Computers And Society
David D. Thornburg, Associate Editor
High Tech, High Touch, And 1984
Take a deep breath everybody — 1984 is a month away.
It is obvious to everyone who cares to look that 1984 is going to be a pretty good year. In fact, it will be nothing like the deeply depressing vision of George Orwell in his novel.
It is interesting to examine why 1984 won't happen the way Orwell said it would. In fact, the reason is pretty simple — at the same time we've been moving into a high-tech world, we've also been growing in our sensitivities as human beings. In the book Megatrends, John Naisbitt points out that the growth of the human potential movement has run parallel to the growth of high technology in the marketplace.
This is fortuitous, since we are at one of those points in history where major social change is possible.
For the last several years we have been making a transition from an industrial economy to an information economy. To put it simply, American car production has dropped through the floor while computer and software production has shot through the roof. From a time when most of our countrymen worked in the fields, we have moved to an era where only 3 percent of our work force produces our food, and more than half of us work in the information sector.
Orwell's vision for 1984 predicted the tremendous growth in the number of information workers, but it also depicted this transition causing us to become faceless entities to be manipulated by the government. Reality has been far kinder simply because of our own sensitivities as human beings. Perhaps it is our genetic survival coding that insured that we would not roboticize ourselves.
Perhaps, it was just luck.
For whatever reason, we gave ourselves the chance to retain our humaneness, and we took it. Do you remember the three big movies in the summer of 1982? Two were high tech (TRON and Star Trek II), and one was high touch (E.T.). You know which one was popular.
Did you see On Golden Pond or La Traviata — and cry?
The popularity of films that touch us is one sure sign that we are not about to sacrifice our human spirit on the altar of high technology. But what really delights me about our new age is that the computer — the supreme embodiment of high technology — can and will be seen as a tool to enhance and preserve our creative spirit. The computer can be a tool to bring us together, not pull us apart.
Of all the places where the computer has this power, I think the schools are among the most important. To see just one example of why this is so, consider the use of word processors in the classroom.
One of the greatest forces that stifle creative writing is the labor of recopying a final manuscript. I've seen many third- and fourth-graders learn to hate story writing because of the laborious hand copying involved with the creation of a legible manuscript. A word processor goes a long way towards solving this problem.
Of course, some teachers (failing to realize that we already have) may argue that we shouldn't make our children dependent on high technology. Very few children know how to make a quill pen, or how to make their own inks. In fact, many children have access to very high tech ball-point pens, some of which use tungsten carbide balls (tungsten carbide is very high tech).
The issue of accessibility to word processors will go away as the computer continues to become more commonplace in homes and schools. The point is that a word processor can relieve the tedium of recopying a manuscript by hand, and can go a long way towards developing and maintaining a child's creativity.
Other computer-based tools for creative expression (such as graphics tablets and picture generation software) can help maintain creative energy. In fact, the analytical computer can end up being a strong assistant to our creative expression — it can be high tech and high touch at the same time.
And so, with this view, I warmly embrace the forthcoming new year safe in the knowledge that we — through our sensitivities as human beings — have insured that Orwell's vision for 1984 will always remain fictional.
On Piracy And Example Setting
We all know that unauthorized copying and distribution of software is not only against the law, but also that it can drive good authors out of business. We may think that it is the lone programmer working in a back room who is most victimized by this practice, but large companies can be hurt, too.
Faced with dwindling school budgets, some teachers seem almost proud of their abilities to increase their school's software library at no net cost to the school.
If you think this doesn't happen, consider the case of a major educational publisher which understands that teachers want to evaluate software in their own classrooms before buying it. In an effort to be responsive to this reasonable expectation, the publisher made its software available on a 30-day trial basis. At the end of the 30 days, many of these products were returned. On close examination, the publisher found that the documentation binders had been opened and that some of the pages were reinserted in the wrong order — a sign that they had been copied along with the disks.
How could this company have prevented this significant financial loss at the hands of apparently unscrupulous teachers? Some might argue that the disks should have been copy protected, but copy protection works to the detriment of those who feel that they should be able to make legitimate backup copies of their disks. Also, for every software lock, there is a key available for a modest price.
What is needed is a new word in these teachers' vocabulary — ethics.
How prevalent is the problem? It's hard to say, but I have heard many teachers say that the reason they prefer Apple to Atari is because much of Atari's software is distributed on cartridges so you have to buy one for each computer in use.