The Socially Disruptive Impact of Information Technology Survey

The impact that information technology is having on society is wide ranging. As information technology enters more areas of peoples’ lives globally it is important to consider the nature of that impact. On this blog and in the University of Waterloo course that it supports (MSci 442, The Impact of Information Systems on Society) this impact is considered in a series of areas. These areas have changed in the seven years that the course has been offered, reflecting the fast changing technological environment.

The posts on this blog show that opinions and beliefs on the impact that information technology is having on society differ. Some people view technological change mostly positively, feeling that society is improved by it. Others take a negative view, believing that the impact of information technology is largely making the world a less desirable place in which to live. This debate is explored in detail on this site and in the Twitter feed that accompanies it and reports daily news in this area.

The Survey Content and Conduct

The survey that is discussed in this post was initially designed to understand and provide a basis for discussion of the views of students who were enrolled in MSci 442. 216 students responded to the survey, of 229 who were enrolled in the class. An opportunity also arose to conduct the survey with a very different group. 109 senior citizens in the small rural town of Erin, Ontario also participated who were members of the Extended Learning Opportunities group. This group meets regularly to hear invited speakers on a range of topics and were surveyed at one of these meetings. I am grateful for their participation.

The survey is designed to assess attitudes in key areas that information technology is impacting society today. These areas are:

Democracy: Whether information technology is improving or causing a decline in the practice of democracy today.

Globalisation: How information technology is facilitating globalisation and how it is impacting people in the world today.

Developing Countries: Is information technology improving the lives of people in developing countries or widening the gap between rich and poor?

How We Think: Is information technology making us less intelligent and violent? Is it changing the way our brains are wired and changing our behaviour in ways that are positive or negative?

Cities: Can information technology make cities better places to live? How can city planners, politicians and citizens make good decisions today that will impact life in the future? Is technology making people in cities more connected or more isolated?

Education: How will information technology impact education? Can online education achieve high levels of educational quality? Should we be concerned about the decline of the traditional classroom?

Warfare: Information technology is changing the nature of modern warfare. Wars are more visible to the public and information technology is influencing the way that wars are conducted. How is this likely to affect the world?

Jobs and the Economy: Migration of jobs to lower wage economies, increased automation and legal and illegal immigration are impacted by information technology. What is the nature of these impacts and what are appropriate government policies in dealing with them?

Privacy: There is widespread concern about the impact of the internet of privacy and this is an area that is changing rapidly. Should we be concerned and what should be done?

These areas informed the design of the survey which is designed to understand the extent of popular concern in the areas that are described above and improve our knowledge of how information technology is disrupting society. This disruption is often argued to be widely felt. Some argue that it is having widespread political impact and has influenced votes that have been and are being cast in many countries today. Better understanding of the nature of the concerns of people today is important.

The survey had two parts. The first part asked respondents whether they thought that the overall impact that information technology would have in the areas that were listed above would be positive or negative. This allowed us to understand overall attitudes towards information technology and to identify general areas of concern.

In the second part of the survey more detail was considered. A range of 25 possible areas of concern from the 10 broader areas were identified and assessed. Areas of relative concern were discovered and the results of the two survey groups were compared. This section also provided initial indication of areas that it may be important to focus on in future studies.

The Survey Results

In the first part of the survey the respondents were asked whether they thought the impact of information technology was Mostly Good or Mostly Bad. A five point scale was used to assess this with a response of 1 indicating mostly good and a response of 5 indicating mostly bad. These were the responses of the Waterloo and Erin groups:

Here we can see that the areas of concern of the two groups are very similar. They have the last concern about the impact that information technology will have on Education and the most concern about Modern Warfare and Privacy. It is interesting that these items are rated in a similar order by both groups. Apart from a difference over Developing Countries and the Development of Cities, the ratings are in the same order for both groups. This suggests that both generations have similar perceptions of the impact that information technology is having.

In the second set of questions we can understand perceptions in more detail. We can identify areas of less and greater concern and better understand the variance between the two groups. We will first look at the concerns and their severity for each group and then consider the areas of variance between them.

These questions used a different scale which was intended to provide more detail on the extent of any concern that may exist.  In this case the five point scale used  1 for Very worried and 5 for Not at all concerned.

The Waterloo student group responded to the survey as follows. The survey question response averages are arranged in order of severity of concern, with colour coding used to indicate areas of more serious concern:

This chart shows that the Waterloo student group had only two areas, of the 25 in the study, that they had serious concern about, the impact of fake news on democracy and the use of social media by terrorist groups. Concerns also existed in other areas, as can be seen in the chart but only two areas appeared to be especially troublesome. Interestingly, there were three areas where there appears to be minimal concern: increasing international content in the goods and services that I purchase, increasing international content in the media that is watched / read by people in my country and information technology use in university teaching. The area of least concern to the students was the impact that IT was having on their education.

When we examine the areas of concern for the Erin Seniors group we can now see some differences.

Six areas of more serious concern appear in their survey results:

  • Use of social media by terrorist groups
  • Violence in video games
  • The impact of fake news on democracy
  • Cyber warfare
  • That governments are using information technology to influence elections in other countries
  • The gap between incomes of people in rich and poor countries

These results indicate greater levels of concern by the Erin Seniors group about the social impact of information technology. Further study of the results in this area will indicate areas of higher and lower concern. The Erin Seniors group had just one area of relatively little concern – Information technology use in university teaching.

We then examined the differences between the two groups by identifying the areas of most difference between them.  We looked first at the areas where the Erin Seniors group were significantly more concerned than the Waterloo group. These areas were:

  • Violence in video games
  • Use of social media by political organisations and groups
  • Social media’s (Facebook, Twitter etc.) use of algorithms to select the content that you see
  • Cyber warfare
  • Use of social media by terrorist groups
  • Drone use in modern warfare
  • Increasing international content in the goods and services that I purchase

The overall variances, ranked by magnitude, are provided in the following chart:

The Waterloo Student group were not significantly more concerned than the Erin Seniors group about any area of the survey.  There was slightly greater concern about the impact of the internet and social media on my personal privacy and that people are less intelligent because of their use of the internet but this difference in concern was less than in any of the areas in which the Erin Seniors had significantly more concern.


This appears to indicate that the Erin Seniors group, while sharing the overall areas where concern is greater with the Waterloo Student group as indicated in the first set of questions in the survey, have significantly more concern when we look at specific aspects of the impact that information technology may be having. Concerns amongst the Waterloo Student group are lower when we look at specific areas. This may indicate that while the overall perceptions of the role that information technology is playing in society are mostly positive, there are specific areas of substantial concern that need to be addressed by governments and companies, especially those companies in the information technology sector.

Further work is being don to understand the survey findings and this will be reported when it is completed. This work will include efforts to conduct the survey with other groups in society, to develop further understanding of the impact that information technology is having.




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