While computer use has affected almost every sector of society, the technological advancements in the areas of banking, health care and education have had the most immediate effect on the general public.
The changes that the computer has facilitated in Canadian banking have brought about better and faster delivery of more varied services. These services carry the promise of better access for all users, especially those in rural and remote areas. But this promise has yet to be fulfilled; many rural users complain that the introduction of computerized services has allowed the banks to decrease the number of tellers and close branches in communities that still depend on the physical and human presence of the bank.
In the health-care sector, computer technology has produced state-of-the-art equipment such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines. Unfortunately, the prohibitive cost of such equipment can sometimes lead to fee-for-service arrangements whereby patients must pay to use the new, more reliable equipment. Such fee-for-service practices have been accused of eroding Canada's public health-care system.
There is great potential for computer networks to deliver up-to-date research to health-care practitioners. For a fee, the most recent medical literature can be retrieved electronically by practitioners in remote areas, fostering continuing education and improved diagnoses. Teleconferencing equipment can allow specialists to provide consultations and to guide surgical procedures from a distance. The promise of such services in health-care will be only as good as the technology available at both ends; too often remote communities lack the resources to purchase and maintain state-of-the-art computers.
The Internet offers numerous sites that provide medical information and advice. In many respects the dissemination of such information has made people more knowledgeable about their health and more actively engaged in monitoring their own symptoms. There is a risk, however, that with the lack of quality control on the Internet people will place undue trust on poor medical advice instead of consulting their family doctor.
The federal government is committed to integrating computer technology into Canada's school system through SchoolNet, a project dedicated to getting computers in the classroom and students hooked up to the educational promise of the Internet. Educators eager to include computer training in the curriculum must now strike a balance between the benefits of early access to the latest technology and their students' needs for proper exercise, ergonomics and socialization. Teachers must also address the technology needs of students whose families do not have or cannot afford a computer in the home.
Computer use has long since been germane to university and college students. Acadia University in Wolfville, NS, however, is the first in Canada to require that each of its students purchase a computer as a condition of enrolment. The program, called ThinkPad University, is a corporate partnership between Acadia and IBM Canada; its success has led other schools to pursue the possibility of similar partnerships. Critics of the program, however, fear that many low- and middle-income students will not be able to afford this additional cost to a higher education.
Other universities have used computer technology to improve the quality of distance education. Athabasca University, in northern Alberta, is considered a leader in electronic courseware development and offers many courses over the World Wide Web and through video-conferencing. Similarly, professors at the University of British Columbia have developed the WebCT (World Wide Web Course Tools) software to help professors design their own online courses. The software is now used at North American institutions such as the University of Georgia, Berkeley and UCLA.
While Canadians have shown leadership in developing innovative computer applications, the majority of the world's hardware and software is designed in the United States. Furthermore, most of the cultural activity that happens on the Internet also originates in the United States. Internet search engines are primarily American, making it very hard for users to find existing quality Canadian material. As is the case with television, radio and film, Canadian cultural industries that deliver material electronically run the risk of being overwhelmed by their larger, more vocal neighbours to the south. To date, the Canadian government has not imposed any form of regulation to protect Canadian cultural material on the Web. There is no organization like the CANADIAN RADIO-TELEVISION AND TELECOMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION (CRTC) to regulate the amount of Canadian content available, and even if such a body were created the distributed nature of the Internet would prohibit any concrete efforts at regulation.
Because of the international nature of the Internet, national and cultural differences sometimes become inflammatory centres of debate. For example, in 1994 a Canadian court placed a publication ban on the proceedings of the trial of Karla Homolka, notorious for her role in a pair of Ontario sex slayings, fearing that it would compromise the rights of her partner, Paul Bernardo, to a fair trial. Americans felt that such an act countered the fundamental tenet of free speech. The Internet became the battleground between those who defended the workings of the Canadian judicial system and those who attacked it. Because the publication ban did not have jurisdiction in the United States, many Americans posted the events of the trial on the Internet for Canadians to read. For a Canadian to access such postings was a criminal offence.
Widespread use of the Internet has given rise to a new wave of electronic crime. Pedophiles have used the Internet not only to access child pornography on the World Wide Web, but also to trick potential victims into meeting with them by using e-mail and Internet chat rooms. There have also been many reported cases of Internet stalking, whereby a person is harassed through e-mail. Hate literature against religious and ethnic minorities also abounds. While use of the Internet in Canada is governed by the CRIMINAL CODE, the precedents for policing the Internet are still being established. Questions of national and international jurisdiction also come into play.
One of the greatest long-term drawbacks to electronic information could be society's inability to preserve it for future generations. Much of the digital information in the world can no longer be read because older computer hardware and software has been replaced by newer technologies. National libraries such as the National Library of Canada or the Library of Congress in the United States require that one copy of every book published in that country in print be placed in the library. Libraries do not yet have adequate tools in place for preserving electronic publications, and given the widely distributed nature of the Internet, it is no longer easy to determine just what constitutes a publication. A dramatic step in digital preservation of information has been taken in the United States by Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive, who donated a 2 terabyte (trillion bytes) snapshot of the World Wide Web to the Library of Congress. With the Internet growing at a rate of 100 gigabytes a week, digital preservation efforts will need to be mammoth if they are to depict reliably the information available through computer systems.
Y2K: The Year 2000 Computer Bug
Contemporary society is a computer society. The prospect of a widespread computer crash is almost unthinkable, and yet at midnight 1999-2000 computer systems around the world may simply shut down. The reason for this is that computers were originally designed to read year dates as 2-digit figures with the default century being the 20th. Later computer systems replicated this early programming without questioning the consequences for users in the 21st century. If this programming glitch is not fixed, computers may think that 2000 is actually 1900 or they may simply malfunction completely. Because of the interdependence of computer functions among industries, organizations and governments, the malfunction of a small percentage of the world's computers could seriously jeopardize the operation of key services.
Much has been made of this problem, dubbed the "millennium bug" or "Y2K virus" (for Year 2000). Media reports range from light-hearted humour to flat-out paranoia. The Canadian government has taken action implementing Task Force 2000 to track the efforts of Canadian businesses to deal with the problem. Utility companies have spent millions of dollars ensuring that their systems are Y2K compliant, and the government has alerted the military to the prospect of disaster at the start of the millennium. Many members of the public plan to have ample supplies of water and tinned food on hand just in case. Whether or not the Y2K threat proves to be real or whether it is one more symptom of pre-millennium zeal will only be decided in the early days of January 2000.
Author SUSAN R. FISHER
Links to Other Sites
The website for Dr. Michael Geist, the Canada Research Chair of Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa. Features numerous articles and other resources pertaining to technology law issues. Check out his film "Why Copyright?"
Video games turn 50
A CBC feature article on the history of the video game industry.
Canada ranks high in video game universe
A news story about the dynamic growth of the Canadian video game sector. From thestar.com.
Birth of the Internet
This CBC feature chronicles major milestones in the development of the Internet over the years.