Computers and Society

By Marek A. Suchenek

Professor of Computer Science


The following are excerpts from an article
that has been posted under the same title at:

    The era of modern computers began during World War II when opposing forces tried desperately to use computing devices to accomplish a prosaic information-theoretic task: to break the enemy's codes that guarded (we say: encrypted) sensitive military information. A few programmable digital electro-mechanical computers were designed then, and several inventors and scientists contributed to rapid progress in this new area of technology shortly thereafter, but I would like to think that it was John Neumann's idea, outlined in 1945 in his "First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC" (Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer) [1], of a processor with an access to a memory with stored data and program that marked the conception of the modern computer.
    Since then, computers and computer-based technology experienced explosive progress and proliferated to perhaps every aspect of human life. From scientific computations and modeling to electronic commerce and banking to telecommunications to the entertainment industry to military applications to schools and ordinary households (the list here is far from being complete!), computers rooted themselves within our society to the extent that many think it is no longer possible for us to function without them. (As a matter of fact, if you know of a significant area of human enterprise that has not utilized computer technology yet, then I would like to hear from you.) They allow their users to store, process, search, and retrieve unimaginable amount of digitized information quickly (well, relatively quickly) and reliably, a critical activity that gave birth to a new discipline often referred to as information technology - a computer-centered conglomeration of science, engineering, and mathematics.
    The recent emergence and fast growth of the world-wide net of inter-connected computers, and the accessibility of the Internet that runs on them, created opportunities that were unimaginable just a decade ago, but also brought some serious problems of an ethical, legal, and political nature. Indeed, the virtually unlimited access to information distributed over the the Internet and the ease and speed with which large groups of people can share that information provided individual members of society with real power at their fingertips challenging that of the traditional media (press and TV) and the government. Just think how convenient it is to Google-up an insightful article from the Internet or e-mail a query to your professor, as opposed to tediously searching library catalogues, never mind staying ignorant instead and trying to make best guesses in the absence of relevant information. (See [2] for an example of recent tendency towards replacing traditional personal computers with Internet-based ones.)
    Most of us are aware of "intelligent" computers that are capable of winning chess games with world champions and proving mathematical theorems, or recognizing the face of a known terrorist on a digital photograph. Perhaps everyone is familiar with speech recognition systems that replaced many directory assistance operators, never mind a myriad of "smart" contraptions (for instance, an automatic transmission in your car may belong to that category) that are capable of learning what a particular user expects from them and then "self-program" and act accordingly. But there are also some facts that may make one skeptical about the extent to which computers and the information they store and control can benefit us, or even if they are that beneficial for humanity. Indeed, knowing the limitations on and dangers of using computers is an indispensable part of computer literacy that holders of today's college degrees should possess.
    The Internet and the information technology that it proliferates transformed our society into an information society where knowledge is power. But it also shook the very foundations of the traditional ethical, legal, and political systems that we and our ancestors used to take for granted. It has created an illusion of a borderless global society within which individuals all over the world can communicate and collaborate with each other as if they were living in the same neighborhood. But the fact that the Internet transcends physical boundaries of nation-states, cultural regions, and zones of political influence, has not nullified these boundaries, nor has it alleviated problems and conflicts that come with the reality of a politically and culturally partitioned world.
    The author of the textbook [3] that I use in my CSC 301 Computers and Society class, Sara Baase, compares the invention of the computer to a gift of fire. This comparison has a lot of merit. Computers today, like fire hundreds and thousands of years ago, allow a civilization to achieve astonishing technological progress without which its very survival would be doubtful. As with fire, though, there are some serious limitations on what one can accomplish with computers and what one cannot. Computers, like fire, can only be utilized well by those who have learned how and when to use them (think of a combustion engine as an "educated" application of fire). And finally, computers, like fire, can inflict irreparable harm to humans and property.


    All those prospective students interested in learning more about this fascinating subject and related issues, for instance, about how to use computers and computer and information technology for the betterment of the society as well as for enhancement of their own careers, or, perhaps, how to contribute to the body of knowledge and progress in computer and information technology and its applications, may wish to visit the Department of Computer Science website. We currently offer two Bachelor degree programs and one Master's degree program, so there are plenty of interesting classes to chose from.  
    I hope to see you around there.  

January 26, 2009


    I would like to thank Dr. Vanessa Wenzel and Dr. George Jennings for reading and correcting a draft of this paper, and Donna Cruz for an invitation to write it.


[1] John von Neumann's 1945
First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC

[2] Google plans to make PCs history
[3] Sara Baase:  A Gift of Fire: Social, Legal, and Ethical Issues for Computers and the Internet, (3rd ed.), Prentice Hall, 2008