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The digital society


This special section presents views of a society changing under the influence of advanced information technology. Computers have been around for about half a century and their social effects have been described under many headings. The title "Digital Society" chosen for this collection of articles is intended to call attention to fundamental IT-based transformations in social organization and structure.

IT is stimulating changes in the way most people earn their incomes; altering the balance between our roles as consumer and producer; changing the way we educate succeeding generations and train ourselves; transforming the delivery of health care; altering the way we govern ourselves; changing the way we form communities; altering the way we obtain and communicate information; and modifying patterns of activity among the elderly. This is not a complete list of changes, but highlights some of the most prominent and important effects of IT.

Major changes in social structure usually take five to 15 years to emerge and become clearly visible. Planners often refer to this time period as the forecaster's no-man's-land.

In this section, Wolff assesses the growth of information (knowledge and data processing) workers in the U.S. over the second half of the 20th century. He observes that the information group as a whole grew from 37% to 59% of total employment from 1950 to 2000. He attributes this growth to the substitution of information labor for other types of labor, and changes in the composition of output in different industries. The former accounts for two-thirds of the observed growth; the latter is responsible for the remaining one-third. While the growth of knowledge workers accelerated in the 1990s, Wolff believes that growth will be checked by reduced investment in high tech and the outsourcing of knowledge work to lower-wage-rate countries.

Czaja and Hiltz argue that information systems designers must take account of the aging of the population. The proportion of workers aged 55 and older is expected to increase significantly in the next decade. Thus, designers are faced with a challenge in the workplace and more generally with an opportunity to create information systems that can improve the quality of life for older adults and their families.

Zureik and Mowshowitz contend the balance of power between production and consumption is shifting toward the latter. This means consumers have the potential to play an increasingly important role in politics. By taking full advantage of IT, especially the Internet, consumers could perfect such traditional methods as the boycott into effective political instruments and thus actualize their `power of the purse' in the political arena. Although there is no substitute for leadership, management, and dedication, the tools (such as recommender systems, online voting applications, and micro-transaction systems) being developed and deployed in e-commerce and other Internet-based activities could be adapted for use in consumer actions and accelerate the growth of politically oriented consumerism.

Wellman addresses a fundamental change in the nexus of human interaction. Computer-supported social networks eliminate the spatial constraint that has acted on the formation of communities throughout most of human history. Online relationships may not be as satisfying as face-to-face relationships but they are playing an increasingly important role in people's lives.

Noam challenges a number of popular beliefs about the Internet's role in a democratic society. He argues that the Internet does not facilitate widespread participation in politics, nor does it raise the level of political dialogue. It does not even afford better access to public officials. In short, the Internet does not create a Jeffersonian democracy.

Wellman's claim that "individual autonomy and agency are heightened" is at variance with Noam's contention that Internet communities will be "narrow-minded, as like-minded people reinforce each other."

Hiltz and Turoff contend that online learning is revolutionizing higher education both as process and social institution. The change envisioned is from face-to-face, teacher-oriented courses offered by many thousands of geographically distributed schools to online and hybrid, student-centered courses using digital technologies that are offered by a few hundred mega-universities with global reach. The authors characterize this radical transformation as an evolutionary substitution process that will infiltrate and change the nature of traditional classroom and distance education. Hiltz and Turoff describe the methodologies and techniques currently employed in online learning and point to future developments. The regulatory climate of higher education is viewed as one of "transitional chaos," and the surviving institutions are likely to be those most responsive to the challenges of online learning.

Varian observes it is now becoming technologically feasible for all recordable information to be accessible to everyone on the planet. But there remain social, legal, and economic barriers to realizing such universal access. These barriers include illiteracy, lack of infrastructure, and cost. Copyright laws and procedures in particular need to be revamped, and Varian recommends establishing a copyright registry and legal safeguards for use of works for which a rights holder cannot be identified.

Goldschmidt makes the case that health care lags behind other industries in the adoption and effective use of IT. He points out that health IT includes electronic health records (the building block of health information systems), personal health records controlled by the consumer, decision-support tools, and telemedicine. Many advantages are envisioned for the use of electronic health records. Among these are reduced record-keeping costs, improved practice management, elimination of transcription with a consequent reduction in errors, facilities for the sharing of health information, improved patient care through more accurate and better structured information, and decreased risk of malpractice suits. Nevertheless, there are daunting challenges and risks in deploying health information systems. These systems, when at last they are fully realized, will transform health care delivery and thereby modify the way we conduct our lives.

Major changes in social structure usually take five to 15 years to emerge and become clearly visible. Planners often refer to this time period as the forecaster's no-man's-land. This special section focuses on those changes in social organization and structure that may emerge as concomitants of the widespread deployment of advanced IT.

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Abbe Mowshowitz ( is a professor of computer science at the City College of New York and member of the doctoral faculty at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Murray Turoff ( is a distinguished professor in the information systems department at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

©2005 ACM  0001-0782/05/1000  $5.00

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2005 ACM, Inc.


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