Chapter 8:

Economic and Social Significance of Information Technologies

IT and the Citizen

Access to information and proficiency with information technologies could potentially influence an individual's well-being. Employability and income are tied increasingly to computer training and literacy, and a home computer could enable families to change their work patterns through telecommuting. (See "Trends in Telecommuting.") Because of the rapidly expanding variety of services offered on the Internet and World Wide Web, information access might also play a growing role in medical care,[37]  civic and political participation, lifelong learning, recreation and leisure activities, and personal finance. In short, information consumption, use of IT, and effective "knowledge management" could become increasingly instrumental to health, wealth, power, and overall quality of life. [Skip Text Box]

Trends in Telecommuting  top

Telecommuting is considered to be one of the more positive benefits of IT and networks. Working from home alleviates traffic congestion, accommodates family schedules, and enhances white-collar productivity. Telecommuting is promoted by such corporate giants as Motorola, AT&T, Sun Microsystems, IBM, Ernst and Young, and Hewlett Packard. Corporate telecommuters work almost half of their work week at home (about 19 hours).

The number of individuals who reported working as telecommuters in 1997 was 11 million, just under 10 percent of the U.S. labor force. (See figure 8-18.) The total is growing rapidly, however, at about 15 percent a year. Some analysts estimate that at least 40 percent of today's workers could be telecommuters at least part of the time. For these statistics and others, see Telecommute America (1997).

The growing significance of information raises questions about the equity of access to information technologies. In addition, the steady growth of databases about individual citizens—and the power of IT to combine those data into highly revealing portraits about an individual—presents the possibility that rather than enhance personal liberty and well-being, information will instead tyrannize the private citizen. Although scholars have as yet found little evidence that the Internet changes the dynamics of democratic governance and discourse (see King and Kraemer 1997), the volume of data collected on private individuals without their consent has increased. This section therefore examines the impacts of IT on two dimensions of civil life: equity of opportunity and personal privacy. Note, however, that these are only two of the many ways in which IT may affect individuals. Other issues of interest include the role of information for personal empowerment and quality of life, the impact of IT on government services and public access to government services, and the potential impact of IT on human cognition and thinking processes.

Equity Issues top

Equality of opportunity is a hallmark of U.S. political culture and reflects a national commitment to minimize structural barriers to personal achievement.[38]  With respect to education and IT, equity is of particular concern not only because of the importance of training an adequately prepared workforce, but also because (as reviewed earlier) use of IT can affect children's learning ability. Personal and household access to computers and the Internet facilitates distance education, access to health information and government services, and job searches in classified ads. Inequality of information access and IT literacy could aggravate existing race, ethnic, and class divisions in the United States; conversely, equality of information access and information skills could help integrate ethnic groups, the poor, and rural communities into the economic and political systems.

Educational Inequities top

Diffusion data indicate that pronounced educational inequalities in access to IT exist—key (and interrelated) determinants of access are income, race, and ethnicity. Schools with white, affluent, and suburban students have the greatest levels of IT adoption; schools with poor and minority students have considerably lower IT adoption rates. Inequities in access to IT may be particularly difficult to overcome when considered in the context of major inequalities in school facilities, resources, teacher training, and curriculum among ethnic minorities and the poor (Kozol 1991).

Differences exist in student computer use by race or ethnic group and grade level. (See figure 8-19.) At the elementary school level (grades 1-8), inequalities are particularly pronounced. While nearly three-quarters of all white elementary school children used computers at school in 1993, fewer than two-thirds of black and Hispanic children did. Because elementary school use of computers is particularly focused on drill-and-practice activities in mathematics and reading, the data suggest that minority children are getting less computer-reinforced training in basic skills than their white counterparts. Although inequalities in computer use diminish by high school—about 55 percent of black and Hispanic teenagers use computers at school, compared to 60 percent of white teens—variations in the content of that use are notable. For example, college-bound minority students get less experience in all major areas of computing applications than college-bound whites except data processing and computer programming. (See figure 8-20.) Female students get less experience than males in all applications except word processing and use in English courses.

These inequities in computer use at the elementary and high school levels could be the result of curriculum and teacher training as well as in-school access. As discussed earlier, research shows that use of computing resources depends on a teacher's training and ability to integrate computer-based instruction into the existing curriculum. One government report finds some evidence of differences in computer training among teachers of different ethnicity and socioeconomic status (PCAST 1997); however, diffusion data suggest that differences in students' school use of IT depend upon the availability of the equipment itself. Citing data from Quality Education Data, Inc., the Educational Testing Service (1997) notes that schools with a minority population of less than 25 percent have student-to-computer ratios of about 10 to 1, while schools with 90 percent or more minority students have ratios of 17.4 to 1. Similarly, the National Center for Education Statistics (1997) reports that schools with 50 percent or more minority students have Internet access in only 5 percent of their instructional classrooms, compared to 18 percent in schools with minority populations of 20 percent or less.

As with race and ethnicity, income is associated with student computer use. In 1993, three-quarters of all elementary school children from households with incomes greater than $50,000 used a computer at school, compared to two-thirds (or below) for children from households with incomes lower than $20,000. (See figure 8-21.) Internet access is similarly inequitable. Schools that have the largest proportion of economically disadvantaged students have less than one-half the level of Internet access as more affluent schools. (See figure 8-22 and figure 1-17 in chapter 1.) In short, schools with large minority and poor populations have less access to all information technologies, including multimedia computers, cable TV, Internet hook-ups, interactive videodisk, CD-ROMs, and satellite connections (ETS 1997).

Household Inequities top

Inequality of access to information technologies applies to adults as well as children. In 1993, about a third more whites used computers at work than blacks, and over a half more whites used computers at work than Hispanics. (See figure 8-23.) The disparity is even more pronounced regarding home use. The percentage of whites with a computer at home is twice that of blacks or Hispanics.[39] 

There appears to be a distinct class of "IT-disadvantaged" citizens. Adults who have not graduated from high school have one-fourth the level of ownership of home computers compared to those individuals with graduate or professional degrees. (See figure 8-24.) And the lowest income groups report one-ninth the level of computer ownership compared to individuals in the highest income brackets. (See figure 8-25.) Children share in this household inequity; more than 10 times as many of the most well-off children use computers at home as do the poorest students-more than 60 percent compared to about 5 percent. (See appendix table 8-8.)

Geographic data shed light on the informationally disadvantaged. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) finds that "in essence, information 'have nots' are disproportionately found in this country's rural areas and its central cities, [however] no situation compares with the plight of the rural poor" (NTIA 1995). Only 5 percent of rural households with annual incomes of less than $10,000 have computers—the lowest rate of ownership for any group. (See figure 8-26.) Unfortunately, these households cannot compensate for their lack of information access at home by using public libraries. As noted earlier, fewer than one-third of the libraries that serve communities of less than 5,000 have Internet access, compared to 93 percent of the libraries in metropolitan areas of 100,000 or more.

The irony of limited access by the poor, the least educated, and rural communities to information technologies is that when these groups gain access to IT and networks, they use the technology for self-advancement. NTIA reports that:

Many of the groups that are the most disadvantaged in terms of absolute computer and modem penetration are the most enthusiastic users of on-line services that facilitate economic uplift and empowerment. [Census survey data reveal that] low-income, minority, young, and less-educated computer households in rural areas and central cities appear to be likely to engage actively in searching classified ads for employment, taking educational classes, and accessing government reports, on-line via modem (1995, p. 3).

Bier et al. (1996) found similar results in a well-structured ethnographic study of home Internet use by six low-income families in Florida. These families were provided with home computers and Internet access to "see what families designated as 'informationally disadvantaged' would actually do on-line given unrestricted home Internet access" (p. 1). Families in the study used their computers and the Internet to acquire health information, create network support groups, search for jobs, and do school work.[40]  Individuals reported growth in their self-esteem, better grades, more effective communications with physicians, and closer relationships with their children. They also spoke of their fear of losing the technology because of the temporary nature of the study. As the authors summarize:

We did not anticipate the profound ways in which our participants' interactions with the technology and the relationships it made possible would change them, their sense of identity, and the content of their lives. While these changes were perceived as positive by the participants, our dilemma arose when participants began to express their growing fear of the time when they would be expected to return the borrowed equipment...According to use of human subjects research codes we met our ethical responsibility to the participants by clearly delineating the temporary nature of the resources provided...However, we have come to feel that adherence to these standard ethical requirements is insufficient to adequately address the principle of reciprocity in our relationships...In this study it became actively support the positive potential awakened in the participants (p. 9).

Privacy Issues top

IT offers extraordinary potential for collecting and reporting detailed information about individuals that many would consider to be private. Information on medical histories, credit records, shopping habits, spending practices, income levels, magazine subscriptions, video rentals, vacation preferences, and even coupon usage is routinely collected by commercial enterprises and stored in databases. These databases are, in turn, sold, bought, and "overlayed" into detailed electronic files on millions of individuals. With no more information than a name, address, phone number, or birthdate, a persistent "data miner" can compile a dossier with detail and scope that would shock most individuals. The proliferation and commercialization of personal data and information—and the fact that it is happening without the consent of the individual—has been well-documented (Smith 1994, Kahin and Nesson 1997, Regan 1995, Cavoukian and Tapscott 1997, and Culnan 1991). Other IT-related privacy issues include (but are not limited to) surveillance in the workplace (e.g., reading employees' e-mail and listening to their telephone calls) and tracking a person's Internet activities through an electronic tracer known as a "cookie."

Not surprisingly, Americans' concerns about protecting the privacy of their personal information and communications have been rising steadily for the past two decades. Concerns are sufficiently intense that more than a dozen pieces of related legislation have been passed since the 1970s (see Regan 1995 for a review). In addition, in 1994, Wisconsin became the first state in the country to establish an Office of the Privacy Advocate for its citizens, a bureau that actively promotes the protection of "personally identifiable" information.

Empirical measures of the proliferation of private information are not available. In addition, it is difficult to establish objective measures of violations of privacy, since privacy represents both values and psychological states. (In other words, violations of privacy are largely in the eye of the beholder.) If legal criteria are used—such as those of the 1974 Privacy Act, which essentially states that data cannot be collected on individuals without their permission—then we would be forced to conclude that violations of privacy are in fact commonplace.

Easier to measure is a society's collective sense about privacy and its safeguards. A variety of public opinion polls regarding privacy have been administered over the past 15 years, and they document a public concern over privacy that is growing in scope and intensity. By the mid-1990s, more people registered stronger concerns about protecting their privacy than at any other time. For example, the 1996 Equifax/Harris Consumer Privacy Survey found that 65 percent of those polled reported that protecting the privacy of consumer information was very important to them—an increase of 4 percentage points over the previous year (Equifax 1997).[41]  Medical privacy appears to be of particular concern (NRC 1997). In 1993, 96 percent of those surveyed believed that "federal legislation should designate all personal medical information as 'sensitive' and impose penalties for unauthorized disclosure."[42]  Confidence in controls on information marketing is not strong, however. In 1993, nearly half of all respondents to the Equifax/Harris survey indicated that they agreed strongly with the statement that "consumers have lost all control over how personal information about them is circulated and used by companies," a response 27 percent higher than that reported just two years previously (Regan 1995). In addition, 60 percent of those surveyed in an American Civil Liberties Union poll believe that their health insurance data are being accessed by others for secondary uses (EPIC 1997).

Americans strongly believe in their right to information privacy. Ninety-three percent of respondents in a 1991 Time-CNN poll believed that "companies that sell information to others should be required by law to ask permission from individuals before making the information available." The vast majority of people believe that companies should be prohibited from selling information about household income (90 percent), bill-paying history (86 percent), and product purchases (68 percent) (EPIC 1996). With respect to Internet use, the 1996 Georgia Tech Fifth World Wide Web Poll revealed that on-line Web users almost unanimously valued the ability to visit Web sites anonymously (rating this item as 4.6 on a scale of 5), and strongly opposed the right of site providers to sell information about their users to other companies (rating the right to sell at 1.7 on a scale of 5) (EPIC 1996).

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[37] Survey data indicate that people are increasingly using the World Wide Web for health-related information. See chapter 7, "The Use of Computer Technology in the United States".

[38] Structural barriers may reflect deliberate discrimination (such as hiring and promotion practices) as well as nondiscriminatory but excessively inequitable treatment (such as variations in school funding within a school district). In some instances, equal opportunity may also involve proactive efforts to correct inequalities among disadvantaged groups.

[39] Note that white, black, and Hispanic computer owners do tend to have comparable technological access to networks: there are no meaningful differences among racial and ethnic groups in terms of whether their computers have modems. See NTIA (1995).

[40] The authors state that "participants made use of virtual hospitals, medical dictionaries, and physician desk references. They joined support groups, visited international zoos, investigated scholarships, and made local transportation arrangements. They investigated appliances, looked at employment listings, and kept up with the local calendar of events" (Bier et al. 1996, p. 3).

[41] The wording of the Equifax/Harris polls has changed over time, making direct comparisons across multiple years difficult. Analysts do, however, conclude that the trend in public opinion is distinctly toward greater and more intense concerns over violations of privacy (Regan 1995, and Cavoukian and Tapscott 1997).

[42] Based on the 1993 Equifax/Harris Health Information Privacy Survey. See EPIC (1997).

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