Essential Services

The New Normal

As computational technology has grown over the last several decades, it has come to play an increasingly greater role in our modern lifestyle. What was once limited to a select few (e.g., wealthy corporations, electrical engineers, scientific researchers, etc.) is now a commonplace commodity that nearly everybody uses and relies upon to one degree or another.

Today’s technology is ubiquitous. From the smart phone in your pocket to the cash register at your neighborhood store to the traffic signals at a nearby intersection, the products of computer science are everywhere. Everything around us collects, stores, and/or manipulates digital data to record information, compute results, and make decisions about how things should work. We cannot escape the influence of digital computing in our everyday lives.

And that has had a profound impact on the ways that societies function and has altered the ways that individuals behave and make decisions. The influence of computational technology is so pervasive that people increasingly take it for granted, especially younger individuals for whom this technology has always existed.

One of the goals of this course has been to open your eyes to many of the computational influences that surround you and show you how to harness the capabilities of these tools and resources.

Utility or Luxury?

As computing becomes more pervasive and individuals integrate it into their daily lives, we grow increasingly dependent upon this technological resource. More and more of our infrastructure, whether it is banking, shopping, medical records, communication, or basic utilities like electricity and water, is being built around and optimized to rely upon computational technologies.

One of the issues this raises is the question of what will happen if this infrastructure collapses or is taken away for some natural, political, or economic reasons. How will we function if the Internet “goes out"? What happens to those who cannot afford to pay for network access? These are just a few of the serious questions that arise as we integrate this technology into our lives.

At some point, a technology becomes so essential to the normal functioning of a society that it elevates from a mere convenience or personal luxury to an essential public utility like water and electricity. In recent years, many policymakers have begun to make the argument that access to the Internet is rapidly becoming such an essential utility and that it is something all individuals should be entitled to. In fact, many would argue that we are already there and that the law is simply lagging behind.

Later in this unit, when we discuss a few high-profile social and political issues like the digital divide or net neutrality, we will look more closely at a number of the questions that society will need to address as the advances of digital technologies continue their forward march of progress.