Until the mid-1980s few people had direct contact with computers. Then people began to purchase PCs for use at home, and in the 1990s the Internet and the World Wide Web came to affect nearly everybody. This Internet revolution has had a strong impact on modern society.
Being Connected Social Impact of Computers
Many people have increasingly felt the need to “be connected” or “plugged in” to information sources or to each other. Companies and other organizations have put massive amounts of information onto the World Wide Web, and people using Web browsers can access information that was never before available. Search engines allow users to find answers to almost any query. People can then easily share this information with each other, anywhere in the world, using e-mail, personal Web sites, or online chat rooms and discussion groups.
Schools and libraries
Schools at all levels recognize the importance of training students to use computers effectively. Students can no longer rely solely on their textbooks for information. They must also learn to do research on the World Wide Web. Schools around the world have begun to connect to the Internet, but they must be able to afford the equipment, the connection charges, and the cost of training teachers.
Libraries that traditionally contained mainly books and other printed material now have PCs to allow their patrons to go online. Some libraries are transferring their printed information into databases. Rare and antique books are being photographed page by page and put onto optical discs.
In an increasingly computerized society, computer literacy, the ability to understand and use computers, is very important. Children learn about computers in schools, and many have computers at home, so they are growing up computer literate. Many adults, however, have only recently come into contact with computers, and some misunderstand and fear them.
Knowledge of computers is a requirement for getting many types of jobs. Companies demand that their employees know how to use computers well. Sometimes they will send their employees to classes, or have in-house training, to increase workplace computer literacy.
The increasing use of computers is cause for concern to some, who feel that society is becoming overdependent on computers. Others are concerned that as people spend too much time online, they are having too little face-to-face social contact with others.computers
Accuracy of information
Almost anybody can make information available on the Internet—including information that is intentionally or inadvertently false, misleading, or incomplete. Material published in books, newspapers, and journals by reputable publishers is normally subjected to fact-checking and various other editorial reviews. Depending on the source, information on the Web may or may not have been verified. Before accepting information as accurate, savvy Web users assess the trustworthiness, expertise, and perspective or possible biases of the source.
As society has become increasingly computerized, more and more personal information about people has been collected and stored in databases. Computer networks allow this information to be easily transmitted and shared. Personal privacy issues concern who is allowed to access someone’s personal information, such as medical or financial data, and what they are allowed to do with that information.
Freedom of speech
As with other media, freedom of speech has at times come into conflict with people’s desire to control access to some of the information available on the Internet. In particular, some citizens around the world have been blocked from reading Web sites that criticized their government or that contained information deemed subversive. Some organizations have Web sites that certain groups of people deem pornographic, defamatory, libellous, or otherwise objectionable. These organizations have been taken to court in legal attempts, not always successful, to take their sites off the Internet.
Parents are often concerned about what their children can access on the Internet. They can install special programs called Web filters that automatically block access to Web sites that may be unsuitable for children.
More and more companies and their customers engage in electronic commerce. E-commerce offers convenience; access to a great variety of products, whether one lives in an isolated place or a big city; and sometimes lower prices. Because companies that do business exclusively on the Internet do not have the expense of maintaining physical retail outlets, they can pass the savings on to customers.
Companies can put detailed information about their products on their Web sites, and customers can study and compare product features and prices. Customers place product orders online and pay for their purchases by including their credit card numbers with the orders. For this reason, companies use secure Web servers for e-commerce. Secure servers have extra safety features to protect customers’ privacy and to prevent unauthorized access to financial information.
Some people are concerned that online shopping will put many physical retail stores out of business, to the detriment of personal one-on-one service. In addition, some electronic retailers, especially those that operate through online auction sites, have been the subject of consumer complaints regarding slow or nonexistent deliveries, defective or falsely advertised merchandise, and difficulties in obtaining refunds.
The Computer Industry
The computer industry itself—the development and manufacturing of computer hardware and software—had a major impact on society in the late 20th century and has become one of the world’s largest industries in the 21st century. Certainly, the hardware manufacturers, from the chip makers to the disk-drive factories, and the software developers created many thousands of jobs that did not previously exist.
The industry spawned many new companies, called start-ups, to create products out of the new technology. Competition is fierce among computer companies, both new and old, and they are often forced by market pressures to introduce new products at a very fast pace. Many people invest in the stocks and securities of the individual “high-tech” companies with the hope that the companies will succeed. Several regions around the world have encouraged high-tech companies to open manufacturing and development facilities, often near major universities. Perhaps the most famous is the so-called Silicon Valley just south of San Francisco in California.
Computers, with all the benefits they offer, also, unfortunately, can enable cybercrime, or computer crime. Of course, the computers and their electronic components have always been the targets of thieves. But with the decreasing cost of hardware and the increasing value of software and information, criminals have begun to concentrate on the latter. Law-enforcement agencies throughout the world have had to learn ways to combat computer crime.
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Computer software is often much more expensive than the computer hardware that it runs on. Software companies and their programmers can spend many years and millions of dollars developing their programs. But after the programs are completed, they are stored on relatively inexpensive media such as CD-ROMs that can be easily copied. A software pirate is a person or a company that uses a copy of a program that was not purchased legitimately. The software industry loses billions of dollars each year to piracy.
Digital piracy is also a growing problem for the music industry. Worldwide, audio CD sales had decreased by more than 10 per cent at the beginning of the 21st century as a result of people illegally sharing electronic (MP3) music files over the Internet.
Viruses and worms
In an effort to sabotage other people’s computers, malevolent computer programmers (sometimes called hackers) create software that can manipulate or destroy another computer’s programs or data. The most common of such malicious programs are called viruses. A computer virus infects or secretly runs on, a computer to cause some mischief or damage. It can attach itself to a legitimate program, often in the computer’s operating system, and then copy itself onto other programs with which it comes in contact. Worms are self-contained programs that enter a computer and generate their own commands. Viruses and worms can spread from one computer to another by way of exchanged disks, over local area networks, or over the Internet. If undetected, they may be powerful enough to cause computer systems to crash or even shut down large portions of the Internet.
Some criminals use the Internet or other computer networks to break into a particular computer system in order to access forbidden information or to cause some damage. Such users also are called hackers. Many companies and organizations that have networked computers use various security measures, such as computers serving as firewalls, to protect their computers from illegitimate access. But many hackers are familiar with these measures and know how to get around them.
Some hackers are bent on sabotage, and others are interested in stealing information from the computers they break into. Many hackers, however, do it simply for the challenge of gaining access to otherwise inaccessible information. Computers at government and military institutions are therefore often targeted.
Another motivation for criminals to break into government and corporate databases is identity theft—the unauthorized use of an individual’s personal information, such as social security number and credit card account numbers. This information might be used for theft or to conceal the criminal’s own identity.
Computer fraud and predators
Criminals can log into the Internet just like everyone else, and they can commit crimes against other people who also are logged in. They may give out false information to encourage others to send them money or personal information. They may also be predators who use the anonymity afforded by chat rooms and discussion groups to lure children into meeting them in person.
By the early 21st century, unsolicited bulk commercial e-mail, called spam, was thought to account for at least half of all e-mail messages sent each day. Spam became increasingly disruptive around the world, clogging up computer systems and often exposing users to advertisements for pornography. In many areas, governments passed new laws or began enforcing existing ones that restricted the sending of unsolicited e-mail. Many computer users and organizations run filtering software to help keep unwanted messages from flooding their inboxes.
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