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"Technology and Us"
School of Technology

Centennial Symposium
An Extended Celebration

Spring Semester 2002

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Technology and Us: Impact on Families and Consumers

Mikki Meadows, Ph.D., Linda Simpson, Ph.D., Pat McCallister, Ph.D.

School of Family and Consumer Sciences
Eastern Illinois University

Change is constant for consumers and families. It is not just change but fast change, especially in the local and global environment and marketplace. This fact is evident when current issues and challenges were not even in existence a few years ago. Much of this change can be contributed to technology and its impact on consumers and families. For example the Stone Age lasted many centuries and the Metal Age lasted 5000 years. In recent times the information age only lasted 20 years with a quick advance into the current knowledge age. Even the speed of change into the changing consumer marketplace is evident. It took 46 years for household electricity to reach 25% penetration while the Internet reached the same penetration in 7 years. This penetration is also supported by a Harris study, which indicated that Americans considered the computer to be last century's top innovation.
Six options within the School of Family and Consumer Sciences at Eastern Illinois University were examined to determine the most significant technological impacts on these areas. The positive and negative impacts of technology were discussed in the areas of consumer affairs, merchandising, hospitality, dietetics, child development, and family services as well as current issues facing families and consumers in the current global marketplace.
Technology is producing a negative impact in one area of consumer affairs as it creates endless opportunities for identity theft and consumer fraud to occur. Identity theft is a top consumer-fraud complaint and accounts for more than 40% of complaints. After identity theft, other technology-related consumer fraud complaints are problems with Internet auctions and improper charges from Internet and computer services. The cashless society is a technological advancement that provides both positive and negative opportunities for consumers. While the world of plastic, i.e. credit cards, provides convenience for consumers, it brings additional problems of sizeable consumer debt.
The increased use of Internet shopping is creating significant changes in the merchandising industry. Consumers are now global and are not limited to a local retail market, which creates more competition for retailers but also provides other avenues for retailers to reach their target markets. In addition, the human interaction in the retail industry is eliminated by the increased use of technology. High-tech fashion is becoming a trend, as consumers require wearing apparel to carry their electronic gadgets such as cell phones, pagers, pocket PCs, etc. In addition, technology is providing enhancements to the apparel itself by use of high-tech fibers and construction for increased comfort in clothing.
Areas in which technology is having a significant impact in the hospitality industry are electronic bookings, e-tickets, and lobby kiosk touch screens. Consumers are having a considerable influence on this industry as pricing for the lodging industry and revenue management systems are being challenged. The consumers are provided more options to make travel reservations online providing opportunities to comparison shop. Airline industries are utilizing the use of e-tickets more readily as a means for consumers. In this situation, consumers do not receive their airline tickets until arrival at the airport. The hotel lobby kiosk touch screen guest-tracking system is another innovative technological development that is noteworthy in the hospitality industry. While this approach provides a quicker, more efficient method at check-in, once again, it eliminates personal interaction between a staff person and the consumer.
Dietetics, as a field of study, has seen significant changes in regard to the use of technology in the area of research. Specifically, the genetic modification of food sources has gained attention and controversy. Plant life can be genetically modified at a molecular level in order to make it more nutrient-rich, less vulnerable to pests, and hardier. In addition, the genetic manipulation of livestock in order to enhance reproduction, prevent disease, and increase lean muscle mass has also drawn attention. Nutrition education, especially for children, has also changed considerably as technology has advanced. Videos, music clips, and computer software are all available to catch the attention of the consumer and help them learn about good nutrition. Finally, dietary analysis tools have become more accessible to the public in the form of computer programs and Internet web sites. What was left to a professional dietician in the past has now become available to the masses with just a click of the mouse.
The study of child development has been impacted as technology makes brain imagery available and gives those that work with the youngest population a peak into the working of the young mind. The technology that was used in the medical field in the past is now used to track the plasticity of the brain. An understanding of plasticity has given rise to an awareness of the importance of the meaningful interactions during the first years of life that actually strengthen brain growth. The education of children has also changed dramatically with the influence of technology. Computers in the classroom are now commonplace, changing the way that educators educate. Specifically, the use of technology with children who have special needs has provided opportunities for growth and development that are significant. There is no doubt that computers open up educational vistas unheard of in the past; however, lack of teacher training for the use of computers in the classroom has become problematic.
Individuals who work in the field of Family Services have seen a dramatic shift in family communication as technology has evolved. As communication technology has skyrocketed, today's busy families have become closer in many ways through the use of various devices. E-mail, pagers, and cell phones all allow the mobile family of the 21st century to reach one another in an instant. Family security is also an issue when considering the impact of technology on the family. In today's uncertain times safety devices in the home, automobile, and even tracking chips that can be implanted under a child's skin, are gaining attention.
In closing, technology has ushered in changes in the dynamics of the field of consumer affairs, merchandising, hospitality, dietetics, child development, and family services provides both positive and negative impacts to each of these areas. While convenience and increased opportunities for families and consumers are enhanced, the increase in consumer fraud and decrease of human interaction is evident.

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