voting did not become a reality until the 1990s when internet came into being. In 1996, more than 2000 voters used electronic voting system in a presidential election in the United States. Electronic voting has grown in popularity in recent years and soon it might replace the current paper based system. If properly implemented and with universal access, electronic voting can eliminate many barriers to political participation such as geographical barriers, travel costs to voting centers and time demands.

However, the reliability of electronic voting systems in ensuring free and fair elections has not been proven because of its vulnerability to hacking, power shortage, and manipulation of votes. In addition, majority of the public especially in developing countries has no access to computers and the internet, a problem identified as the digital divide. In contrast, those with the means—professionals and the wealthy are the most likely to have computers and the internet (Garson 2). With the rising importance of electronic media in political participation such as the use of social networking sites for political campaigns and civil mobilization, a large part of the population is being sidelined. Even if they can participate in political affairs through traditional ways, they still lag behind computer users in terms of information access, which limits the quality of their participation. Another problem is the issue of privacy, which is a constitutional right in many democracies. The use of computers for surveillance and storage of personal data has been considered a threat to personal privacy and security. With new cases of identity theft, hacking, fraud and other computer related crime, computer users are concerned about their safety and the security of their data. In healthcare, patients are concerned that their personal data can be viewed without their consent if it is available to anyone with access to their electronic medical records (Menachemi and Collum 51).

  1. Health and Wellbeing of the Society

Computers have affected the health and wellbeing of the society in indirect ways such as reducing medical errors and increasing efficiency in health care delivery.  The ongoing implementation of electronic medical records has been associated with intangible societal benefits including improving health care research by increasing the availability of data on treatment outcomes (Menachemi and Collum 49). Public health researchers are now able to obtain health data for specific populations, thus increasing their ability to develop evidence-based care programs. In addition, the use of computers and electronic medical records has increased job satisfaction in healthcare professionals by enabling them to accomplish strenuous repetitive tasks such as data entry and retrieval with much speed and ease. Job satisfaction is associated with better health care delivery, physician retention and improved prescribing behaviors.

However, computer use has been associated with numerous health risks especially to those who sit at the computer for long hours. Examples of such health risks include stress, eye problems, skin disorders and limb disorders (Shelly and Vermaat 7). Repetitive computer tasks such as typing are associated with upper limb disorders such as joint aches, muscular fatigue, and repetitive strain injury. However, the specific disease burden associated with computer use remains unknown since there has not been any illness particularly caused by computers. Nevertheless, computer users might be more vulnerable than the general population to stress, fatigue, and health issues associated with working at a computer without a break for more than four hours.

  1. Environmental Impact

The potential environmental impact of computers lies mainly in the disposal of obsolete machines and accessories. Large electronic wastes are created each time a major technology change occurs. For example, computer displays are no longer as bulky as they used to be 20 years ago, meaning that earlier models are becoming obsolete and generating electronic waste. The dangers of electronic waste to humans and the environment include metal poisoning, elevated cancer risk and the pollution of natural resources (Shelly and Vermaat 402). Computer waste contains high amounts of hazardous metals including mercury, antimony, lead, chromium, arsenic and cadmium. The dumping of computer wastes in landfills, a common practice in developing countries that lack effective recycling programs, represents a significant risk of exposure of humans and the environment to hazardous materials. Another environmental hazard related to computers is the contribution of computer manufacture to global warming by increasing green house gas loads (Langholz 61). Computer manufacturing is an energy-intensive process that requires burning large volumes of fossil fuels, thus releasing carbon IV oxide and other green house gases to the atmosphere. Although the percentage of greenhouse gases associated with computer production is unknown, the rapidly increasing production of computers and related devices represent a growing strain on energy resources and environmental safety.

  1. Conclusion

The benefits of the computer to the society outweigh its drawbacks. The computerization of tasks enables humans to perform strenuous repetitive tasks faster and more accurately, which saves time and increases productivity. Although people have lost jobs to computerization in manufacturing and other fields involving repetitive work, more jobs have been created in other sectors especially the service sector through computer and networking. The negative social effects associated with computer including dehumanization, digital divide, social segregation and social inequalities are not specific to computer. Instead, computer use simply reflects already existing social issues by adding a new dimension for their expression. Engineers should focus on minimizing the negative effects of computer by developing environmentally sustainable fuel sources for computer production and discovering effective ways of managing computer wastes.


Works Cited

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