Lecture I: Computing and Society: A Gentle
(c) Z. Stachniak, 2011
informal and unedited notes, not for distribution
Reﬂecting Upon Technology and Society...
Why are we behaving in a way we do and not some other way? Does tech-
nology impact out behaviour? powers our preferences? dictates our choices
in almost all aspects of our daily activities? What’s special about computer
and information technologies?
When we reﬂect upon the impact of technology on society, computer and
information technologies represent canonical examples.
Yet, no singular technological invention or event, no matter how ground-
breaking, can account for the creation of the digital electronic computer.
Similarly, no digital computer, no matter how powerful or versatile, can sin-
gularly explain the rapid transition of our civilization into that of consumers
of digital information.
The computer and information technologies are examples of high technologies
in constant motion, advancing at a speed that makes projections of their fu-
ture milestones and impact diﬃcult without a systematic approach grounded
in their history and in present technological social and scientiﬁc context. In-
deed, no invention occurs without such a context created in part by a chain
of earlier discoveries, inventions, or contributions, sometimes centuries in the
1 To Be Is To Invent
Computing is a canonical example of the continuous interaction between
inventing and the forces of cultural, social, economic, technological, and po-
• what sets us–humans–apart from other living organisms; inventing is to
venture where others have not, stretching beyond conventional frontiers
of time, space, and thought;
• what creates new possibilities, sets new standards, brings social and
economic progress and enrichment of knowledge;
• an expression of freedom, of power to create but also (and unfortu-
nately) to dominate, and may bring social and economic injustice, de-
struction, and suﬀering.
The interplay between our needs and aspirations, on the one hand, and in-
venting new methods to count, calculate, and compute, as well as to store,
transmit, process, and access information, on the other hand, has accompa-
nied human development since the very beginning of human conscious inter-
action with the environment, when counting was reduced to distinguishing
between one, two, and many.
2 Prehistory of Counting: One, Two, Many...
The development of complex social interactions in areas such as early trade
and commerce required numbers for representing quantities, and counting to
perform operations on numbers such as addition. These complex interactions
also required recording numbers (e.g. sale of goods or paid taxes) and, with
the need to deal with operations on larger and larger numbers, the develop-
ment of some counting aids.
Fig. 1. Inca accountant and tax collector standing next to a counting board;
source: Don Felipe Huaman Poma de Ayala, 1583–1613.
The overwhelming majority of languages do contain expressions representing
numbers. However, there are primitive languages that lack expressions for
naming numbers. The best a native speaker of such languages could do was
to distinguish ”one” from ”many” as in ”one child” and ”many children”.
3 Mechanical Arithmetic: Calculators
Numbers, counting and other operations on numbers are also the point of
origin of mathematics. Until the birth of the mechanical calculator industry
in the 19th century, the business of advancing calculation methods was being
taken care of by mathematically inclined individuals exclusively.
Fig. 2. Pascal calculator replica by Roberto Guatelli (1978); source: Canada Sci-
ence and Technology Museum.
The ﬁrst mechanical calculators started to show up in 16th century (Fig.
2 shows a replica of one of the calculators constructed by B. Pascal (1623-
1662)). Some were the work of famous mathematicians such as Pascal and
Leibniz and their purpose was to support scientiﬁc research and accounting.
Their scarcity severely limited their impact on society at large, still served
with more primitive forms of calculating aids such as abacus.
4 Calculators for the Rest of Us
The industrial revolution that took place in the 18th and 19th centuries
brought profound technological changes in manufacturing, agriculture, min-
ing, transportation, navigation; it initiated a remarkable chain of scientiﬁc
discoveries and technological innovations. The revolution profoundly im-
pacted the socioeconomic and political landscapes and socioeconomic condi-
tions all over the world.
More and more businesses relied on fast processing of large quantities of data
(numbers). Employing a large army of ”calculators”, i.e. of people perform-
ing calculation jobs manually was far from being cost-eﬀective and error-free.
In the 18th and 19th century, mechanical calculators and special look-up
table publications, called mathematical tables, were used to facilitate calcu-
lation, veriﬁcation, selection, categorization, and extraction of data. They
became manufactured in large quantities and varieties.
Mechanical calculators of the 19th century were inexpensive (in compari-
son with salaries paid to calculators), accurate, and could perform all the
basic arithmetic operations. The social acceptance of the calculators was
fast (mostly the business side) and so was the demand to improve them (e.g.
add printing mechanism) and make them even cheaper.
5 Fig. 3. A collection of 16th-18th century mathematical tables at the Science
Museum Library, London.
6 The Age of Computers
The arrival of the ﬁrst computers in the 20th century was the result of the
need to automatically perform operations that were much more complex than
those that could be done on calculators.
Fig. 4. Eniac ”Giant Brain” computer (U.S.A., c. 1946).
The rapid development of computer technologies, from mechanical and electro-
mechanical devices to the present-day digital electronic computing and com-
munication devices, rapidly bridged vast land masses, spanned cultural dif-
ferences, and recreated the world into a digital global village. Computer and
information technologies have enriched our intellectual capabilities and al-
lowed for unrestricted and (to some degree) free access to a variety of digital
While the advancements in computing have mostly brought far reaching ben-
eﬁts to humanity, they also sculpted a dark side of the present-day digital
reality: computer-related crime continuously threatens the stability of our
daily activities so deeply immersed in the computer world, cyber terrorism
may cause environmental, economic, and political instability and even cata-
7 Is the knowledge of the past necessary, helpful?
• is a historical voyage through the centuries of human involvement with
calculating and computing;
• begins with the prehistory of computing, when the understanding of
numbers and performing basic arithmetic operations on them was the
domain of just a few;
• explores our present-day computing reality, trying to decipher its mean-
ing, to arrange what we know and understand in a coherent body of
knowledge that can be used to conﬁdently discuss problems faced by
our society (such as social obligations and individual rights and free-
doms in the digital age), to understand where we are and were we are
going, or to predict what else is there to invent.
Is the knowledge of the past necessary, or even helpful, to understand the
present or to predict possible trajectories of social an technological advance-
ments in the future?
8 A few observations and examples instead of the direct
• Scientiﬁcally justiﬁed facts do not have an expiry date only because they
have been established in the past.
They will stay valid as long as the foundations used to justify them
remain accepted as true.
For instance, 1 plus 1 remains 2 in ”standard” arithmetic (yes, there
are non-standard systems of arithmetic) in spite of the fact that our
understanding of addition of numbers has begun to shape thousands of
Similarly, the fact that a single molecule of water is composed of two
parts hydrogen and one part oxygen (hence H O)2 established in 1805
by Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac and Alexander von Humboldt, remains
valid although our understanding of the concept of ”parts” or atoms
has evolved substantially.
• Past experiences, or history, shape our behaviour and preferences, hence