Quality of Life: Equity, Access, and Boundaries

The negative social costs of introducing information technologies and systems are beginning to mount along with the power of the technology. Many of these negative social consequences are not violations of individual rights or property crimes. Nevertheless, they can be extremely harmful to individuals, societies, and political institutions. Computers and information technologies potentially can destroy valuable elements of our culture and society even while they bring us benefits. If there is a balance of good and bad consequences of using infor­mation systems, whom do we hold responsible for the bad consequences? Next, we briefly examine some of the negative social consequences of systems, con­sidering individual, social, and political responses.

1. Balancing Power: Center Versus Periphery

An early fear of the computer age was that huge, centralized mainframe com­puters would centralize power in the nation’s capital, resulting in a Big Brother society, as was suggested in George Orwell’s novel 1984. The shift toward highly decentralized client-server computing, coupled with an ideology of empower­ment of Twitter and social media users, and the decentralization of decision making to lower organizational levels, until recently reduced the fears of power centralization in government institutions. Yet much of the empowerment de­scribed in popular business magazines is trivial. Lower-level employees may be empowered to make minor decisions, but the key policy decisions can be as centralized as in the past. At the same time, corporate Internet behemoths such as Google, Apple, Yahoo, Amazon, and Microsoft have come to dominate the collection and analysis of personal private information of all citizens. Since the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, the fed­eral government has greatly expanded its use of this private sector information under the authority of the Patriot Act of 2001, and subsequent and secret execu­tive orders. In this sense, the power of information has become more central­ized in the hands of a few private oligopolies and large government agencies.

2. Rapidity of Change: Reduced Response Time to Competition

Information systems have helped to create much more efficient national and international markets. Today’s rapid-moving global marketplace has reduced the normal social buffers that permitted businesses many years to adjust to competition. Time-based competition has an ugly side; the business you work for may not have enough time to respond to global competitors and may be wiped out in a year along with your job. We stand the risk of developing a just­in-time society with just-in-time jobs and just-in-time workplaces, families, and vacations. One impact of Uber and other on-demand services firms is to create just-in-time jobs with no benefits or insurance for employees.

3. Maintaining Boundaries: Family, Work, and Leisure

The danger of ubiquitous computing, telecommuting, nomad computing, mo­bile computing, and the do-anything-anywhere computing environment is that it is actually coming true. The traditional boundaries that separate work from family and just plain leisure have been weakened.

Although writers have traditionally worked just about anywhere, the advent of information systems, coupled with the growth of knowledge-work occupations, means that more and more people are working when traditionally they would have been playing or communicating with family and friends. The work um­brella now extends far beyond the eight-hour day into commuting time, vacation time, and leisure time. The explosive growth and use of smartphones have only heightened the sense of many employees that they are never away from work.

Even leisure time spent on the computer threatens these close social rela­tionships. Extensive Internet and cell phone use, even for entertainment or recreational purposes, takes people away from their family and friends. Among middle school and teenage children, it can lead to harmful antisocial behavior, such as the recent upsurge in cyberbullying.

Weakening these institutions poses clear-cut risks. Family and friends histori­cally have provided powerful support mechanisms for individuals, and they act as balance points in a society by preserving private life, providing a place for peo­ple to collect their thoughts, think in ways contrary to their employer, and dream.

4. Dependence and Vulnerability

Today, our businesses, governments, schools, and private associations, such as churches, are incredibly dependent on information systems and are, there­fore, highly vulnerable if these systems fail. Think of what would happen if the nation’s electric power grid shut down, with no backup structure to make up for the loss of the system. With systems now as ubiquitous as the telephone system, it is startling to remember that there are no regulatory or standard­setting forces in place that are similar to telephone, electrical, radio, television, or other public utility technologies. The absence of standards and the criticality of some system applications will probably call forth demands for national stan­dards and perhaps regulatory oversight.

5. Computer Crime and Abuse

New technologies, including computers, create new opportunities for commit­ting crime by creating new, valuable items to steal, new ways to steal them, and new ways to harm others. Computer crime is the commission of illegal acts by
using a computer or against a computer system. Simply accessing a computer system without authorization or with intent to do harm, even by accident, is now a federal crime. The most frequent types of incidents comprise a greatest hits list of cybercrime: malware, phishing, network interruption, spyware, and denial of service attacks (PwC, 2016). The true cost of all computer crime is unknown, but it is estimated to be in the billions of dollars.

Computer abuse is the commission of acts involving a computer that may not be illegal but are considered unethical. The popularity of the Internet, email, and mobile phones has turned one form of computer abuse—spamming—into a serious problem for both individuals and businesses. Originally, spam was junk email an organization or individual sent to a mass audience of Internet users who had expressed no interest in the product or service being marketed. Spammers tend to market pornography, fraudulent deals and services, out­right scams, and other products not widely approved in most civilized societies. Some countries have passed laws to outlaw spamming or restrict its use. In the United States, it is still legal if it does not involve fraud and the sender and sub­ject of the email are properly identified.

Spamming has mushroomed because it costs only a few cents to send thou­sands of messages advertising wares to Internet users. The percentage of all email that is spam was estimated at around 60 percent in 2017 (Symantec, 2018). Most spam originates from bot networks, which consist of thousands of captured PCs that can initiate and relay spam messages. Spam costs for busi­nesses are very high (estimated at more than $50 billion per year) because of the computing and network resources and the time required to deal with bil­lions of unwanted email messages.

Identity and financial-theft cybercriminals are targeting smartphones as users check email, do online banking, pay bills, and reveal personal information. Cell phone spam usually comes in the form of SMS text messages, but increasingly, users are receiving spam in their Facebook News feed and messaging service as well.

ISPs and individuals can combat spam by using spam filtering software to block suspicious email before it enters a recipient’s email inbox. However, spam filters may block legitimate messages. Spammers know how to skirt filters by continually changing their email accounts, by incorporating spam messages in images, by embedding spam in email attachments and digital greeting cards, and by using other people’s computers that have been hijacked by botnets. Many spam messages are sent from one country although another country hosts the spam website.

Spamming is more tightly regulated in Europe than in the United States. In 2002, the European Parliament passed a ban on unsolicited commercial messag­ing. Digital marketing can be targeted only to people who have given prior consent.

The U.S. CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, which went into effect in 2004, does not outlaw spamming but does ban deceptive email practices by requiring commer­cial email messages to display accurate subject lines, identify the true senders, and offer recipients an easy way to remove their names from email lists. It also prohibits the use of fake return addresses. A few people have been prosecuted under this law, but it has had a negligible impact on spamming, in large part because of the Internet’s exceptionally poor security and the use of offshore servers and botnets. Most large-scale spamming has moved offshore to Russia and Eastern Europe, where hackers control global botnets capable of generating billions of spam messages. One of the largest spam networks in recent years was the Russian network Festi, based in St. Petersburg. Festi is best known as the spam generator behind the global Viagra-spam industry.

6. Employment: Trickle-Down Technology and Reengineering Job Loss

Reengineering work is typically hailed in the information systems community as a major benefit of new information technology. It is much less frequently noted that redesigning business processes has caused millions of mid-level factory managers and clerical workers to lose their jobs. Some economists have sounded new alarms about information and computer technology threatening middle-class, white- collar jobs (in addition to blue-collar factory jobs). Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew P. McAfee argue that the pace of automation has picked up in recent years be­cause of a combination of technologies, including robotics, numerically controlled machines, computerized inventory control, pattern recognition, voice recognition, and online commerce. One result is that machines can now do a great many jobs heretofore reserved for humans, including tech support, call center work, X-ray examination, and even legal document review (Brynjolfsson and McAfee, 2011).

These views contrast with other economists’ assessments that new technolo­gies created as many or more new jobs than they destroyed. In some cases, em­ployment has grown or remained unchanged in industries like finance, where investment in IT capital is highest. For instance, the growth of e-commerce has led to a decline in retail sales jobs but an increase in jobs for warehouse workers, supervisors, and delivery work. These economists also believe that bright, educated workers who are displaced by technology will move to better jobs in fast-growth industries. Missing from this equation are unskilled, blue- collar workers and older, less-well-educated middle managers. It is not clear that these groups can be retrained easily for high-quality, high-paying jobs. The Interactive Session on Organizations explores this issue.

7. Equity and Access: Increasing Racial and Social Class Cleavages

Does everyone have an equal opportunity to participate in the digital age? Will the social, economic, and cultural gaps that exist in the United States and other societies be reduced by information systems technology? Or will the cleavages be increased, permitting the better-off to become even more better-off relative to others?

These questions have not yet been fully answered because the impact of sys­tems technology on various groups in society has not been thoroughly studied. What is known is that information, knowledge, computers, and access to these resources through educational institutions and public libraries are inequitably distributed along ethnic and social class lines, as are many other information re­sources. Several studies have found that low-income groups in the United States are less likely to have computers or online Internet access even though com­puter ownership and Internet access have soared in the past five years. Although the gap in computer access is narrowing, higher-income families in each ethnic group are still more likely to have home computers and broadband Internet ac­cess than lower-income families in the same group. Moreover, the children of higher-income families are far more likely to use their Internet access to pursue educational goals, whereas lower-income children are much more likely to spend time on entertainment and games. This is called the “time-wasting” gap.

Left uncorrected, this digital divide could lead to a society of information haves, who are computer literate and skilled, versus a large group of information have-nots, who are computer illiterate and unskilled. Public interest groups want to narrow this digital divide by making digital information services—including the Internet-available to virtually everyone, just as basic telephone service is now.

Source: Laudon Kenneth C., Laudon Jane Price (2020), Management Information Systems: Managing the Digital Firm, Pearson; 16th edition.

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