The ongoing development of information technology creates new and immensely complex environments. Our lifeworld is drastically influenced by these developments. The way information technology is intertwined in our daily life raises new issues concerning the possibility of understanding these new configurations.
Whether we are aware of it or not, we are surrounded by networks through which information flows constantly. Our notions of time and location are changing – the world seems to have become a ‘global village’ where distance is no longer a barrier to commercial or social contact.
Although this course is about IT, the technologies you’ll be learning about do not actually handle information. Instead they handle data. In everyday language the terms ‘data’ and ‘information’ are often used interchangeably, but it is important to understand the difference when you are studying IT.
Data is a representation of information so that it can be conveyed, manipulated or stored. Information is the meaning that people give to data in particular contexts. So data can’t really be considered information until it is given meaning and is interpreted.
Before we go any further, it is useful to have a working understanding of the term ‘IT’. What exactly do we mean by ‘information technologies’? This can be very difficult to define and explain, but here is a simple definition.
Information technology (IT) is the technologies used in the conveying, manipulation and storage of data by electronic means.
Let us give you some examples. In a landline telephone system, messages are conveyed as signals on wires. The message is conveyed electronically. Manipulation of data takes place when you speak into the phone – your words are transformed into electronic signals. The data is then conveyed through the phone system, stored briefly for further processing on the way, and transformed back into words at the other end. In a mobile phone system, messages are also stored and manipulated but in this case they are conveyed by electromagnetic means such as radio waves, which are wireless.
Other examples of IT systems include the internet, mobile phone systems, broadcast radio and TV systems, but IT is essential to many other day-to-day activities. Consider for example a visit to a supermarket. Checkout staff use an IT system to scan bar codes and obtain prices. IT systems also allow management to monitor stock levels and sales trends.
IT systems are increasingly embedded in many aspects of our daily lives. But IT doesn’t just exist in a vacuum – it has an impact on society, and society has an effect on it. It also has economic and political implications.
The end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century are often compared to other historical periods of great technological change such as the Industrial Revolution. This is because of the huge changes that are happening in many aspects of life. The terms information society and network society have been used to analyse the social and economic changes that are taking place in conjunction with technological developments. These ideas are used by policy makers to drive forward changes in our technological infrastructure. For example, the UK government’s vision is that many public services will be accessible online, and billions of pounds have been spent to get computers into schools and local communities. The language used by politicians has drawn strongly on the inevitability of technological change and the need to be at the forefront of these changes in order to secure future prosperity.
One of the discussions about IT concerns whether changes in society are driven by technological development, or whether technologies are actually influenced and shaped by the society that produces them. This is a complex debate but an interesting idea to think about. On the one hand, if technologies are shaped by social conditions, then they will inevitably reflect the values and norms of the particular society in which they are created. On the other hand, if we believe technology determines the way society develops, then we might feel very helpless and fatalistic. You could also think about this on a personal level. In your everyday life, you will probably have experienced technological change as something that you have no control over – something that happens to you. For example, a new computer arrives in your office and you are required to learn how to use it, whether you like it or not. Often you have no influence or control over how technology intrudes into your life. In commercial terms this is sometimes described as either a ‘technology push’ or, conversely, a ‘market pull’.
Yet technologies are also shaped by the people who design and create them. Societies and individuals can also control or influence how technologies are used. New mobile phones with added features seem to appear every month and relentless advertising tries to persuade us that we need to have the latest version. However, as the consumer you do have ultimate control over whether you choose to buy one or not.
Unintended uses sometimes develop for technologies. A classic example is the SMS/text messaging facility on mobile phones. Originally this was just a minor feature and was not expected by the manufacturers to be used by phone owners at all. Yet it resulted in a whole new method of communication and form of popular culture, different ways of interacting with radio and television, and even a new language form (texting). IT also has to be seen in a political context – those with power (often governments) can influence how technologies are taken up, for example by funding the development of broadband network infrastructure or indeed by restricting this growth.
Predicting the future is always a difficult business and we should not take this too seriously. However, most technological change does not happen overnight. As you work through the rest of this course, you will develop your understanding of the basic principles and processes involved in IT systems. This will put you in a better position to distinguish between fact and science fiction.