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The Power of Technology: Computing Equality in the 1980s (and How it Failed)

By Katrin Geske

Realizing the demands of a modern state – think for instance of complex social security or tax systems – takes more than just a good idea and the intention to make it happen. The role of fully automated systems has increased immensely over the past 50 years and their importance was (and is) sometimes underestimated – with severe consequences. I present the results of a study that investigated a new automation system for the Dutch Student Grants (Studiefinanciering) that was developed and introduced between 1984 and 1988. This example demonstrates how computing systems gained a central position in the execution and realization of a new law on which hundreds of thousands of students depended. The difficulties accompanying the introduction of the law illustrate the extent to which a failure of technology can have an impact on large parts of society.

Computing economics

Much has changed since the first digital computers were developed in the second half of the 1940s. Computing technology is ubiquitous nowadays and appears most frequently in form of mobile phones or embedded software. We have gotten used to the fact that computers are ‘everywhere’. As a result, many scholars have discussed, for instance, the dependency of the stock market on complex IT solutions. Stock trading has ceased to be a face to face interaction between brokers; instead, ‘decisions’ regarding the purchase and sale of stocks are usually made by software drawing information from a great variety of sources, relying on digital networks and algorithms that define priorities of the analyzed information. The operations executed per second exceed human capabilities by far, and experts agree that the stock market in its present state of operation could not be run solely by humans. In other words, this example demonstrates the extent to which ‘real-world’ processes have become dependent on IT.

Yet, this insight in the interdependent relationship of humans and computers, although discussed in certain academic circles for many years, has found little application.[1] The study discussed here demonstrates that by the 1980s, an understanding acceptance of the interdependency of human actions and technological processes was not widespread. Especially among those introducing and handling IT systems, competence and a thorough understanding of the technology and its complex correlation with society were lacking.[2] The kind of relations suggested by the stock market example were not even a topic of discussion. This is not a judgment call but an attitude suggested by the sources used for this research.

Why Student Grants?

Why was an automated system for administering student grants set up in the first place? I will discuss a few reasons central to my argument.

In the second half of the twentieth century, a number of fundamental aspects had changed in Western societies: the population had exploded due to improved working conditions, a resulting reduction of stress, better hygiene, and medical discoveries. These changing preconditions, that granted spare time and more room for education, pushed social movements to ask for greater equality of all groups. A central demand was to have the possibility of enjoying affordable education. In other words, governments were confronted with growing numbers of citizens that asked for the right to send their kids to college without drowning in debts. Also, the ideal of free and purposeless education was highly regarded.

As a result of these pressures, the Dutch government introduced different public funds that supported students and their families. For many years, this funding system – which consisted of three different funds that often interfered with each other – was very complicated and not legally binding. A number of politicians tried to introduce alternatives, but these proved too difficult to realize.

In 1982, the new minister for the Sciences and Education, Wim Deetman (1945), tried to secure his legacy by implementing a new study financing law. His determination to gain recognition for achieving the impossible did lead to success – but at a price. Early in 1984, Deetman announced the new Student Grants Law – an ambitious policy that would change a number of existing laws and provide a basic scholarship to each student, independent of their parents’ income. Students with a low socio-economic status could apply for additional loans with low interest rates.

Wim Deetman

Two years after the law was announced, student grants were supposed to be paid to every student from the age of 18. The application process was entirely new and rather complex, requiring students, their parents and respective partners to fill in a number of forms. More importantly, the system did not work. Tens of thousands of students waited for the promised money in vain, even after the application procedure had been temporarily simplified. The result was two years of public protests of students and parents desperately trying to receive the money they had been promised.

Technicalities?

What had happened? For quite some time the cause of the payment delays was unclear. At first, it seemed that the officials handling the student grants were simply overwhelmed by all the new requests and the many changes that had been introduced. In fact, as became increasingly clear, more fundamental issues were behind the problems. In 1987, one year after the official introduction of the Student Grants Law, L.A. Runia, project manager of the RCC[3] published a devastating article.[4] It claimed that all the troubles with the new law could be traced to a faulty implementation of the computing systems. He claimed that Minister Deetman had put too much pressure on the project and that the software contained too many errors. Computing power had been insufficient – a great problem since the analysis and processing of all the data required for calculating each student’s claim was immense.[5] After all, the additional loan depended on the parental income and therefore varied between cases.

Picture2

For a while, the computer system became the center of attention. But how could a computer system be blamed? Instead, many people began looking for a responsible person; the general consensus soon agreed with Runia that Minister Deetman had put unnecessary pressure on the RCC and the private company Volmac that was involved in the development of the software. This affair nearly cost Deetman his post as Minister. But was it just Deetman’s ambition that turned the Student Grants Law into such a shaky project that nearly failed entirely?

Appreciating interdependency

Deetman’s strong interests surely contributed to the problems. Another probable factor was the experimental structure of the cooperation between the public (RCC) and the private (Volmac) company responsible for the implementation of the system. But one other point is just as important, and this brings us right back to the beginning: the automation of the Student Grants Law is an excellent example of the central position computing technology had gained in the implementation of a law that was designed to serve hundreds of thousands of students. In order to meet the individual demands of so many people, an incredible amount of calculation power was needed. The government could not have employed enough people for implementing this law. Therefore, demands of a growing population for equal rights combined with the required government cuts could only be met by computing power. This fact, however obvious it might sound, was not recognized, and I consider this a major reason why the automation of the new Student Grant Law was so difficult to realize. The law could not be implemented without IT and this dependency was not fully comprehended.

The case illustrates the interdependence of our modern society with technological solutions. At the same time, it suggests that the acceptance of technology as an (indirect) actor is still difficult. Yet, I think it is necessary to embrace this concept, especially when trying to decide on issues of responsibility in a world that is filled with technologies that execute processes and run a world economy.

o-o-o

Katrin Geske finished her Bachelor at the Technical University Brandenburg (BTU) in the program “Culture and Technology” and recently finished her Research Master at Utrecht University in “Historical and Comparative Studies of the Sciences and Humanities.” She is interested in the interdependent relationship between society and technology, especially with regard to information and communication technology.

[1] Maybe today, with the ever greater presence of smart technology, it has become more obvious to what extent technology has become part of everyday life. Yet, the discussion whether the majority of today’s smart technology users is aware of the interdependency of them with the technology has to be discussed another time.

[2] For the research I used parliamentary documents, letters, interviews, and analyzed discussions in the Dutch press.

[3] State Owned Computer Centrum or in Dutch Rijks Computercentrum

[4] L. A. Runia, “Studiefinanciering Wettelijk Geregeld,” RCC Bulletin 1 (1987), 15-19.

[5] About 450 000 students were applying for student grants between August and September 1986. Each had to hand in at least three forms. On the basis of this information, each student’s individual claim had to be calculated and distributed. Granting individualized claims to a great number of people was new and was only enabled by automated systems.

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1 Comment

  1. […] The Power of Technology: Computing Equality in the 1980s (and How it Failed) […]

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