Alternatives

Through the 1970s and 1980s, much of social informatics research focused on organizations because they were the major sites of computerization. It is only in the last few years that many people who are not technical specialists have computer systems for home use.

In the 1970s and 1980s, often the questions about computerization were phrased as deterministic impact questions. What would be the impact of computers on organizational behavior if we did X? What would be the changes in social life if we did X? Will computer systems improve or degrade the quality of work?

There is a number of studies in which people try to answer this last question, whether work life would improve for clerks, for engineers, for managers, and so on. The questions were often phrased in very simple, direct terms, namely ‘What will happen, X or Y?’ The answer was, sometimes X, and sometimes Y. There was no simple, direct effect. Much of the character of changes depended on the relative power of workers.

For example, clerks fared less well on the average, than professionals. Sometimes secretaries, who are the aristocrats of the clerical class, were able to have greater improvements in their work lives than were the people, primarily women, who were doing transaction processing in the back rooms of banks and insurance companies. Occupational power played an important role in mediating and shaping the way that computerization restructured workplaces.

Another question examined was the extent to which computerization drove organizations to become more centralized. There were major arguments that computer systems would enable upper-level managers to have more detailed information about the operations of their workplaces, and that organizations would become more centralized. Others argued that the growing use of less expensive computer systems would shift control to lower-level managers and thus decentralize organizations.

Many people wanted to know: ‘Well, which is it? Is it X or Y?’ Some studies found that ICT (information and communication technology) use led to some organizations centralizing, and other studies found that ICT use led to decentralization. Many of the arguments were engaged in a form of ‘Is it X or Y?’ and based upon a simple concept that has not been substantiated in reviews of the careful studies. The repeated failure of predictions is one of the important Ž ndings of social informatics research.