Implications of Computer Use
3.6.1 Changing Trends in Computer Use
The history of the computer has been remarkably short for a device that now pervades
every aspect of our society and affects the lives of so many people in a serious way.
The first effective, useful, stored program machine is now acknowledged to have been the
Colossus which was a computer that was designed to break the German Enigma codes
during the war. Confusion over which computer was the first has been rife because of
contrary claims and a lack of definition of what constitutes a computer. Different centres
around the world fiercely put forward their claims to have invented the first computer, an
argument that was settled by the lifting of the official secrets act from Colossus in the
Such a seemingly mundane argument over something that only carried prestige for the
eventual winner of the argument, not money or power, was a symptom of the jealous way
that people who were involved with computers, and who were able to use them, guarded
their privileges from others.
This mentality gave rise to the concept of ‘Fortress Computing’ where computer competent
people kept others away from the systems. There was some justification for this in order to
use a scarce resource as effectively as possible, but there was undoubtedly an element of
such workers protecting their position by making computer use seem somewhat mystical.
The results of this are still seen today in the attitudes of many middle aged, and older
people, who believe that using a computer is beyond them. This is not their fault, but
something with which they were brain washed when they were younger.
The use of computers was largely confined to this technical elite in universities, and to
larger businesses, where information systems were needed to produce payrolls and other
information hungry examples. The revolution in computer use came in the late 1970s with
the invention of a cheap, small, relatively easy to use machine called the Sinclair ZX79.
There was very little it could do, for instance, it had 1/4K memory! But it did mean that
ordinary people could own their own computer. Also, the phenomenal success of the ZX79,
ZX80, and then the Sinclair Spectrum proved that there was a market. Until these
machines, no one thought that ordinary people would want a computer. Suddenly many
manufacturers jumped on the band wagon and there was a plethora of machines. Each
machine needed its own software and many started to go out of business. There was no real
market leader, although Acorn, in this country, were very popular because their machines
were being used in schools, so parents wanted to buy one for their children to use at school.
In the 1980s IBM, the world’s biggest computer manufacturer, decided that they would
produce a small machine. It was not successful, but many other, smaller, manufacturers
decided to copy the way that it was built. Such machines were called IBM clones. Gradually,
as the IBM clones grabbed a larger and larger share of the market, the other companies
went to the wall. It certainly helped that Microsoft operating systems were installed in the
cloned machines, not because they were the best operating systems, but because it meant
that these machines could communicate easily and that files were compatible. Nowadays,
we have a society where, world wide, there is a higher number of computers in homes than
there are refrigerators or baths.
The effect of this has been enormous on society, and the effects are what are discussed in
25 years ago the proportion of the world’s population that had access to a computer system
was tiny, nowadays it is very high, and increasing daily. However, there are still large
numbers of the population, even in a rich country like Britain, that do not have access on a
regular basis. There is a distinct danger that this will lead to another form of class-divided
society, not based on accident of birth, or based on wealth (or lack of it), but based on
whether a person has access to the information revolution.
Imagine two people who live in a village. The village has a grocer’s shop and newsagent.
The last bank in the village has closed because it was too costly for the bank to maintain the
branch, which was losing money, because so many of the villagers had changed to running
their account on the Internet. A person living in this village, who has a computer connected
to the Internet, will be able to pay their bills, order goods from the supermarket 20 miles
away at a lower cost than buying them from the grocer, will have a wider variety of choice
from the supermarket than they could get locally. They will be able to book rail tickets, at a
discount, through the Internet, which will also allow them to pick up holiday bargains. The
other person does not have access to a computer. These two people are very different in
their life styles and the social changes that have occurred, not just to one of them, because
of the computer, are immense.
When we add to this the fact that one of these people used to be employed by the bank to
run the branch in the village, but is now out of work, while the other has been told to go on
a training course to learn a new piece of software, the scale of how much our lives are
being effected by the use of new technology becomes even more evident.
Note that many of the changes made to our life styles have been forced rather than being
made by choice.
3.6.2 Changes in Leisure and Work
Computer availability and acceptance has brought about large changes, not just in the ways
that we live, but also in the way we use our leisure time and in work practices.
Children, particularly boys, spend long hours of their leisure time in front of computer
terminals playing computer games. This is a very insular way of passing the time which is
beginning to worry educational psychologists because children who behave like this are in
danger of not forming the social bonds, and learning about the social interaction, necessary
in later life. Some of the games are particularly violent, or antisocial. Although there is no
hard evidence of a link between playing such games and antisocial behaviour of the child
themselves, there is a growing belief that there is such a link. Long hours spent in front of
the monitor screen at an early age is becoming suspect in the amount of RSI and other
injuries being suffered by young adults, many years before their parents generation would
have shown such symptoms.
Work practices are changing in a number of ways.
Computers have meant that some repetitive tasks have been taken away from human
beings. A robot, on a car production line, can not only work more consistently than its
human counterparts and do the jobs of many people, it does not need paying. Many jobs
have been lost by the human work force in this way. However, companies that have
invested in this way have tended to become more profitable which has the effect of
safeguarding the jobs that are still offered by the company, and also leads to expansion and
the creation of additional jobs.
Additional jobs are created. Every time a robot is placed on a production line, someone has
to build the robot, someone has to write the software to control it, someone has to maintain
it. The problem is that the majority of jobs created require more skills than the jobs that
have been lost. This in turn means a ‘skilling up’ of the workforce. This change in working
practices is another example of the technology creating two classes of people (Section
3.6.1), those able to learn additional skills and those not.
The use of technology allows people, whose jobs require a desk and who can communicate
satisfactorily with their colleagues without needing to be in the same physical environment,
to have their desks wherever they want by using electronic means of communicating. This
means that people can work from home for at least part of their week. The implications are
far reaching. Less pollution because of fewer commuters and pleasant working conditions
are both positive factors. Less positive is the ability of the electronic systems to report the
working practices of the workers to their boss, and the lack of social contact which is so
important in maintaining job satisfaction.
In the past it would have been quite normal for a person to start a job after leaving full-time
education and to stay in that job until they retired. Although this may be seen by some as
being an uninviting prospect, it does provide for security and gives automatic prestige to
even the most lowly of workers because of their seniority within the business bringing
invaluable experience. This type of work practice is becoming less and less common as
modern technology changes products, manufacturing techniques and the life cycle of
Electronic communications have changed the way that business is done. Communication can
be immediate, and the worker is never far from being contacted and consequently can be at
work at all hours of the day. A good example is the world’s stock markets. Twenty years
ago, each country had its own stock market, the performance of which might affect others
when they opened, but they tended to be fairly insular in their dealings. Nowadays, the
stock markets of the world are all interconnected. As a stock-holder, it is possible to buy
and sell stock at any time of the day or night simply by using one of the markets open at
the time, no longer is it necessary to wait for the national market to open the following day.
3.6.3 Privacy and Confidentiality of Data
The expansion of computer systems around the world have given rise to more information
being stored about individuals than ever before. The problem is that, to get another copy of
a person’s information, the only thing that needs to be done is to press a button. Distance is
no object either. Using electronic communications it is possible to send a person’s
information from one side of the world to another in milliseconds and then to store that
information in a system that the owner of the information is unaware of.
There would be no problem if it could be ensured that all the users of the information were
going to use it for the right reasons and that the information was always accurate. However,
these things cannot be guaranteed. Consequently it has become important to protect
individuals from misuse of their information by legislation and by measures that restrict both
the access to the data and the passing on of the data to other users.
Unfortunately the use of electronic information does not recognise national boundaries and
some authorities are not as anxious to uphold the rights of the individual as others. A typical
effect of this passing on of personal information is the junk mail that comes through the
letter box. An interesting experiment is to change your initials every time you have to give
your name. Within a relatively short space of time junk mail will begin to arrive and by
reference to the initials it is possible to work out who has sold your details on and to whom
they have been sold.
Most countries have now enacted legislation in attempts to overcome the problems that
were mentioned in section 3.6.3. The purpose of such legislation is to protect citizens from
something that by its very nature can be insidious because it is difficult to understand the
consequences of unrestricted use of personal information.
Legislation protecting personal information must not be confused with copyright law.
Copyright law protects intellectual property, in the case of a computer system it would
protect the person who has written the software rather than the user or the person whose
details are being stored. Each country will pass laws that are particular to that country, but
they largely follow the same model that we have in Britain.
Any personal data that is stored in a computer system must
be accurate and up to date.
be relevant to the task for which it is intended to be used and used for that original purpose.
not be kept longer than is necessary.
be kept securely. Access to the data must be strictly controlled.
be available, on request, to the subject of the stored data.
Other measures that could be expected would be some control over the passing on of data
to other organisations, excemptions for reasons of national security or because it is thought
to be in the individual’s interest.
In Britain the Data Protection Act that was passed in 1984 only applied to data that was read
magnetically, in other words was stored on a tape or a disk. It did not apply to data stored
on a CDROM because that is stored optically. This has now been changed by the latest
version of the act. This shows that, just like everything else in the world of computers,
things change very quickly and that human systems often find difficulty in keeping up with
Attempts have been made to harmonise legislation across boundaries. The European Union
pass their own directives about data, but it is difficult to get agreement when individual
parliaments still have sovereignty.
3.6.5 Controversial Information
The Internet was originally started by the American military (ARPANET) as a means of
communication in time of war. The principle was that if a communications system has a
central control system (like a telephone exchange) then it is easy to disable that
communications network by destroying the central control. There can be as many
telephones as you like, without an exchange they are useless. ARPANET was devised so that
there was no central control and consequently the losing of one part of the system does not
stop the rest of the system from operating.
This is the whole principle of the Internet, there is no control. When someone complains
about the fact that there is a page on the Internet that shows anyone how to make a bomb
and says something like “They should have that page removed.”, they are showing their
lack of understanding of the net. There simply is no ‘They’, there is no one in charge. There
are some things that all sane people would condemn, the obvious example is paedophiles
using the net for their own purposes. However, if there were some central body set up to
control the net and to make sure there was no paedophilia on the system, where would the
line be drawn. Hard core pornography and the use of cannabis are against the law in this
country, however, they are legal in Holland. If the control of the net was in Britain then our
law says that these things would not be allowed; whereas if it were in Holland they would
be. We would contend that the Internet is a useful tool in the fight against oppression and
the suppression of human rights. But do our values necessarily apply in a different society?
Do we have the right to subvert another society by using the net for propaganda purposes?
If we do then why should we get upset when values that are not to our liking are sent back
If the world wants an Internet then it will have to put up with the downside of an
uncontrolled information network as well as the advantages from instant mass
communication. The truth is that, even if the Governments of the world did not want the net,
there is nothing they can do about it because how can they pull the plug on millions of
machines all at the same time?
3.6.6 Health and Safety Implications
The human being is not a sedentary animal. The human body is not designed for long
periods of inactivity. The body is designed to move. The legs are designed to move us
around, the arms to carry things and support weights, the eyes are designed for
three-dimensional vision. We are not designed to sit for long periods of time, supporting the
weight of our own arms while small movements are made by the hands to press keys and
our wonderful three-dimensional sight is used to stare at a flat screen no more than a metre
The human body is very resilient, but, as with any misuse of the body, the long term use of
computer systems in this way will cause damage.
Muscles that are not designed to support relatively small weights (the arms) for long periods
of time when using the computer keyboard begin to be strained, particularly when such
small movements are made. Joints in the fingers and the elbow and shoulder are made to
perform movements that they normally would not do, and to perform them regularly over
long time periods. Over time, these strains on the body can lead to pain and to restrictions
on movement which are difficult to ignore. A new condition has been identified called
repetitive strain injury (RSI). The simple cure for this is to take regular short breaks and to
move around and exercise the joints and muscles. Also helpful is the use of a Natural
Keyboard which allows the user to sit naturally while working.
Eyes did not evolve to stare at a flat surface that is very close for long periods of time. The
eyeball should, naturally, move about in the socket. This produces tears which lubricate the
eyeball. Too much enforced staring at one point can lead to a condition called dry eye which
can be very painful. The eye can also tire because it is being made to use a fixed focus for
long periods. The use of glasses to help the eye to remain focussed and regularly looking
away from the screen can help to alleviate these problems, as can the use of anti glare
screens fitted to monitors to cut down the levels of contrast so that the eye can handle it
Much has been made in the past of the radiation that comes off the screen, and the possible
damage that can be done because of the radiation. While these worries have probably been
exaggerated in the past, and the more modern screens are far safer anyway, there is a
lesson to be learned from the research into radiation from mobile phones that demonstrates
how even small amounts of radiation can be harmful.
Despite the problems that are associated with the computer itself, the most important
problems are less to do with the machines themselves.
Many computer installations are housed in rooms that were not designed for such use. The
result is that cables are left trailing and that the furniture used is not always suitable. Many
schools provide good (or bad) examples of this, where a new network has been bought with
little thought for the classroom that it is going to be squeezed into. Are there enough plug
sockets or are too many pieces of electrical equipment going to be run from too few
sockets? Can the cabling be put in trunking? Is there adequate ventilation and is the lighting
suitable? If the lighting is the ordinary classroom lighting then it will make the screens even
more prone to glare. If the chairs are not comfortable then back problems can occur. These
can be lessened by using ergonomically designed seating which encourages good posture.
Working with computers can cause stress, particularly among workers who were not
originally trained to use them. Historically, once a worker has attained middle age they
should be more experienced than the younger people coming in to the firm who will
probably be working under them. This situation has changed for many people because of
the use of computer technology. Because of the need to keep up to date with the latest
hardware and software, it is now the young people coming into the firm that are more
experienced than those who have been there some time. This can lead to feelings of
inferiority and stress on the older workers.
In section 3.6.2 it was mentioned that the new technology allows remote working in many
situations. While there are substantial benefits accruing from this practice there are also
problems brought about by the lack of social interaction that human beings get from a
shared work environment.
3.6.7 Environmental Issues
Many years ago the use of computer systems in the office was hailed as the start of the
paperless revolution. In the 1950s LEO was invented. It was the Lyons (same company as
the cakes!) Electronic Office. The idea was that paper would “become a thing of the past”
because messages would all be sent electronically. The environmental implications of this
were tremendous. No more cutting down forests to provide paper, no more burning of the
documents that are no longer needed so that they remained confidential, with an electronic
office this was no longer necessary. There was one tiny problem. With the introduction of
machines the amount of paper increased massively. The explanation is simple. Consider a
project that you are doing for one of your courses. How many sheets of paper do you use?
Not, ‘how many do you hand in?’, but ‘how many do you use?’ The difference is that if you
have made a mistake you correct it and get another printout, if you were using a typewriter
you wouldn’t do that. When you send something for printing, how often does the printer
produce an extra sheet? Do you save it and put it back in the paper tray? How often does
the printer not print properly, making another printout necessary? How many people
printing off a spreadsheet haven’t given the limits of the sheet, so that the printer has
printed 20 or 30 sheets of blank cells before anyone has noticed? The same sort of things
happen in business, so what should have been good news environmentally has tended to
As has been mentioned before in this chapter, there is an element of people being able to
work from home rather than having to commute. This has obvious advantages in that the
pollution is cut down because there are fewer vehicles on the road, but it is not all good
news, because if 50 people don’t go in to the office it is an additional 50 homes (offices in
those homes) that have to be heated that day which would not otherwise need to be heated.
There is a minimal saving at the office block because some workers have to go in to work
and therefore the office block must be fully heated.
The computer systems themselves have to be produced. There is an environmental cost
here on two fronts, the computer requires a certain amount of power to enable the factory
to make it, and then there are the raw materials that are needed in the manufacture.
When computers are eventually finished with and need to be replaced, there is a large
amount of hardware that needs to be got rid of. Some is recyclable. Chips are heated in
order to recover the gold used in their manufacture, and some parts of the chassis can be
melted down and reused. However, much of the content of a system is not economically
viable to reuse and consequently is discarded. As the life of a system in business is about
two years this adds up to an enormous waste of resources. When it is also realised that
some of the contents of a system are heavy metals and other toxic materials, the
environmental problems of replacing a system are great.
1. Discuss the implications for customers of a travel agent closing down their agencies and
doing all their business on the Internet. (6)
A. -Lower overheads for the business…
-meaning that customers can expect to pay lower prices.
-Information will always be up to date because up-dated centrally..
-but customer may find more difficulty in finding the information required because there is
no assistant to help.
-Customers who have the Internet will be able to access late bargains
-Customers without the Internet may find difficulty in booking any holiday.
-Customers with disabilities, particularly blindness may be more disadvantaged than most
-Complaints, if things go wrong, will be harder to make.
Notes: There are other points to make but only 6 marks, so don’t waste too much time.
When you think you have earned the marks, stop. The question is quite specific about it
being from the point of view of the customer, so don’t start to talk about workers losing
their jobs. It may be true, but does not answer the question. Although the mark scheme
would be set out in this way, the question does use the keyword ‘discuss’, so don’t just write
notes, the examiner is looking for a coherent argument which contains six of the sensible
2. Describe two ways in which a computer system in the home can alter the interaction of
the family with the outside world. (4)
A. -Children play computer games…
-stops them going out and consequently they are safer, but…
-affects their social development.
-Parents may use the computer to work from home…
-cuts down the time spent commuting to work and allows for more leisure time…
-but may increase stress and worry about work because of reduced contact with
Notes: Sensible to use obviously different members of the family. Need to say at least two
things for each one because the question uses the keyword ‘describe’. If you were thinking
of saying that they could send emails rather than write letters it may be worth a mark but is
a little trivial for both marks.
3. State two reasons why it is necessary to protect the confidentiality of information stored
about people. (2)
A. Data can be misused…
-by insurance companies to alter an insurance premium,
-by thieves who want to know which addresses have large premiums and are hence worth
-by employers who can check on employees moonlighting.
Notes: Again, many different possible answers. This would be a nice starter question for a
paper, as it expects simple one line answers.
4. Describe three measures that would be expected in a country’s data protection
A. Any three of the measures listed in section 3.6.4.
Notes: This is a banker question. It is such an important area of the syllabus it is likely to
be asked on a regular basis, the problem for the examiner is that there are only a few ways
of asking the question. Candidates should learn the measures stated in the syllabus and use
them to answer the question.
5. Describe the consequences of allowing upper school pupils to use the Internet to find
information for project work. (4)
A. -There is a danger that those pupils who have access to the Internet outside school will
use it anyway, and…
-therefore it is only right to allow access in school.
-Pupils may find inappropriate sites…
-which means that the teacher has to censor the material in some way.
6. Outline the health problems that may be experienced by telecall operators and state how
such problems could be overcome. (6)
-Use sensible keyboards and properly designed furniture to encourage good posture.
-Eye problems caused by staring at the screen…
-Wear glasses and fit anti glare screens.
-Problems associated with radiation from the monitor…
-Sit further away from the monitor screen.
7. Describe two ways in which the use of computer systems in business has harmed the
A. -The use of large amounts of paper because…
-everyone now expects that when a final copy of a document is produced it is perfect,
leading to many copies being produced.
-The high turn-over of machines means that many new machines have to be produced
-the old ones must be disposed of. They contain toxic material which can harm the