Building the future

Text till studenterna på IT-universitetet, februari 2005

In the late 1990s, Sweden experienced a fantastic IT-boom with web bureaus expanding into Europe, the US and even Asia. Dotcom companies offered to sell us anything we could wish for on the Internet. We all began using email, mobile phones and pay our bills on the net. And we all bought shares in start up IT companies, dreaming about easy money and wealth. The “IT bubble” was a real gold rush, a grand media event.

In those years there was much talk about how the IT-revolution would change society, give us a new economy, a new world, new lives. People became more interested in the future and in the role of technology in shaping society. Since then we have had four years of IT crisis with bankruptcies and unemployment. The IT gurus have disappeared and IT has been reduced to cost effective solutions in the old industry. As far as the media coverage counts, IT seems to be dead and gone. But media are wrong.

The recession has not had any real impact on the IT revolution. Companies and governments have continued to invest in IT solutions and the consumer market is stronger than ever. Employers are worried about lack of IT competent personnel already late this year. Government services are automated and television and telephony are now carried by Internet into our homes and mobile phones. The revolutionary social changes that we talked so much about in the late 1990s are well under way.

Technology is a powerful agent of social change. It liberates us from work tasks and gives us new ones, as we move upwards in the value chain. Machine technology liberates us from farming gives us new work tasks in the factories in the cities. With computer technology we automate the factories and with personal computers and copiers we find new administrative tasks in the offices. IT is now automating administration, making us leave the offices to focus on sales and services on the market.

In the IT revolution, the market becomes more important. The global market is swamped with products and services at lower and lower prices. Companies have to fight harder to win the struggle for survival on that market. Market society means competition, commercialization, and an increasing tempo. We are all engaged in sales, relations become more casual and superficial, big cities grow in size, life becomes tougher, more exciting for some, but less secure for others. Leadership and management become more market oriented, work life and private life merge, work places become meeting places and vice versa. Schools, hospitals, armed forces, government agencies, tax systems and legal systems change to make the most of, and adjust to, the new technology and the new, 24/7 society shaped by that technology.

There is much that I like in these changes, but there is much that frightens me as well. I like a society in which generations are mixed (again), in which work life is dominated by meetings, in which there is room for children and old people. I like a society in which work is more result oriented and therefore more meaningful, in which social service, police work, and healthcare means meeting with people rather than processing documents. And I like a society in which the difference between commercial services and public services has disappeared, and business life as a result has become more ethical. I like a society in which we appreciate how much richer technology has made us, so that we can afford to be generous, to people in our midst and to people far away.

There are other things that I don’t like in market society. Competition, stress, superficial consumption, increasing inequalities and growing environmental threats paint a picture of a dangerous world. But what frightens me most is that all these changes go on while we have no clue about where they are taking us. Politicians, managers, scientists, and ordinary people all share the same ignorance about the future. Technology is changing our society and we are simply letting it happen. We adapt to the changes, but we have no vision, no idea, about the sort of society that we would like to see grow out of these changes.

At the IT university, we teach our students how to develop IT applications and install IT solutions. As IT professionals they will contribute to the ongoing social change, and they will be responsible for that change. We want them to know the technology and how to make good use of it, but we want them to know more than that. We want them also to understand how technology changes society. If they do, they will have an advantage. They will be able to see future changes more clearly and earlier than the rest of us. But more important than this, with such an understanding they can play a role in helping humankind to take charge of technology, to take charge of social change. Only so can we build a society such that we want it to be. Rather than letting the future just happen, we can begin to build the future.

Bo Dahlbom
The IT University of Göteborg