Technology and Society: We should have seen this coming | Opinion

Technology and Society: We should have seen this coming | Opinion

Computers are tools for solving problems of many types ranging from maintaining financial records to simulating and predicting the changing climate but, as we all know, they can also create new and unforeseen problems which have grown explosively since they began solving problems for the Dept. of Defense back in the latter half of the 20th century.

Were the computer scientists of the time not aware of the problems with privacy and security? Certainly the Pentagon, as part of their mission, were cognizant of these issues? As the title indicates, “WE SHOULD HAVE SEEN THIS COMING” and to an extent, we did. In 1966, Professor R.M. Fano presented his paper, “The Computer Utility” (( wherein he predicted some of the benefits as well as the pitfalls of this new computer technology entering a society not quite prepared for the vast potential benefits as well as the problems that could arise. (As Ralph Nader has been quoted “There is no free lunch”). Fano sums up some of the benefits known in the early 1960s, “The pattern of our business and private lives has been shaped by a variety of products of technology which have increased our mobility, our ability to communicate at a distance, and our ability to mold our physical environment to our needs…and acts as a knowledgeable and skillful assistant. Since most intellectual activities are cooperative in nature, the system must be able to serve many people simultaneously, so as to facilitate intellectual communication between them. It must also be able to act as a repository of the knowledge of the community it serves; that is, it must be able to play a role analogous to that of a library containing not only books, journals, and reports, but also the current working papers of each individual in the community. These capabilities have already been demonstrated, at least in rudimentary form…” He is aware of some of the problems with privacy and security, but on the whole he is positive:

“…like water and electricity the computer will be seen in society simply as another utility.”


The very first “Internet”, the ARPANET, comprised only four sites, all in the US and funded by ARPA (ADVANCED RESEARCH PROJECTS Agency at the Pentagon ) in the early 60s. During the development phase of the project, when there were only two connected machines, Fano notes, “Experience has indicated that each of the two computer installations can serve at any one time as many as 30 people, and still respond (most of the time) within a few seconds to user demands that require less than two seconds of processing time to satisfy.” At the time, this was not a sarcasm as we might parse it today but as a proud, prodigious accomplishment.

As a note of interest (to me personally and possibly computer geeks), I was fortunate to be working at the University of Illinois which was developing and using this early technology to implement the ARPANET such as the IMP, the Interface Message Processor, which was the first router to convert bit streams into packets to allow two-way communication with computers in California.

Besides using the Illiac IV, which used 64 processors in parallel to solve massive problems such as weather simulation in a more timely fashion, we were able to run our jobs on similar machines located in California rather than in our home base of Illinois because California is 2 hours behind Illinois time. We could come in at 8AM to run our programs at a priority because it was only 6 AM on the West coast when the load on their computer was minimal and thus we could get faster turn-around time on our submissions. Just when I was thinking that there was more than a grain of truth in the observation that, “The smarter technology gets, the dumber people get,” this clever strategy of time-shifting gave me hope for the future.

Fast forwarding to our present-day Internet, depending on your viewpoint , the Internet or “Web” as it is sometimes called has evolved from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 ( the version of the Internet we all use now). What was the main reason for this number jump? The technical reason was Web 1.0 was Read-Only and Web 2.0 is Read-Write. Think of it this way: Television Sets back in the 50s could be called TV 1.0 because they were Read-only. As users we were mostly passive, we just watched; the only inputs we had was the dial that changed channels. You could say we entered TV 2.0 when we started using the TV as just another device connected to the Internet which allowed additional features for voice input and watching movies.

WEB 3.0

Currently the Web is in the process of making a great leap forward and is being called Web 3.0. As of this writing, a precise and comprehensive definition of what Web 3.0 is, what it does, and does differently than Web 2.0, does not currently exist. However, the most interesting feature of Web 3.0 (for me) is that Internet Service Providers, as we now know them (e.g. Spectrum, AT&T, Verizon …) will be forced to undergo a cataclysmic change as the Internet would be owned and operated by its users instead of by a private, for-profit enterprise.

The financial structure to implement Web 3.0 has not yet been fully worked out, but we can think of it this way: Web 2.0 is like using a taxi or some other driving service to get around. In this scenario you are paying a business for a service. Now suppose instead, that you and a group of co-workers form a Ride-Sharing group — ostensibly, no one pays anyone for the transport service. Of course, in exceptional circumstances payment for maintenance such as gas, oil and repairs must be accommodated. Not only does this save money, it allows groups to make their own rules as it favors people working together rather than large organizations, many very close to monopolies.

Does this possible change to the Internet smack of Socialism or is it an idea that both political parties can embrace? Liberals can get on board because it provides a more equitable Internet service to all and allows Conservatives more freedom of individual choice. Still there is much criticism (mostly from large companies that provide Internet Service as well as content ( e.g. Comcast owns NBC news media; conflict of interest? You decide.) There are other reasons for criticism, so stay tuned for the pros and cons of Web 3.0 which by all signs is coming — like it or not.

Dr. Stewart A. Denenberg is an emeritus professor of computer science at Plattsburgh State, retiring recently after 30 years there. Before that, he worked as a technical writer, programmer and consultant to the U.S. Navy and private Industry. Send comments and suggestions to his blog at, where there is additional text and links. He can also be reached at [email protected].

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