“Computers today have become an inseparable part of our lives, making that difference not just at the work place, but also in our personal lives”. (Carr, 2001, p. 1)
The information technology evolution during the past three to four decades can be described simply by one word: incredible. It has been catching the public by surprise on a constant basis. Many times the world has not been ready for the advent of such set of tools (Aptech Computer Education, 2002). Just to think about many of the things that we have today in our hands, in our ears and in our eyes, would seem a dream just a generation ago. Even a decade ago, certain applications would seem like science fantasy or movie fiction. Nevertheless, they are now part of reality and for many users they have become essential tools for their daily lives. This is especially true in the business world where information technology has deeply impacted the way people communicate and conduct business.
This essay is an attempt to make a description of the effects that the information technology evolution has on the individual. It will focus on the social and ethical dilemmas that have arose with the increase of use of such new devices and applications. It is the assumption of this paper that information technology is having an impact on the social life of individuals and communities. The second assumption is that such effects are affecting the daily ways of behavior of the individuals and the way they relate to each other in a community. But information technology is not only affecting individual persons. It is also having an effect on societies as a whole and the relations they have with each other. This rapid evolution of the information technology industry certainly seems something which is shaping and remodeling human civilization itself.
Effects of the information technology evolution
Information technology emerged during the Cold War era and exploded during the ‘80 and especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Since the beginning of the ‘90 the information technology industry has been evolving at such a pace that no one thought that it would have such impact on the daily lives of millions of people. Many authors argue that the world is trying to cope with the internet age (Pfanner, 2010).
This information age which is unfolding before our eyes, is sweeping along the globe bringing an ever increasing flow of traffic throughout the servers located worldwide. However such digital flow of information is forcing humanity to reformulate existing dilemmas and even ask several new questions which were not even thought about a little time ago. But where does this path lead to? Is humanity becoming more dependent on digital devices, personal computers and internet? These are good question and require clear answers. One of the first problems to surface is the fact that we do not have the social culture to support such rapid development of the information technology industry. One of the first things to come to mind is the privacy related issues that arise from such use of information technology. The second thing that comes to mind is the changing nature of communication and the consequences from such massive use of digital form of communication.
Let us first consider the privacy issues that arise from the use of information technology and the changing nature of our world. When Google was launched at the end of 1999 many journalist asked the Chief operating officer of Sun Microsystems Inc. about the privacy safeguards in the technology his company was going to release. The answer was quite interesting. He stated that individuals do not have real privacy anyway so that implementing such privacy policies would be futile (Implications of information technology, 2009). In fact, these were not serious declarations and everybody laughed at it, but the essence is true. The reality is that many of the youth around the world today is quite accustomed by being watched by various CCTV cameras or other government sponsored information technology. Now they are even comfortable by being controlled and watched upon even during their internet surfing time. The ethical problem here is that many websites and / or online services do require personal information for you to register and become using their services. Many of the privacy policies and contracts of user agreements of various email provider companies make it very clearly that they will disclose the personal information from their users if requested by third parties (Vega and Wyatt, 2010).
But they do not disclose such information to the various government agencies for prosecution or police purposes. They have begun to disclose such information even to private companies which use them for their personal business purposes. In fact, a recent poll conducted in the United States by Harris Company found that the slight majority of the American people do not mind if they are targeted and tracked online by marketing and advertising companies (Joy, 2010a).
This is very interesting if we compare it to the previous generations after the Second World War. These previous generations do not feel comfortable at all in this situation. It may be argued that these previous generations were not born and raised in the midst of various digital products and services. That is the main reason why we find so much social tension and misunderstanding between the young and the old in today’s societies around the globe. Many argue that:
“If George Orwell had lived in the Internet age, he could have painted a grim picture of how Web monitoring could be used to promote authoritarianism.” (Joy, 2010a, p. 4)
This might certainly be true to the extent that the information technology based products have been used to promote security agendas of various governments. The moral and ethical dilemma here is the tightening of our liberty and privacy borders for the greater good of more security. Information technology related products and services are what make it possible for such thing to happen. The young generation is accepting this fact as a reality and not bothering much about it. The simple reason for this is that they feel so connected with the use of mobile and portable devices, the internet, etc. But this is not the case for the older generations. They feel kind of threatened from these devices for the simple reason that they do not fully understand their functionality and usage. Yet, this passiveness of the younger generations has not only resulted in moral tension between the generations but also in the passing of various laws that would have seem impossible to be enacted only two decades ago (Joy, 2010b).
George Orwell’s Big Brother now seems a reality. It is becoming common that:
“These days, data about people’s whereabouts, purchases, behavior and personal lives are gathered, stored and shared on a scale that no dictator of the old school ever thought possible.” (Joy, 2010b, p. 12)
The problem is that nowadays we have a lot of the little brothers also who want to get as much information about you and your life as they can. These are the marketers and the social media like MySpace, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, etc. let us not forget the financial services agencies. Ultimately, we witness that everyday technology gets more powerful and it gets more and more complicated and sophisticated. This complication has been taken advantage from marketers and other professional users to use them as tools to target the individual. That is why this issue of digital privacy and its impact on our lives is coming to center stage in many political and social debates. Every citizen in a developed nation is living in a web of digital data.
Many insignificant details of our daily lives, like the juices and drinks we have, what we eat and where we go to shop, are becoming more and more important to certain companies. The ethical issue here is whether the people will decide to continue accepting this situation or not. Signs are that they are going to accept it. So now we are on the verge of a period where what seemed unmoral and not normal to our fathers and grandfathers is becoming the daily reality which we cannot do without. We have just to think that our emails, instant messengers, our online footprints in general, are recorded and archived. Every time we use our credit cards to buy something in a store that information goes on some server to be stored and, if necessary, used for various purposes. We are witnessing the transformation of social and ethical norms of privacy in a radical way. It is not by chance that privacy as we know it has coming to an end. That is because:
“…a growing web of surveillance cameras captures us on digital video, and our homes may be seen on Google Street View; radio frequency ID (RFID) tags embedded in everything from library books to passports can also track our movements. “It is virtually impossible to go through life in a Western democracy without leaving an information trail behind” (Honea, 2009, p. 2)
The fact that we are nowadays facing a moral dilemma about the privacy issues as an effect of the development of information technology should not lead us to think only about the negative things in it. Surely, what has been described above as the core of this ethical and moral dilemma is a serious matter and should be given all the attention it deserves. Nevertheless, one should also mention the positive things that information technology has brought about in our daily lives. This is true even for those products and applications which affect our privacy issues as described above. For example the internet has been a massive revolution in terms of technology and it has facilitated the way we do many things. There are many other technologies which can be, and are being, used for good purposes in improving our lives.
“They can be empowering, time-saving, indispensable to 21st-century life. GPS-equipped mobile phones allow people to be quickly found in emergencies; RFID tags could, for example, be embedded in guns to make them tractable or in refrigerators to warn caretakers when shut-ins are low on food; and, of course, the ability to track online activity and target ads accordingly has helped to foster a Web filled with free content.” (Joy, 2020b, p. 14)
Also we should mention the increasing interaction between people from various cultures and regions of the world at such a speed and intensity that it would have been thought impossible a century ago. But what is more important, is that the evolution of the information technology is leading us to provide answers and better tools and equipment to find better solutions for problems that all humanity shares. The case of health related problems is one good example of that.
This paper was about the impact that the evolution of the information technology has had in our daily lives. It has mainly focused on the ethical and moral dilemmas resulted from such evolution. We have focused mainly on the ethical problems related to privacy issues. We have attempted to describe the generational gap and social tension that is being developed because of the rapid evolution of information technology devices and applications. Furthermore we have tried to describe the positive nature of many of the products that come out of information technology. Nevertheless, we shall conclude by stating that the social tension raised because of this sector of industry is something which should be considered carefully. It should become a central issue of debate otherwise it may result in a very difficult situation in the near future.
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