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Rob Kling, 58; Specialist in Computers' Societal Effect

May 26, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Rob Kling, an author and educator regarded as the founding father of social informatics -- how computers influence social change -- has died. He was 58.

Kling, who taught for 23 years at UC Irvine before moving to Indiana University seven years ago to head its new Center for Social Informatics, died May 15 in his home in Bloomington, Ind. His wife, Mitzi Lewison, said he died unexpectedly in his sleep of cardiovascular disease.

Intellectually indefatigable, Kling was, in the words of Blaise Cronin, dean of the Indiana University School of Library and Information Science, "quite simply the brightest bloke with whom I have had the pleasure of working."

Debora Shaw, associate dean to Cronin, said Kling's "analysis and insight transformed the trivial to significant, providing, among other benefits, the foundation for the field of social informatics."

Concerned that all discussion of computers focused on technology, Kling studied government, manufacturers and insurance companies to determine how computers affect society and require choices that consider human values as well as technological values.

In his prolific writings and speeches, Kling often used analogies to the automobile to make his esoteric topic more easily understood. Technological debates could be likened to discussing the latest sports car model, he told The Times in 1992, while informatics addresses how the automobile has affected society, including construction of highways and development of suburbs.

Kling's studies convinced him that "there is an underside to computer technology," he said. For example, he said that organizations often fail to train employees properly in computer use, making the task a "hassle and a cause of stress" and that dependency on computers for communication eliminates creative, stimulating social interaction. Another major downside, he said, can be loss of privacy.

"Many people, particularly white-collar workers, have a view that the best factory is one where almost nobody is there," he said in a speech to the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility meeting at Chapman University in 1985. "Most functions are automated. In this view the factory is a production machine, a gadget, and there's no honorable role for people except to fill in where the machines aren't good enough yet."

He added, "Nobody asks, 'What's the sane way to automate factories so that there's a dignified place for people and an appropriate place for machinery?' It's hard to find a view that doesn't make machinery central, with people just filling in."

In 1982, Kling co-wrote the first of his many influential books -- "Computers and Politics: High Technology in American Local Governments" -- which demonstrates that computeriza- tion, far from being apolitical as most proponents assumed, enhances the power of already powerful groups.

Kling also co-edited "PostSuburban California: The Transformation of Postwar Orange County" in 1990, which later won the Thomas Athearn Award from the Western Historical Society.

He co-edited "Computerization and Controversy: Value Conflicts and Social Choices" in 1991 and edited its second edition in 1996. He also edited the scholarly journal the Information Society and served on the boards of several other journals.

Born in Elizabeth, N.J., Kling earned his bachelor's degree from Columbia University and master's and doctoral degrees in artificial intelligence from Stanford, where he was a research engineer with the Stanford Research Institute's Artificial Intelligence Center.

From 1971 until 1973, he taught at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, then joined the faculty of the new UC Irvine.

He moved to Indiana in 1996, teaching such classes as computerization in society, digital libraries and the seminar in information science, and heading the information sciences master's program.

In addition to his wife, Kling is survived by a sister, Ellasara Kling of New York.

Memorial contributions can be sent to the Rob Kling Social Informatics Scholarship Fund, Indiana University Foundation, P.O. Box 500, Bloomington, IN 47402.

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