CW@50: Networks replace hierarchies – how IT changed society

The first issue of Computer Weekly in 1966 predicted huge social changes from IT – but what has really changed in 50 years?

Right from the first issue of Computer Weekly, published on 22 September 1966, we recognised that a publication dedicated to IT would also have to understand the impact of technology on society and culture.

On the front page of that introductory edition, the magazine featured a guest opinion piece written by Basil de Ferranti, then the managing director of International Computers and Tabulators – a forerunner of ICL.

He described the launch of Computer Weekly as “an opportunity to read in an intelligible form about a field of activity which will have a profound effect on the society in which we live”.

He continued: “The computer is one of those fundamental developments which, like railways and the motor car, will totally alter our way of life. Our activities will help to raise the standard of living, and provide better lives for millions. Computer Weekly can make its own contribution towards this objective.”

Well, we’ve tried.

Fifty years later, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who would say that de Ferranti was wrong about that “profound effect”. But what, actually, has changed?

Thanks to technology, we can do things faster and more effectively than ever before – from finding information to communicating with other people.

We can conduct our lives in greater safety and with better health thanks to IT-led improvements in manufacturing and research. And we have fewer routine or boring administrative tasks to occupy our working days since they were largely automated. We might have less paperwork, but we’re still a long way from the paperless office.

The daily routine

Compare your life today with that of your parents or grandparents in 1966, and while there will be clear and obvious differences, how many of them are genuinely attributable to IT?

In 1966, your father – because it would mostly have been the man of the household – would go to work in the morning, typically by car or public transport.

He would spend the next seven or eight hours somewhere like a manufacturing plant or an office, then return home to the family, probably to watch TV, listen to the radio, read a book – or maybe go to the pub.

Thanks to greater access to information, in the UK alone in the past 10 years we have learned uncomfortable truths about every part of the so-called elite

Today, most men and women follow a pretty similar working pattern. The changes brought by IT come within those activities. Your car is more luxurious, better built and more reliable – although you are more likely to drive it further on your journey to work than you would in 1966.

You can book and pay for public transport electronically – even if the trains still don’t run on time. There are a lot fewer people in factories or down a mine now that IT has driven the rise of the services economy – and for those in an office, the paperwork is done on a computer.

Productivity – and managerial expectation of personal productivity – is far higher, of course. Maybe sometimes you don’t have to commute – you can instead work from home.

And then in the evenings, you may be watching Netflix instead of BBC One; streaming music to your wireless music system or smartphone; or downloading to a Kindle – but the basic activity would be recognisable in 1966.

Board games, meanwhile, have turned into video games. IT has yet to change simple social experiences such as a trip to the pub – even if contactless cards make it easier to pay.

More choice, more stress?

Has technology changed our daily life as dramatically as we think, or has it simply allowed us to do similar activities faster, more efficiently, at greater capacity, with more choice available to us? IT has undoubtedly delivered a higher standard of living – but has it brought more pressure, stress and expectation too?

Look at social media, for example. The ability to communicate instantly, with people anywhere in the world, is perhaps the greatest development that technology has delivered in the past 50 years.

Social media has made the world a smaller place, opened our eyes to new countries and cultures and brought together people with common interests in a way that has made governments sit up and take notice.

But how often do we see evidence of problems as a result – stressed schoolchildren worried about missing out on the latest social media gossip; workers unable to switch off and replying to messages at all hours of the day; the wider spread of hate speech, bullying, abuse or even terrorism.

We could all point to examples where technology has made our lives simultaneously better and more complex. So where has the real IT-led societal change come about in the past half-century?

We are right in the middle of that change now – one that has taken 50 years to reach but is still in its early stages. At the heart of the way society is changing is an old cliché – knowledge is power. In technology terms, it’s about the redistribution of information – the democratisation of data.

History gives us examples. The closest analogy to today’s dramatic growth in data accessibility and the associated redistribution of information were the after-effects of the invention of the printing press by Gutenburg in 1440.

That innovation saw 20 million books printed in the subsequent 50 years, and contributed greatly to massive societal changes that redefined relationships between church, state and individuals. We’re seeing an even greater redistribution of information now – and hence, of knowledge, and ultimately of power.

From hierarchies to networks

The 20th century was built on rigid hierarchies that defined the relationships between powerful elites and the “masses”.

Those hierarchies were often reinforced by the cost or legality of information access – limited to those with mainframe-scale IT budgets or access to expensive printing presses, for example.

Even newspapers and broadcasters – the main daily source of information for most people in 1966 – were essentially gatekeepers. Journalists selected which information would be offered to readers, whereas today we can find all that information online for ourselves, if we choose.

By the 21st century, we started moving rapidly to a networked society that breaks down old hierarchies. This is a direct effect of the technological advancements of the past 50 years – in particular, of the internet.

Thanks to greater access to information, in the UK alone in the past 10 years we have learned uncomfortable truths about every part of the so-called elite – politicians, business leaders, law enforcement, intelligence services, the media and so on.

Our ability to find and share information and knowledge is loosening the grip held by those hierarchical power bases.

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Would we have learned so much about MPs’ expenses, greedy bankers, the Hillsborough cover-up, GCHQ snooping or tabloid phone hacking, without developments in technology from the preceding 20 or 30 years?

That doesn’t mean we won’t still have elites, of course – they will be networked instead, like Facebook or Google. But there can be little doubt that we are moving from a world based on vertical hierarchies and hierarchical controls, to one based on networks. The leaders of tomorrow will be part of the network, not apart from it.

That move to a networked society isn’t necessarily all good, of course. In a 2014 article for the OpenMind community website, Manuel Castells, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, identified what he called the “me-centred society”.

He said this was “marked by an increased focus on individual growth and a decline in community understood in terms of space, work and family”.

It’s ironic that as technology has fulfilled our desire to connect with other people, it has done so in a way that isolates many of us behind the impersonality of a screen. There is a better balance yet to be struck.

Similarly, access to all that information about each of us has led to one of the defining challenges of the digital era – balancing data privacy with security.

Defining the limits of state surveillance, even as a new generation brings a more relaxed attitude to privacy of their personal information, is a challenge that will trouble society for years to come.

The industrial revolution in the UK is generally estimated to have lasted about 60 to 80 years, and much of its most significant social changes occurred in the latter half of that period.

If we are looking for patterns, that suggests the real social and cultural effects of the digital revolution are ahead of us – and will have far bigger impact than even what we have experienced in the past 50 years.

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