May 1984 // Volume 22 // Number 3 // Forum // 3FRM1

Previous Article Issue Contents

Computers: Authority and Extension


Bruce Sanderson
Research Assistant
Department of Continuingand Vocational Education
University of Wisconsin-Extension

Lois Berg
Project Assistant
Department of Horticulture
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Authority can be defined as the power to influence or persuade others. People who establish authority often use it to add weight to their statements and actions. Often this influence becomes disproportionate. If a person has authority, what that person says is unlikely to be criticized by others. Authority, legitimate or not, is often essential to influence others. Also, this person gains the right to make further statements.1

For centuries, people have used authority to increase the impact of their statements, People do this by removing human attributes from their statements, by associating their statement with a powerful, external symbol. External symbols mask the true identity of the originator of the statements.

Masks come in many forms. Many books are masks, with the human writer hidden behind the written word. For example, textbooks often act as society's validation of knowledge, and demand mastery by the student. A status difference is created between the reader and writer.2 The mask of the book significantly contributes to the authority of the writer.

The computer and its programs may be a more powerful mask than a book. It separates a program's author and user by time and space. The machine itself, and its seeming "intelligence," can mask the fact that the information and data within its programs were generated by humans. Perhaps we must be reminded of that fact. Usually, the author of a computer program isn't evident to the user. The computer must not become an idol with authority above question.

The computer could become a mask of information in the Extension setting. It's accurate, logical, fast, and can hold seemingly infinite information. When an information seeker or problem solver experiences this accuracy, logic, speed, and information reservoir of a computer, it's all too easy to perceive the computer as always being right. The computer can become a symbol, masking inconsistencies and shortcomings of the information within its programs, and taking on the authority of perfect knowledge.

A well-written program can't address all situations. Good Extension computer programs need to offer alternatives that can be applied to a specific situation, with the input and judgment of the client and the Extension agent or specialist. Agents must take the lead in looking at and helping people interpret computer recommendations and adapt them to their specific situations. Without this effort on the part of agents, computer programs could become useless to Extension clients -- ultimately harming Extension.


  1. David R. Olson, "On the Language and Authority of Textbooks," Journal of Communication, XXX (Winter, 1980), 186-96.
  2. Ibid.