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Are computers transforming humanity?

The answer is obvious, the implications profound.

By Mary K. Pratt
May 18, 2009 05:00 AM ET

Computerworld - Imagine a world where your phone is smart enough to order and pay for your morning coffee. No more giving orders, handing over your payment or waiting in lines. No more face-to-face chit-chat or human interaction.

Technology changes our interactions, our sense of the world and each other.
Melissa Cefkin, IBM ethnographer

For many, this might seem like a blessing. Who likes to wait in line? But on a grand scale, might this kind of automated world dramatically change -- perhaps even eliminate -- how we communicate and connect with one another? Could it change something about us as individuals, or as a whole society?

"My short answer is yes. It's absolutely changing society and the way people are," says Melissa Cefkin, an ethnographer at IBM. "But there's nothing new in that. We've always had the introduction of new technologies that transform and move society in new ways. It changes our interactions, our sense of the world and each other."

But if primitive hand tools changed us from gatherers to hunters, and the invention of the printing press propagated literacy while downgrading the importance of the oral tradition, what individual and cultural transformations do new computer technologies portend?

Researchers and technologists alike say they're already seeing technology-wrought changes in how we operate as individuals and as a society. To be clear, they're not finding evidence of evolutionary transformations -- those show up over thousands of years, not merely decades. But there have been shifts in individual and societal capabilities, habits and values. And just how these all will play out remains to be seen.

"We're in a big social experiment. Where it ends up, I don't know," says Dan Siewiorek, a professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering and director of the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.

Like other researchers, Siewiorek has identified a number of areas in which individuals and societies have changed in response to technology during the past two decades. One of the most obvious, he says, is the shift in how we view privacy. Having grown up in the McCarthy era, Siewiorek remembers how guarded people were with their phone conversations, fearful that they would be overheard or, worse, recorded.

We're in a big social experiment. Where it ends up, I don't know.
Dan Siewiorek, Carnegie Mellon University professor

"Now you can sit in any airport and hear all the grisly details about a divorce or something like that. I don't know if the convenience overrides privacy or people don't care about the other people around them, but certainly what we let hang out there has changed," he says.

Any doubts? Just look at the deeply personal details that people post on YouTube, MySpace and Facebook.

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