Humans in the Information and Communication Society

How We Will Live, Learn and Work

Public lecture in Namur, Belgium, on January 9, 1998 at the 4th IFIP-WG9.2. Namur Award celebration

Gunilla Bradley
Professor InformaticsUmeä
University/Mid-Sweden University
Home page : http://www.itk.mh.se/institutionen/personal/hemsidor/gunbra.html
 

Summary

Introduction

We are living in a time of accelerated technological development, which affects us all, both in our professional lives, private lives and in our roles as citizens. This is true with regards to the nature of our work, the design of our organizations, in communication between people, as well as in leadership and managerial roles. The term "IT" or rather "ICT" in Europe surrounds us more and more often- computers and computerization are other words that are used. For me ICT is the combination of computer technology, telecommunication technology and media. The convergence of these three definitely creates a very powerful force. I will use both words, IT and ICT, with the same meaning.

Within most universities a new discipline has evolved during the last couple of years. It is called "informatics" and it has somewhat different profiles depending on the university. In recent years informatics has come closer to me, the discipline has developed more and more towards the research field that has been close to my heart for 25 years- technology and social change, in which I have undertaken cross-disciplinary research. It's about the prerequisites, the applications, and the impact of IT on humans.

Within social psychology we talk about human physiological and psychosocial needs, e.g. influence, social belonging, learning and development, meaningful life content, and security. When these human needs are satisfied the individual is involved in society, but when this is not the case, when these needs are not fulfilled, we become almost "strangers". The end result is that we feel powerlessness, a lack of norms, and meaninglessness. What are then the great changes that have occurred? Are these changes connected with central human needs?

I will primarily be covering six areas in my presentation- the allocation issue, transfer and growth of knowledge/power and influence, work organization and work, human communication, stress, ICT and higher education. These areas have formed the main research areas for me and I have studied them during different "historical" periods in the technological development, from batch systems to the network period where we are just now. So, my conclusions on the present state ("state of the art") are based on my research.

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The allocation issue and ICT have come to the fore

Twenty-five years ago, at a time when ICT was entitled EDP (electronic data processing), I used to close my speeches by arguing that computerization is really an issue of allocation. It has very much to do with allocating the so-called "good life".

Allocation of:

Allocation between cities and rural areas

Allocation of profit between

Both physical power/strength (muscular) and "thought power" are being replaced. However the size of the part of human life that is work- what we today entitle work- doesn't seem to have diminished. We have achieved a subdivision which has created one group that is overworked and one group that is shut out from the workforce. This is not necessary. More and more people could have access to a good life. The allocation question and ICT are per se an important research problem. Furthermore ICT can support the so-called "weak" in the society, those people who have various kinds of handicap, linguistic, physical, or intellectual. There is a need for all humans.

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Transfer/growth of knowledge and influence

What we call "knowledge transfer" is an important phenomenon in the present and future knowledge society. This is valid for transfer urban-rural, Sweden-Europe, centre-periphery, and globally.

The technology is now used to transfer knowledge, which was earlier concentrated on experts, out to people, and they become strengthened both in their professional role and their roles as citizens. Learning in itself is changing, we can now be co-workers and colleagues when shaping new knowledge. Distance tuition (education) is becoming more and more common. The teacher's role and the student's role are also changing, and we are learning more and more together.

Hence IT involves a transfer of power connected with knowledge. A decomposition of the traditional hierarchical structure is occurring. There is an embryo for renewal. Long distance work, distance tuition, and long distance services already provide new prerequisites for the role of regions.

An old lace cloth is to my mind the best model for how the world might work, what social systems, organizations, and official authorities will look like in the future. This lace was actually crocheted by my grandmother but I know that here within the Brussels area lies the world centre for wonderful lace. Maybe that is why the idea of a European Union can be located in Brussels. Anyhow the network era has arrived and seems to be here to stay. It is possible to crochet all the time, each new loop is connected to another through the same yarn. The distribution of power is now possible in a quite a deep sense, competence is transferred to the periphery, out to the line.

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Work content and work organization are changing in depth

During the automation period, we talked about an increased feeling of being alien in work life, the individual was a stranger, both in relation to the work tasks, the results of the work, and in contact with other persons. During the early periods of computerization the phenomenon of vulnerability, personal integrity, more abstract, and formalized jobs were focused.

What is now happening with work content and work organization? We have achieved more flexible work processes regarding both the professional role itself and leadership. Further the professional role, the learning role and the role of citizen are becoming more and more integrated. Repetitive jobs and physically strenuous jobs, including routine work, vanish and a total upgrading of qualifications has occurred. In parallel the organization is flattened out. The type of organizational structure, which has become more and more common, is networks. Together with two doctoral students I am carrying out a research project about the psychosocial and organizational aspects of networking. In an international perspective more work tasks are becoming similar because software programs are sold world-wide and the work tasks are carried out in a more similar way.

The hierarchical structures of companies mirrored industrialization and the industrial technology during the mainframe period of the computerization era. What characteristics does the network organization have and how are people affected by this new structure? Some examples:

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ICT has an impact on the social contact and communication between people

There is a change taking place in the structure and quantity of the contacts and collaboration between people in work life, in private life e. g. in the residence area, and in the community as a whole. Electronic networks, electronic subcultures and electronic communities are emerging in work and private life with various functions.

If technology is used in a proper way it can give us more time for human contacts, but in many cases it has produced the opposite effect. Many people are working at a computer screen the whole day and only interacting with the computer, they do not meet living human beings. The dialogue between people is running the risk of getting thinner. However a new world is opening itself when we think in terms of the virtual company, the virtual classroom and the virtual living room. It seems like these new opportunities provide us with an insight into the value of meeting in person, its importance for listening, for trust, and emotional support and safety. It is important that the emotional development can find its place. Sometimes people can hide behind the computer screen, avoid conflicts, or avoid difficult meetings with other persons. There are experiences that in the long run could contribute to personal growth and development. Children and young persons may lose an important time in their identity development if they are exposed too early and too intensely to electronic communication.

However the feeling of belonging established when meeting in person can be facilitated, become ennobled with the support of electronic communication. Electronic meetings can also be deepened by following up contacts in the form of meetings in person. This ought to be an important goal. "Electronic solitude", that is structural loneliness forced upon a person and which exists today, has to be prevented in the ICT society, or at least combated and counteracted.

We have got quite new collaborative structures, possibilities for a deepening of democracy as well as international understanding. Today there are real prerequisites for peace.

Communication between people with an increased use of ICT makes it clear for us that communication has different purposes: It has a knowledge function, a social function, a control function and, not at least, an expressive function.

Qualitative aspects of communication e.g. trust, confidence, interest, listening, and emotional engagement will be more essential. New dimensions in the quality of communication will occur.

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With ICT our tempo is increasing - a stress factor

Our perception of time and space is changing. New opportunities for flexible work (telework), to work and learn independent of location, have changed our perception of space. Our requirements of ourselves regarding pace and tempo are becoming higher all the time- there is a change in the level of expectations (aspiration). An adaptation to the machine occurs. One gets affected by the pace of the machine in an unconscious way. The words "slowly" and "fast" have got quite new meanings. The same is valid for the words "close" and "far away".

There is a basic level of stress in our technological environments in large cities. It used to be entitled "technostress", a phenomenon on the societal level. Technostress is a totally accelerated tempo, which to a large extent is a result of effectiveness and efficiency. Maybe technology fits better into a societal structure on the macro level, where small-scaleness, closeness to the environment, to nature, to the woods, lakes, and the sea exist. One could talk about overstimulation, often in the big cities, and understimulation, often in rural areas, as promoting stress. This could be balanced.

Certain ICT stress is related to the fact that we have an increased dependency on computers and networks and that the equipment is functioning well. We have got a super network with Internet, which nowadays dominates electronic communication in business and private life. The dependency is accentuated when there is a requirement on the access to information.

Stress phenomena in the Internet world are information overload, contact overload, requirement on availability, lack of organizational filters, hard to separate "noise" from essentials, changing level of expectations, and changed perception of time and space in general.

The phenomenon called ICT stress can be characterized by too much or too little of various aspects or areas e.g. workload, information, contact with people, flexibility, opportunities for development, training. Perhaps we could even revise plans for a "society of moderation"?

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IT and higher education

How is ICT in our own academic environment? Higher education is both a repository and a creator of new knowledge - research. Knowledge is the dominating resource in the future and it is dominating material resources. The importance of higher education will grow, no doubt. I participate in a research programme in collaboration with the Mid-Sweden University (my present affiliation), the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm (my former affiliation), Ronneby-Karlskrona University in the south of Sweden, and Stanford University in California. The research concerns ICT's challenges for higher education. On the world map one could point out the present and planned broadband communication links. Japan and Singapore belong to the next plans.

What are the important competencies (capacities) that we will need in the future?

We have studied both environments where ICT is being developed, in Silicon Valley in California and the corresponding area in Sweden in Kista close to Stockholm, and environments where ICT is used extensively. In all these environments the following seem to be needed:

- Leadership rather than management
- Creativity
- Problem-solving capacity
- Social competence and communication skills; human to human
- To handle computers (being able to use a computer)
- To work and function in multicultural environments
- To cope with stress and psychological strain.

This autumn I have received many invitations to talk about stress and ICT. The latest example is a conference for human resource directors in Swedish companies. What strikes me is the prevailing resignation. The problem does not seem primarily to be preventing stress in the workplace but rather how to cope with the stress that we necessarily have to live with. This is a challenge for research. Now some of my computer science students have started to become stress researchers- focusing more on the preventive aspect. What can technology do? How can society contribute, what actions can be undertaken in the close and more remote environment?

What impact does ICT have on higher education and universities?

Internationalization of research and international collaboration in general are strengthened. Opportunities for interactivity in research, documentation, and learning are increasing. Networks between universities are appearing and growing. Regional "centres of excellence" that is research centres with special profiles are being developed. The often-discussed "critical mass" referred to as crucial for the quality of research is more and more created with the support of electronic networks.

Last summer during some hot days in my summer home on the island of …land, I read Jacques Delors report Learning - The Treasure Within (Unesco). He brought forward four pillars of education and I think they are very central for all learning in the future:

So simple but often so hard.

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Some major concerns

One way to summarize the discussion on the IT society and the individual are the following five major concerns. They could be formulated as problem areas or viewed as research questions. But by now there are reasons to start up normative research which later on could be discussed across wider cultures. It concerns the classic question: Is research value-free?

Integration or Isolation: (Human-human communication)

Do IT networks increase the quality and variety of social interactions, or do limits on social contacts via IT lead to higher levels of isolation and social disintegration?

Normatively: ICT should contribute to an enrichment in the social contact between people and should be used to prevent social isolation and social disintegration.

Autonomy or Servitude: (Work content; autonomy/self-determination versus ... control)

Can enhancement in wireless and mobile IT systems permit greater autonomy and discretion in work, or are employees more subject to work pressures and job stress? Flexible work/telecommuting and electronic performance monitoring are important to consider.

Normatively: ICT should contribute to a greater autonomy for the individual and prevent stress reactions.

Control or Freedom: (Life content; Control or Freedom) is a classic issue regarding privacy - integrity.

Information Access or Overload: (ICT stress, technostress)

Normatively: ICT should facilitate information access and support individual learning, but at the same time prohibit various kinds of overload (filtering; sorting out).

Separation or Synergy of Selves: (Our bases for identity, the goal of learning)

Are electronic interactions via IT networks leading to disintegration of the self and to the development of cultures of artificial personalities, or do the exchange of social contacts without physical constraints allow for greater understanding of the underlying characteristics of humanity?

Normatively: ICT should contribute to developing true human qualities and be used to provide time for people to develop themselves as humane beings.

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Important research areas for the future

In my contacts with mass media I have on occasion dared to go back to the books I have authored, primarily Computers and the Psychosocial Work Environment (Taylor & Francis) published in Swedish 11 years ago. I have to say that the research questions that I proposed as important for the future are still highly relevant today and maybe more important than 10 years ago. Why? I think that when we have been living in a society deeply and broadly affected by the new technology, it might be harder to identify both risks and opportunities. A new generation is here, which has grown up in the digital environment. There are reasons today to go back to classics in research, e.g. there are no more work environments in the traditional sense, they are dissolving, but phenomena identified in e.g. the work life research, where Sweden during many years was very active, have to be reviewed with a new perspective. How are human needs of influence, belonging and meaning met with in the new structures?

I will give some examples of desirable research:

How is ICT changing our identity, self perception, social competence, creativity, integrity and trust. How is the balance between emotional and rational components, the balance between what we call female and male, the tension between involvement and alienation. Within this area I formulated in 1991 some hypotheses.

We need to focus within European research on syntheses and on issues related to welfare and qualify of life ... a few worn-out words maybe. The so-called Swedish model has been very much criticized after the fall of the iron curtain ... but there is room for a renewal. I think there is a need for normative research in the next step where we place human welfare and life quality for all as crucial societal goals. Some main areas for research would be to study; ICT and various cultures, ICT and democratic processes, human life roles in the ICT society, leadership on a governmental level as well as in organizations, at work and in school, human to human interaction, analyses of life styles and values, new organizational models of work and life in general.

Research programmes/projects where I am directly involved are the following:

The latter project originally was entitled "Computers in the bakery" (CiB). I think it is desirable if we as researchers leave our "ivory towers" and try to influence society more directly. I devoted three years to get my small home village in the south of Sweden to start to flourish again with the support of ICT. For those interested I could refer to my publication list in my homepage. My home community has become the community of the year 1998 in Sweden.

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Human needs again

ICT involves both risks and opportunities - that is the most common title of my presentations over the years. In each new period of ICT history, there are both risks and opportunities regarding the fulfilment of human needs. The use of information technology could empower and strengthen possibilities and prerequisites to influence one's own life conditions, for social belongingness, for a meaningful life content and for learning and developing oneself.

When I joined the wonderful Summer school in Brighton, organized by IFIP-WG9.2 people, some years ago, I designed an action tree for the future human ICT society. We worked together in groups and supplemented our national trees by an international tree of action. We tried to identify strategies of international actions. Our aim was to strive for an information society that could be depicted as a tree of fruits for us all to share. Some person concluded "The fruits of rightness is the tree of life" (Bible, Prov. 11:17, 30). The presentations from that IFIP Summer school are summarized in the book Computers and Society (Beardon C. and Whitehouse D., Eds., Intellect, Oxford). I have a special invitation for all of you to keep the dialogue going. What are the main branches of that tree of action at the Millennium?

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Insitut d'Informatique - 30/04/98