The Impact of Information Technology on Work and Society


Aim of the report

The aim of this report is to provide a brief summary of some of the main technological developments that have taken place in information technology and how these developments have had an influence on the way we work and on society in general, in the last thirty years.

It would be useful to outline some “working definitions” for some of the terms, which have been introduced in the opening paragraph. These definitions will help define the scope of this report.

Definitions of Terms used in the Aim

The first definition is of “information technology”. Information technology is the technology used to store, manipulate, distribute or create information. The type of information or data is not important to this definition. The technology is any mechanism capable of processing this data.

Kathleen Guinee wrote, “By information technology, I mean the tools we use to perform calculations, to store and manipulate text, and to communicate. Some of these twentieth century tools include: the adding machine, slide rule, and calculator for performing calculations, the typewriter and word processor for processing text, and the telephone, radio, and television for communicating.”(

The report will examine how advances in constructing and designing these mechanisms have affected the general society.

The second definition is of “the way we work”. The elements of this phrase can be split up into two main considerations, e.g. what we mean by the way and how we define work. The “way” will be defined for the purposes of this report as the processes that are used by individuals or organisations. “Work” shall be defined as when we apply the processes to accomplish some arbitrary task.

The third definition is of “general society”. Society can be defined as “a community, nation, or broad grouping of people having common traditions, institutions, and collective activities and interests.”( The report will examine how the technological developments which have occurred in information technology have influenced a “broad grouping of people” in their “common traditions, institutions and/or collective activities”. This broad grouping of people will primarily be those in the industrialised world of where “information technology” is commonly available.

The fourth and final working definition in this introduction is “technological developments”. For the purpose of this report this phrase has been defined with a reference to the previous definition of “information technology”. A development in information technology is any improvement to the mechanism used to “store, manipulate, distribute or create information”. This report aims to provide a brief summary of these developments. This will be achieved by highlighting only those developments that have influenced “general society”.

Having provided a few “working definitions” for some of the words in the initial paragraph the aim and scope of the report has been more clearly delimited.

How the report will achieve the aim

The report will provide a summary of the main developments that have occurred in the last thirty years of information technology.

After presenting this list the report will then justify each which has been identified primarily in terms of it’s advancement of technology.

After the technological justification the report will then examine what influence if any these advances have had on society.

Identification of main developments

The identification of significant developments begins chronologically in 1969. It was decided to arrange the developments in a chronological order. The advantages of this approach for this section of the report are that the developments are presented in a logical order. A development in the sphere of information technology often was dependent upon other developments that preceded it. The chronological order therefore provides a simple and commonly understood framework in which to present the summary.


The Arpanet is introduced, funded by the department of defence. (

The first automatic teller machine is introduced. (
E.F.Codd describes the relational model (databases) (

The first single chip central processing unit was introduced, the Intel 4004. (
The first network e-mail message is sent by Ray Tomlinson of Bolt Boranek and Newman. (

Lexitron, Wang and VYTEC introduce Word Processing systems. (

The Xerox Paulo Alto Research Centre developed the Alto, an experimental computer that uses a graphical user interface and a mouse.

Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir and Leonard Adelman introduce the RSA cipher as a public key cryptosystem.

The first electronic spreadsheet program is introduced.

IBM introduces its first personal computer with an operating system developed by Microsoft.

The switchover to the TCPIP protocol marks the beginning of the global Internet.

Microsoft releases the Windows operating system. (

The world wide web project is proposed to the European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN). (

Windows version 3.0 is released bringing a stable graphical user interface to the IBM Personal Computer.

The Mosaic NCSA is developed by the National Centre for Super-computing Applications.

The first full length feature movie createdby a computer is released. Toy Story.

Late 1990’s:
The emergence of electronic commerce.

Justification of developments selected

Sections dealing with the impact of the developments will show the justification of the developments mentioned above. However to justify them on a technical scale is also important. They have been selected as being among the most important developments in information technology of the last thirty years.

However some of the developments highlighted have been included instead of other similar developments. This is because of the impact on the general society (which influence is the main examination of this report) that these specific developments have had..

It is important to note however some of the potential pitfalls in developing a technical history. These include “the overemphasis of the contribution made by an individual and also the distortion of a derived view of current `reality` due to a distorted history.” (

Impact of developments

The impact of the developments that have been included in the summary will be analysed in this section. However rather than continue to follow a simple chronologically ordered summary, organised with the developments as the starting point. The report will first identify some general areas of society and evaluate the influences which information technology has had on these areas.

As previously shown society can be defined as “a community, nation, or broad grouping of people having common traditions, institutions, and collective activities and interests.”( Therefore we shall use the common traditions, institutions and collective activities and interests as the basis for our examination of the impact information technology has had on society. We shall also integrate this examination with the impact of how information technology has changed the “way we work”. This integration will occur in two areas of the analysis of society, first the institutions and second the collective activities of the society.

Common Traditions

How has the development of information technology influenced the common traditions of a society?

To answer this question in the context of this report it is helpful to highlight a difference between “traditions” and “activities/interests”. Tradition can be defined as the following:

“An inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behaviour (as a religious practice or a social custom).
Cultural continuity in social attitudes, customs, and institutions.”

The influence of information technology on religious practices has mainly been to the effect of making information about them more accessible. The most relevant question though is whether the developments in information technologies have influenced the continuity of social attitudes, customs or institutions. The question of the effect on institutions will however be dealt with later in the report.

Cultural Continuity

How has the development of information technology influenced the cultural continuity of general society? (E.g. of social attitudes or customs).

The question of a change in the continuity of social attitudes or customs is a question that by itself could occupy an entire report. However it shall be dealt with briefly here.

Social attitudes have changed with the effect that citizens of a society now expect the various elements of that society to be better informed than previously. They also expect to be able to access more information about a specific product, service or organisation so that they can make informed decisions with regard to their interactions with that entity.


The word institutions can incorporate a wide variety of organisations. For the purposes of this report the institutions we will examine will be:

  • Governments,
  • Commercial businesses,
  • News & Media organisations,
  • Educational organisations.

Each of these could be further refined into more specific types of institution but for the purposes of the report these abstractions will be sufficient. The influence which information technology development has had on these areas will be mainly focused on how the technology has “improved” the processes by which the institution accomplishes its task or goal.


How has the development of information technology influenced the way Governments operate?

The “government” of a nation will be comprised of many varied institutions. However developments in information technology has helped governments to improve their “service” to their citizens. Advances in Database technology for example have enabled the governments of various countries to collate and monitor statistical information that they can use to combat fraud, manage the economy in a more informed way.

Information Technology has also had a major impact on the defence capabilities of governments. This covers both a government’s capability towage war and their intelligence gathering capability. Advances in weapons technology and weapons design has increased the effectiveness of various governments’ armed forces. For example it would have been impossible to design aeroplanes such as the B2 Bomber if it were not for the advances made in information technology. The B2 bomber relies on a “continuous curvature” design to minimise radar signature. It would have been impossible to design or build this machine without the development of computer modelling techniques.

Information Technology has also had a major impact on a government’s intelligence agencies. Encryption of sensitive information has enabled government’s to obtain added security. However attempting to decrypt information is also a major area of work for those employed by the government.

Governments also have had to have a renewed care towards their sensitive information. The proliferation of Internet technologies has led to stories such as that highlighted below:

“The Web becomes the focal point of British politics as a list of MI6 agents is released on a UK Web site. Though forced to remove the list from the site, it was too late as the list had already been replicated across the Net. (15 May 1999)” (
The advance of information technology has also led to a need for new legislation to be introduced, for example in the United Kingdom the Data Protection Act of 1998. The governments data protection act Web Site gives the following eight rules regarding personal information:

  1. It must be fairly and lawfully processed;
  2. Processed for limited purposes;
  3. Adequate, relevant and not excessive;
  4. Accurate;
  5. Not kept longer than necessary;
  6. Processed in accordance with the data subject’s rights;
  7. Secure;
  8. Not transferred to countries without adequate protection.


Commercial Businesses

How has the development of information technology influenced commercial businesses?

The advances in information technology have heavily influenced commercial businesses in several ways. The most important role of information technology in a commercial business however is to provide a commercial advantage. Advances such as computer aided design, relational database technologies, spreadsheets, and word processing software all provide a commercial benefit to the business, as does automation of manufacturing processes (as Sara-Lee did in 1964).

It is beyond the scope of this report to go into detail about how the various software developments can be used to provide a commercial advantage, other than increaseing the productivity and innovation of the workforce.

It is interesting to note however that as different businesses compete with each other, the commercial advantage one can have over another may depend primarily on it’s use of information technologies. For example being able to extract information as to what the customer really wants and how to provide for that want can provide a significant advantage. This extraction of information is facilitated and indeed made possible by the technology used to store and manipulate this information. As the hardware and software mechanisms used to store and manipulate the information become more sophisticated and quicker the business can utilise its stored information to maximise it’s commercial advantage.

The use of information technology to monitor a businesses performance can also enable the business to highlight areas where they are not making the most use of their resources. The use of information technologies can also increase the businesses income through advertising in the various available forums. Advances in information technology over the last thirty years have lead to the television for example being more widely used today than thirty years ago (e.g. the introduction of transistor based televisions reduced costs while increasing reliability).

News & Media organisations

How has the development of information technology influenced the way news and media organisations deliver content?

Due to the nature of news and media organisations, the information technologies have particular relevance to them. As noted earlier “Information technology is the technology used to store, manipulate, distribute or create information”. News and media organisations are intimately acquainted with each of these elements of information technology. However this report will focus on the distribution and creation of information.

Developments such as the Internet and satellite television have created new medium and audiences through which and to which these organisations can disseminate their information.

Given the situation thirty years ago the developments that we have seen have enabled the news and media organisations access to more people, they have a wider audience. The audience however now has a wider, global choice. News reports can be received which highlight many different sides of an international conflict for example than was possible before. The relative cheapness of being able to publish information on the Internet for example means that virtually anyone can publish information accessible anywhere in the world.

Educational organisations

How has the development of information technology influenced the way educational resources are provided?

As information technology has developed over the last thirty years, educational establishments have been influenced in various ways. The most obvious example has been the introduction of information technology related courses. These courses are introduced to try to satisfy the demand that society has for qualified people to develop these information technologies.

The developments that have occurred in information technology have also had other influences on educational establishments. As was discussed earlier about news and media organisations, educational organisations also have a goal to distribute information from a source (lecturer, books, on-line resources etc.) to the student. The processes by which educational establishments distribute information have become increasingly diverse, and the effectiveness of the process has also improved.

The distribution of information is not the only concern of educational establishments. For example one of the aims of Universities is to create information. This “creation” is done by research. Information technologies have enabled researchers to access a wider source of information than previously available through such technologies as the Internet (the original ArpaNet being set up primarily to assist research). The Internet and other related technologies such as electronic mail, also enable collaborative projects to be undertaken between geographically distant groups.

Collective Activities and Interests

One of the aims of the report is to analyse the influence of “information technology” on the collective activities and interests of a broad range of people. The phrase “collective activities and institutions” has a wide scope. This report divides these into two main areas:

  1. Work processes,
  2. Social.

This section of the report will examine how information technology influences how individuals in a society have had the way they function in their interactions with each other (social), and their interactions with institutions (work processes).

Work Processes

How has the development of information technology influenced the interactions between institutions and individuals from the individual point of view?

Developments in information technology in the last thirty years have led from institutions with large single computers being able to only accommodate one user at a time, to a point now where powerful computing power is available to individuals rather than an organisation. Thirty years ago computers were much larger than now, often filling large rooms. The move from individuals in an organisation (whether commercial or academic) not having access to computing facilities to a position where users could have a link to computing facilities first began with Fernando Corbató’s CTSS operating system (the first multi user operating system), giving users the impression they had possession of a computer. (In fact their terminals were sharing time on the computer with other terminals).

Further development in this area occurred with the introduction of several developments. These included developments such as mass-produced mini-computers such as the PDP-8, which enabled more institutions to obtain computers at a lower cost than be fore. Later developments such as the personal computer, have brought computing power even closer to the individual in the organisation. And as graphical user interfaces have evolved from the early experiments at Xerox PARC to the Windows operating system, the individuals in an organisation can even more easily harness computing power. This leads to an increase in the individuals ability to complete tasks quickly and efficiently.


How has the development of information technology influenced the interactions between individuals?

Interactions between individuals have been enhanced by the development of information technologies. New channels of communication have been opened between people in the last thirty years. These developments have been assisted by such projects as the ArpaNet. The forerunner to the Internet. The ArpaNet was commissioned as an aid to research between various institutions. This institutional use was also accompanied by an unofficial use between individuals. The ArpaNet hosted mailing lists, some of which individuals used to communicate with each other on non-institutional business. These included the science fiction mailing list (

As other developments occurred, such as the widespread availability of modems and personal computers became more widespread, the general population was integrated into what is known as the Internet.

Individuals then have the ability to interact with other individuals through such developments as e-mail, chat-rooms and the Usenet.

This proliferation of Internet technologies has enabled people with disabilities such as those who are blind or visually impaired, physical disabilities or others to be able to enjoy access to sources of information and ways of communicating they may not have had the opportunity to have used before.

As Christopher Murphy wrote “Of greatest importance to disabled people, perhaps, is the ability of the computer and modem to immerse them into a world that might otherwise be off limits. A disabled person using a computer has access to vast amounts of information at his fingertips. People with disabilities can tap into practical disability-related information or converse with other disabled people. Not only that, they can also enter the mainstream. With the help of these computer devices and advanced software many disabled people can be just as competitive as anyone else.”



To offer a conclusion to this report we should detail the aspects of the aim that we have fulfilled. Here then was the initial aim.

“The aim of this report is to provide a brief summary of some of the main technological developments that have taken place in information technology and how these developments have had an influence on the way we work and on society in general, in the last thirty years.”

By giving a timeline of some of the developments that have been seen in information technology, we have provided the brief summary of the main technological developments.

The sections following that which, deal with the impact of information technology on the common traditions, institutions and the collective activities and interests provide an analysis of how the developments impacted on the general society.

It has been shown that the developments in information technology have had an impact on general societies perception of information. Without going into specific detail about individual situations, it has been shown that that impact has been fourfold:

  1. storage,
  2. manipulation,
  3. distribution,
  4. creation.

These four areas dealing with information are the four areas in which societies perception of information has changed. As communication and information technologies have been developed, the various elements that makeup society, whether they be individuals or organisations, expect to be able to use information in ways that were not possible thirty years ago. Society expects to be able to store more than was previously conceived. Society expects to be able to manipulate the information they have for their benefit, to increase understanding and discover new relationships. Society expects to be able to distribute information quickly, efficiently and cheaply. Society now expects the creation of new information to be facilitated by these new technologies.

Further reading