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It can be argued that Information Technology (“IT”) became a part of popular culture only after the emergence of two technological breakthroughs. The first one was the invention of the personal computer. The second technological breakthrough was the Internet. These two inventions combined, led the way to the radical change in the way human beings communicate over long distances. It also enhanced their capability to store, access, share, and transmit information.
The modern world was dominated and transformed by the technologies that came before like the telegraph, radio, and television. But it was a surprise when the IT revolution initiated a radical transformation of human society.
After the World-Wide-Web and sophisticated websites are added as innovations to two core technologies of IT, these transformed the social and business realms. In the business world, entrepreneurs and business leaders found a more efficient way to do buy and sell. In the social realm human beings created a virtual identities and communities in a cyberspace.
The Computer and Internet
It all began with the creation of computers. These are machines that have the capability to process data at speeds that exceeded human power. However, the first generation computers were bulky, expensive and difficult to use. The first generation machines were used primarily by the government for they are the only institution that can afford this novel invention. In the beginning a typical computer can easily occupy the size of an average room. In order for the IT revolution to begin, there was a need for the creation of personal computers.
These are scaled down for personal use, hence the name of the equipment. As a consequence of this technological breakthrough the average person can now afford to procure and use his or her own computer.
Although, the invention of the personal computer was an important foundation stone for the impending IT revolution, there was still a missing piece. After World War II scientists and engineers began to tinker with the idea of interconnected computers (Gelb, 2007). Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf found a way to connect multiple computers and this innovation is known as the TCP/IP Protocol (Gelb, 2007).
Their invention paved the way for globalization to occur at an accelerated pace. It led to the creation of the Internet that enabled computer users in India to communicate to computer users in the United Kingdom, the United States and even as far as New Zealand.
At first glance IT is all about communication and the efficient management of information. Naturally, it did not take long before IT became the cornerstone of a new way of doing business.
Consider the following innovations: a) websites; b) electronic mail and instant messaging; c) a mechanism that can be used to send and receive files such as images, spreadsheets, and digitized documents; and d) a mechanism that can be used to move funds as well as buy and sell goods and services. These innovations opened new methods of doing business that was not available in the past.
The sudden increase in computer literacy coupled with the creation of sophisticated websites that enable users to manipulate and benefit from different types of applications ushered in a new kind of globalization (Waters, 2001). In the past international relations was only possible with heads of states, their emissaries and other powerful individuals conducting business overseas.
But in the new form of globalization, individuals from different parts of the world can communicate and interact with almost no obstacles standing in their way (Waters, 2001). This new capability was made possible by websites created by companies like Yahoo and Google. Furthermore, it enabled individuals in a virtual community to interact without the benefit of a personal relationship with another person.
IT significantly influenced social development in the past few decades (Lofdah, 2002). One of the critical changes brought about by IT is the ability to communicate and interact without barriers and very minimal government regulation. It is not just the speed, such as those that can be seen with instant messaging and email, but also the fact that it is difficult to monitor the interaction between individuals that are separated by continents and oceans.
A cost-efficient way to communicate has altered the job market in a way never seen before. In the past the members of the community are expected to find work within the area. But with the IT revolution, a UK firm can hire and outsource work requirements to someone who lives and works in India or China. Not every type of work can be outsourced but it was enough to radically alter the way the job market will be perceived later on.
The IT revolution can be a positive development from the point of view of the need for a cheap and efficient way to communicate with other people. However, it can be a powerful tool that can be exploited by unscrupulous individuals. Aside from transforming the dynamics that govern the job market, the IT revolution gave birth to cybercrime. According to a commentary:
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Cybercrime is one of the terms used to denote the use of computer technology to engage in unlawful activity. Computer crime, high-tech crime and information-age crime are also used to describe this phenomenon. Most of the cybercrime we have seen so far is nothing more than the migration of real-world crimes into cyberspace (Jewkes, 2007, p.12).
One of the most important things to consider is the way people interact without the benefit of a face-to-face interaction. It can pave the way for the distortion of identities.
A criminal can easily exploit any weakness in a system and the capacity to defraud by manipulating unseen mechanisms is something that the criminal mind finds difficult to resist. It is clear that information technology can be used for wicked schemes but it must be pointed out that there are other benefits as well, especially when it comes to a more efficient way of doing business.
Impact on the Business Realm
With the use of IT, businessmen were able to position their products to penetrate new markets (Susskind, Levy, & Thomas-Larmer, 2000). For instance, companies in the UK were able to gain a foothold in communist China (Susskind, Levy, & Thomas-Larmer, 2000). In the past, the barriers to entry were difficult to deal with. But with the help of IT, businessmen can communicate without the need for a physical presence.
This new development compelled social scientists to proclaim that “globalization as a concept refers both to the compression of the world and the intensification of consciousness of the world as a whole … both concrete global interdependence and consciousness of the global whole” (Waters, 2001). But globalization in the scope and depth that one can find today would have been impossible without the IT revolution.
Aside from cybercrime, the IT revolution opened the door for a more sophisticated way of conducting crime. In other words the World-Wide-Web created a mechanism that encouraged illegal activity.
Take for example the case of online pharmacies. In an ideal setting this is a lucrative and efficient way to conduct business. However, the ability to deliver drugs directly to consumers can be easily abused by unscrupulous persons (Kutais, 2000). It is of great importance to monitor and shut down foreign-based business enterprises that focus in the sale of illegal merchandise.
The Internet also made possible the proliferation of illegal wildlife trade (Barclay, 2008). The International Fund for Animal Welfare (“IFAW”) led an international effort to shut down websites that operates in China (Barclay, 2008).
According to an official of IFAW, “their investigation was able to pinpoint Chinese sites selling 1,973 items from 30 species protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora or CITES” (Barclay, 2008, p.1). The IT revolution opened the door for illegal activity to flourish but in the social realm there are other issues that require the attention of parents, teenagers, businessmen and government officials.
Impact on Relationships and Identity
An interesting and at the same time disturbing by-product of the IT revolution is the capability to create virtual identities and virtual communities. This phenomenon is based on the fact that faceless interaction is possible in cyberspace. The speed, ease of use and cheap cost of interacting with people that are located hundreds of miles away coupled with the power of anonymity has emboldened many people to socialize using this new medium. But there is one major difference, according to researchers in the field of virtual reality:
People in virtual communities use words on screens to exchange pleasantries and argue, engage in intellectual discourse, conduct commerce, exchange knowledge, share emotional support, make plans, brainstorm, gossip, feud, fall in love … and a lot of idle talk. People in virtual communities do just abut everything people do in real life but we leave our bodies behind (Rheingold, 1998, p.1).
Information technology has given rise to cyberculture. It is important to learn more about this phenomenon. It is also important for educational institutions as well as government agencies to contribute and support research focused on these issues. By doing so researchers would be able to contribute greatly in finding ways to solve the problems that are related to the creation of virtual identities and virtual communities.
In the past culture can only be created in a realm where there is face-to-face interaction. It is in the cities, rural areas and hamlets where culture and traditions are created over hundreds of years. The identity of the person cannot be created outside the protective and nurturing boundaries of family, relatives, clans, and friends. In the modern age this was improved upon with the tradition of sending children to college and universities. But the identity of the person is still strongly linked to families left behind.
The formation of communities followed the same organic pattern. Communities were formed not only through face-to-face interactions but also through the shared beliefs of the people living in a particular area. Even in college campuses the creation of a community of students are based on things that are tangible such as the curriculum, the teachers, the classes, and the assignments and exams that have to be completed before completion of their studies.
With the advent of personal computers and the World-Wide-Web, the ingredients needed to form communities were no longer valid. Individuals that did not come from the same village and did not share the same beliefs can form communities based on shared interests. These new interests and commonly shared ideas became the foundation for new beliefs.
Thus, with just the use of a keyboard and a computer monitor, people can form virtual communities or join one. Virtual communities can be very disorienting to those who are used to conventional forms of human interaction. People can interact even without a clear idea of who is leading the group. Another important feature of the virtual communities is that people can interact even if they are actually strangers.
The freedom to create virtual identities provides a way to express an idea without the fear of censure. Another reason for creating a virtual identity is for the person to hide certain flaws and at the same time live out fantasies and express deep-seated desires.
One of the most important figures who contributed in the study of online identities is Sherry Turkle, a researcher who studied virtual identities such as those that populate the virtual community created by hardcore Star Trek fans. Her findings can be seen in the article entitled, Constructions and Reconstructions of Self in Virtual Reality: Playing in the MUDs.
The article was written in 1994 and the result of a study of an interactive computer game. The virtual community was inspired by the American television series called Star Trek: The Next Generation (Turkle, 1994, p. 158). In the said game “there were over 1000 players that spend up to 80 hours a week participating in intergalactic exploration and wars (Turkle, 1994, p. 158).
However, the most intriguing portion of the study was the confession made by one of the players of the game who said the following: “This is more than my real life” (Turkle, 1994, p.158). The author later revealed that this particular person is a man who played the character of a woman who pretended to be a man” (Turkle, 1994). In this game the “rules of social interaction are built not received” (Turkle, 1994, p. 163).
The IT revolution did not only affect the social and business realms, it radically altered the way people deal with other people and how they see their real identity. Information technology did not only provide a more cost-efficient way to communicate and conduct business, it also paved the way for the creation of virtual identities and communities. The private and public sector must collaborate to learn more about this phenomenon.
The invention of the personal computer and the Internet greatly impacted the business and social realms. Everything can be traced by the ease and speed of communication as well as the ability to interact with others without the need for a face-to-face communication.
As are result the new technology allowed people to use it for good and for evil. It is important to regulate the use of information technology. But more than that it is critically important for users to understand how it works in order to help develop rules, regulations, and standards that can harness more of the benefits and less of the harm that IT can bring to the home and business environment.
Barclay, E. (2008). China cracks down on illegal online wildlife trade. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/
Gelb, M. (2007). Innovate like Edison. New York: Penguin Group.
Jewkes, Y. (2007). Crime online: Committing, policing and regulating. OR: William Publishing.
Kutais, G. (2000). Internet policies and issues. New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.
Lofdah, C. (2002). Environmental impacts of globalization and trade: a systems study. MA: MIT Press.
Rheingold, H. (1998). The virtual community. Retrieved from http://www.rheingold.com/vc/book/index.html
Susskind, L., Levy, P., & Thomas-Larmer, J. (2000). Negotiating environmental agreements. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.
Waters, M. (2001). Globalization. New York: Routledge.