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EFFector Online 4.2 12/17/1992 email@example.com
A Publication of the Electronic Frontier Foundation ISSN 1062-9424
MEGATRENDS OR MEGAMISTAKES?
What Ever Happened to the Information Society?
(Part 2 of 2 Parts.) Part 1 was published in EFFector Online 4.1)
by Tom Forester, Senior Lecturer,
School of Computing & Information Technology,
Griffith University, Queensland, Australia
[Continued from EFFector Online 4.1]
NEW SOCIAL VULNERABILITIES
The IT revolution has created a whole new range of problems for
society - problems which were largely unexpected. Some arise from
the propensity of computers to malfunction, others arise from their
misuse by humans.
As complex industrial societies become more dependent on computers,
they become more vulnerable to technological failure because
computers have often proved to be unreliable, insecure and
unmanageable. Malfunctioning hardware and software is much more
common than many (especially those in the computer industry!) would
have us believe. There is little doubt that we put too much faith in
these supposedly-infallible machines. Computers are permeating almost
every aspect of our lives, but unlike other pervasive technologies
such as electricity, television and the motor car, computers are on
the whole less reliable and less predictable in their behaviour. This
is because they are discrete state digital electronic devices which
are prone to total and catastrophic failure. Computer systems, when
they are "down," are completely down, unlike analog or mechanical
devices which may only be partially down and are thus still partially
Popular areas for computer malfunctions include telephone billing and
telephone switching software, bank statements and bank teller
machines, electronic funds transfer systems and motor vehicle licence
databases. Industrial robots have been known to go berserk, while
heart pacemakers and automatic garage door openers have been rendered
useless by electro-magnetic radiation or "electronic smog" emitted
from point-of-sale terminals, personal computers and video games.
Although computers have often taken the "blame" on these occasions,
the ultimate cause of failure in most cases is, in fact, human error.
The cost of all this downtime is huge: for example, it has been
reported that British businesses suffer around 30 major mishaps a
year, involving losses of millions of pounds. The cost of software
failures alone in the UK is conservatively estimated at $900 million
per year (Woolnough 1988). In 1989, a British Computer Society
committee reported that much software was now so complex that current
skills in safety assessment were inadequate and therefore the safety
of people could not be guaranteed (Mellor 1989).
Computers enable enormous quantities of information to be stored,
retrieved and transmitted at great speed on a scale not possible
before. This is all very well, but it has serious implications for
data security and personal privacy because computer networks are
inherently insecure. The recent activities of hackers and data
thieves in the US, Germany and Britain have shown how all-too-easy it
still is to break into even the most sophisticated financial and
military systems. Malicious virus creators have wreaked havoc on
important academic and government communication networks. The list of
scams perpetrated by the new breed of high-tech criminals, ranging
from airline ticket reservation fraud to the reprogramming of the
chips inside mobile phones, is growing daily. Some people have had
their careers and lives ruined by unauthorized users gaining access
to supposedly-confidential databases containing medical, financial
and criminal records.
Computer systems are often incredibly complex - so complex, in fact,
that they are not always understood even by their creators (although
few are willing to admit it!). This often makes them completely
unmanageable. Unmanageable complexity can result in massive foul-ups
or spectacular budget "runaways." For example, Bank of America in
1988 had to abandon a $20 million computer system after spending five
years and a further $60 million trying to make it work! Allstate
Insurance saw the cost of its new system rise from $8 million to a
staggering $100 million and estimated completion delayed from 1987 to
1993! Moreover, the problem seems to be getting worse: in 1988 the
American Arbitration Association took on 190 computer disputes, most
of which involved defective systems. The claims totalled $200 million
- up from only $31 million in 1984.
Complexity can also result in disaster: no computer is 100 per cent
guaranteed because it is virtually impossible to anticipate all
sources of failure. Yet computers are regularly being used for all
sorts of critical applications such as saving lives, flying aircraft,
running nuclear power stations, transferring vast sums of money and
controlling missile systems - and this can sometimes have tragic
consequences. For example, between 1982 and 1987, some 22 US
servicemen died in five separate crashes of the USAF's sophisticated
Blackhawk helicopter before the problem was traced to its computer-
based 'fly-by-wire' system (Forester and Morrison 1990). At least two
people were killed after receiving overdoses of radiation
administered by the computerized Therac 25 X-ray machines, and there
are many other examples of computer foul-ups causing death and injury
(Forester and Morrison 1990).
Just to rub it in, I should also point out that computer systems are
equally vulnerable to fires, floods, earthquakes and even quite
short power outages or voltage drops caused by "dirty power", as well
as attacks by outside hackers and sabotage from inside employees. For
example, in Chicago in 1986, a disgruntled employee at Encyclopedia
Britannica , angry at having been laid-off, merely tapped into the
encyclopedia's database and made a few alterations to the text being
prepared for a new edition of the renowned work - like changing
references to Jesus Christ to Allah and inserting the names of
company executives in odd positions. As one executive commented, "In
the computer age, this is exactly what we have nightmares about".
A year later, another saboteur shut down the entire National
Association of Securities Dealers' automatic quotation service
(NASDAQ) for 82 minutes, keeping 20 million shares from being traded.
The saboteur in question was an adventurous squirrel, who had caused
a short circuit in Trumbull, Connecticut, where NASDAQ's main
computer is situated. In Australia, foxes have taken to digging up
new optical fibre cables to eat the plastic cover, while sharks have
been doing the same to submarine fibre optic telephone cables on the
floor of the Pacific ocean. In Denmark, a strike by 600 computer
personnel paralysed the government for four months in 1987, causing
the ruling party to call an early general election (UPI 1987), while
in the same year an Australian saboteur carefully severed 24 cables
in a Sydney tunnel and knocked out 35,000 telephone, fax and point-
of-sale lines, putting hundreds of businesses in 40 suburbs out of
action for up to 48 hours (The Australian, 23 November 1987, page 1).
As society becomes more dependent on computers, we also become more
vulnerable to the misuse of computers by human beings. The theft of
copyright software is widespread, while recent, well-publicized
incidents of hacking, virus creation, computer-based fraud and
invasion of privacy have been followed by a rising chorus of calls
for improved "ethics" in computing and new laws to protect citizens
from computerized anarchy.
It can be argued that the "information" or "knowledge" society cannot
possibly flourish unless better protection is offered to individuals
and companies who generate wealth from information. Yet copying of
software is allegedly costing US producers alone $10-12 billion a
year, according to the Business Software Association (BSA). In
Europe, where software piracy is costing producers $4.5 billion a
year according to EC figures, the BSA has been forced to mount raids
on major users in Italy and France. Even in Germany, "When you
compare the number of pcs sold with the amount of legitimate software
sold, two-thirds of the computers must be used as expensive
doorstops," says a Microsoft spokesman.
In Asia, software piracy is rampant. It has been estimated that 7 or
8 copies of well-known packages exist for every legitimate copy sold
in Singapore, where the local economy benefits to the tune of
millions of dollars a year from the counterfeiting of Western
products. In Taiwan, police raids in 1990 netted more than 5,000
counterfeit packages of MS-DOS, 6,000 counterfeit MS-DOS manuals in
English, French and German, and 12,500 disks with bogus Microsoft
labels on them (Jinman 1991). Hong Kong police busted a software
mail order racket, seizing no less than 109,000 disks, manuals and
other counterfeit kit from a wooden hut on a remote hillside. They
had a street value of $3 million. It is estimated that 97% of all the
software in Thailand has been copied, while copying is also rife in
Pakistan, Malaysia, South Korea and mainland China. So much for the
economic "miracles" of those "little Dragons" of Asia!
Unless more is done to curb software copying, we are likely to see,
first, a sharp decline in software production. With the erosion of
the potential rewards from software development, programmers are
likely to move into more lucrative areas of the IT industry. And less
software producers will mean less innovative software being produced.
Second, continued copying will lead to continued rises in software
prices. Already, developers have to recoup the anticipated losses
from copying by charging more than would be necessary if people did
not copy in the first place. Because copying software is so easy and
so widespread, the law - whether it be copyright law, patent law or
contract law - is not a lot of use. Copying is hard to prove in court
and it is nigh impossible to catch copiers in the act. The best hope
for the IT industry is to try to change social attitudes and
"Hackers" are another unplanned product of the IT revolution. Mostly
young males, these computer enthusiasts specialize in gaining
unauthorized access to other peoples' computer systems for fun and
for profit. Some like the challenge of computer "cracking", some are
little more than electronic vandals who set out to cause damage,
while others have ended up betraying their country - like the members
of the Chaos Computer Club of West Germany who stole US military
secrets which they sold to the KGB in order to fund their expensive
drug habits (the charred body of one of their number, Karl Koch, was
later found in a forest outside Hannover). In the last couple of
years, enormous time and effort has also been spent making good the
damage caused by malicious computer anarchists who have let loose
"viruses" which have infected thousands of systems and millions of
disks around the world.
The IT revolution has also made it easier to put people under
electronic surveillance and it has increased the likelihood of
individuals having their privacy invaded. Burnham (1983) pointed out
that IT enables governments and commercial organisations to store
vast amounts of "transactional data", such as details of phone calls,
financial payments, air travel, and so on. From these, a composite
picture of an individual's friendships, spending habits and movements
can be built up. New IT gadgetry makes it much easier to spy on
people with hidden bugs and other eavesdropping devices, to gather
information by, for example, illicit phone taps, and to directly
monitor the performance of employees with videos and computers.
Electronic databases containing vital medical, financial and criminal
records - which are often inaccurate - have been accessed by
unauthorized users. As Linowes (1989) and Flaherty (1990) argue, this
creates a major problem of how to protect privacy in "information"
societies - a problem which the law has been slow to tackle.
NEW PSYCHOLOGICAL MALADIES
The IT revolution has brought with it a number of psychological
problems associated with computer-mediated communication. These have
implications for both organisational productivity and human
One major problem is that of "information overload" or so-called
"infoglut". This arises because modern society generates so much new
information that we are overwhelmed by it all and become unable to
distinguish between what is useful and what is not-so-useful. In
essence, it is a problem of not being able to see the wood for the
trees. For example, 14,000 book publishers in the US release onto the
market 50,000 new titles every year. There are now at least 40,000
scientific journals publishing more than 1 million new papers each
year - that's nearly 3,000 per day - and the scientific literature is
doubling every 10-15 years. Clearly, it is impossible for any one
individual to keep up with the literature, except for very small
areas. The book and research paper explosion has been assisted by
the "publish or perish" ethic in academia, which encourages the
production of mediocre, repetitive and largely useless work. It also
creates a serious headache for cash-strapped libraries.
Improvements in IT enable us to gather, store and transmit
information in vast quantity, but not to interpret it. But what are
we going to do with all that information? We have plenty of
information technology - what is perhaps needed now is more
intelligence technology, to help us make sense of the growing volume
of information stored in the form of statistical data, documents,
messages, and so on. For example, not many people know that the
infamous hole in the ozone layer remained undetected for seven years
as a result of infoglut. The hole had in fact been identified by a US
weather satellite in 1979, but nobody realised this at the time
because the information was buried - along with 3 million other
unread tapes - in the archives of the National Records Centre in
Washington DC. It was only when British scientists were analysing the
data much later in 1986 that the hole in the ozone was first
In commerce and in government, it is alleged that infloglut is
affecting decision-making to such an extent that some organisations
now suffer from "analysis paralysis." Managers and administrators
become overloaded and prevaricate by calling for more studies,
reports, etc, instead of actually making a decision. But as someone
once said, "waiting for all the facts to come in" can be damn
frustrating if the facts never stop coming! In the military sphere,
information overload has caused pilots to crash fighter aircraft. It
has also played a role in civilian and military disasters such as
Bhopal and the downing of an Iranian airbus over the Persian Gulf by
the USS Vincennes. The US military is now having to spend large sums
of money on "human factors" research - that is, studying how humans
can adequately relate to complex, high-tech weapons systems which
operate at lightning-fast speeds.
There is also serious concern that media infoglut is having a
damaging effect on society - in particular the younger generation.
As Chesebro and Bonsall (1989) show, the television set is on in the
average American household for 7 hours and 7 minutes a day. In
addition, recorded video tapes are watched for a further 5 hours 8
minutes a week on average (1987 figures). Young Americans can also
tune in to any of 9,300 radio stations in the US, on one of the 5.3
radios in the average American household. In these and other ways,
the typical American encounters no less than 1,600 advertisements
each day. By the age of 17, the average American child would have
seen over one-third of a million ads. It is little wonder that US
academics are talking about America "amusing itself to death", its
collective mind numbed by video-pulp, 10-second sound bites and 30-
second video clips. A recent report by the Times Mirror group
concluded that the current under-30s generation in the US - despite
the benefits of a higher standard of living, better education,
information technology, etc - "knows less, cares less and reads
newspapers less than any generation in the past five decades" (Zoglin
A second set of problems concerns the way some people use the new
computer-based communication technologies and how they relate to
other people as a result. For instance, some managers have been
diagnosed "communicaholic" because of their obsessive desire to keep
in touch and to constantly communicate using their car phones and fax
machines. Some have allegedly become "spreadsheet junkies", playing
endless what-if? games on their computers, or "e.mail addicts"
spending hours sending and answering trivial e.mail messages. But
does this "hyperconnectedness" mean that they are doing their jobs
any better and are they making wiser decisions? There is some
evidence that too much "in touch" may actually be destructive of work
relationships - subordinates usually want to be left alone to get on
with the job. Calling people at home for progress reports can
increase stress by further blurring the boundaries between work and
nonwork. And what of those car phone conversations? Many have long
suspected the quality of such communication and now research at
Loughborough University in the UK has confirmed that car phones can
seriously impair negotiating and decision-making skills. Rather like
US president Gerald Ford (about whom it was said that he couldn't
think and chew gum at the same time), it seems that 4 out of 5 UK
executives cannot think and drive at the same time. For car phone
users, both their businesses and their cars were more likely to
A further problem is "technobabble". This modern malady has two
aspects. The first is the inability of computer personnel to explain
in plain English just what they or their systems can do - or the
value in business terms of investing more money in IT equipment. In
many organisations, top management and IT departments still speak a
different language and this has serious consequences for
organisational efficiency. Second, Barry (1991) has described the
way in which computer terminology and techno-jargon is being applied
indiscriminately to areas of life which have nothing at all to do
with technology. Thus, people these days do not merely converse with
each other, they interface. It is not uncommon to hear people refer
to their leisure hours as downtime. In California's Silicon Valley,
getting something off ones's chest is even known as core-dumping.
Just as some people are coming to think of themselves as computers,
so they are also beginning to view computers as "intelligent" or
"thinking" people - and yet the analogy between conventional Von
Neumann computers and the human brain has long been discredited.
PUTTING HUMANS BACK IN THE PICTURE
We have seen that many of the predictions made about the impact of
computers on society have been wide of the mark, primarily because
they have accorded too great a role to technology and too little a
role to human needs and abilities. At the same time, there have been
a number of unanticipated problems thrown up by the IT revolution,
most of which involve the human factor.
Perhaps the time has come for a major reassessment of our
relationship to technology, especially the new information and
communication technologies. After all, haven't manufacturers
belatedly discovered that expensive high-tech solutions are not
always appropriate for production problems, that robots are more
troublesome than people and that the most "flexible manufacturing
system" available to them is something called a human operator?
Didn't one study of a government department conclude that the only
databases worth accessing were those carried around in the heads of
long-serving employees? And is it not the case that the most
sophisticated communication technology available to us is still
something called speaking to each other? One conclusion to be drawn
from this is that technological advances in computing seem to have
outpaced our ability to make use of them.
Computers have also de-humanized many social activities ranging from
commercial transactions to hospital care. Human interaction has
tended to decline in the computerized workplace. ATMs have de-
personalized banking. Even crime has been de-personalized by the
computer - pressing a few keys to siphon-off funds is not the same as
bashing someone over the head and running-off with the cash! To
many, the recent military conflict in the Gulf resembled a giant
video game and even became known as the "Nintendo War". There is also
little doubt that many computer scientists and other computer
enthusiasts have low needs for social interaction and seem to relate
better to their machines than they do to other human beings - the so-
called "nerd" syndrome. Further, computers have speeded-up the pace
of life, leaving little time for calm reflection and contemplation.
This can lead to "technostress", fatigue, anxiety and burnout. Most
people now know that slow is healthier, but there is little evidence
that people are slowing down.
Perhaps we should go back to basics and first decide what we really
want out of life - a decent home, a satisfying family life, a
reasonable standard of living, a clean environment, an interesting
job with a healthy workstyle - and then direct technology toward
these simple, human ends. It would be nice to think that our schools
and colleges are helping make future generations more aware of the
choices and the possibilities, rather than fatalistically joining in
the uncritical, headlong rush toward an ill-defined and ill-thought-
out high-tech future.
Opening Address to International Conference on the Information
Society, Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute / Green Meadow Foundation,
Zurich, Switzerland, 18 November 1991
THE SECOND ANNUAL INTERNATIONAL EFF PIONEER AWARDS:
CALL FOR NOMINATIONS
Deadline: December 31,1992
In every field of human endeavor,there are those dedicated to expanding
knowledge,freedom,efficiency and utility. Along the electronic frontier,
this is especially true. To recognize this,the Electronic Frontier
Foundation has established the Pioneer Awards for deserving individuals
The Pioneer Awards are international and nominations are open to all.
In March of 1992, the first EFF Pioneer Awards were given in Washington
D.C. The winners were: Douglas C. Engelbart of Fremont, California;
Robert Kahn of Reston, Virginia; Jim Warren of Woodside, California; Tom
Jennings of San Francisco, California; and Andrzej Smereczynski of
The Second Annual Pioneer Awards will be given in San Francisco,
California at the 3rd Conference on Computers, Freedom, and Privacy
in March of 1993.
All valid nominations will be reviewed by a panel of impartial judges
chosen for their knowledge of computer-based communications and the
technical, legal, and social issues involved in networking.
There are no specific categories for the Pioneer Awards, but the
following guidelines apply:
1) The nominees must have made a substantial contribution to the
health, growth, accessibility, or freedom of computer-based
2) The contribution may be technical, social, economic or cultural.
3) Nominations may be of individuals, systems, or organizations in
the private or public sectors.
4) Nominations are open to all, and you may nominate more than one
recipient. You may nominate yourself or your organization.
5) All nominations, to be valid, must contain your reasons, however
brief, on why you are nominating the individual or organization,
along with a means of contacting the nominee, and your own contact
number. No anonymous nominations will be allowed.
6) Every person or organization, with the single exception of EFF
staff members, are eligible for Pioneer Awards.
7) Persons or representatives of organizations receiving a Pioneer
Award will be invited to attend the ceremony at the Foundation's
You may nominate as many as you wish, but please use one form per
nomination. You may return the forms to us via email to
You may mail them to us at:
Pioneer Awards, EFF,
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You may FAX them to us at:
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Just tell us the name of the nominee, the phone number or email address
at which the nominee can be reached, and, most important, why you feel
the nominee deserves the award. You may attach supporting
documentation. Please include your own name, address, and phone number.
We're looking for the Pioneers of the Electronic Frontier that have made
and are making a difference. Thanks for helping us find them,
The Electronic Frontier Foundation
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