Computers And Society
David D. Thornburg
P.O. Box 1317
Los Altos, CA 94022
Happy New Year! Now that Compute is being published monthly, I have decided to stay on a two-month cycle, so you will hear from me every other issue - at least for a while. As always, please feel free to contact me at the above address or through the source at TCE132.
In thinking about the role of computers in society, there is one application which stands well above the rest in its potential impact on the general public. This application is computer communication, be it electronic mail, computer conferencing, or just on-line chatting.
The Europeans have been pioneers in this area through various videotext systems in England, France, Germany, and elsewhere. In our continent, the Canadian Telidon effort stands out as a particularly nice piece of technology for the home information market. We in the United States have access to the Source and Micronet on a national scale, and there are many local experiments ranging from replicas of the European systems to the distribution of video game software through the TV cable (the Mattel/Jerrold Playcable system).
This field grows more exciting in its potential every day. The acquisition of a majority of Source Telecomputing by the Reader's Digest, and the existence of the Better Homes and Gardens menu data base on Micronet serve as strong testimony to the idea that these systems are gearing themselves to the needs and desires of the general public.
It is my opinion that we are experiencing a communications revolution whose impact is likely to be as greater, if not greater, than that of the telephone.
While I encourage you to give me your perspectives on this topic so I can share then with the rest of our readers, I thought that it might be valuable to review some recent books which deal with various aspects of this topic. The books I selected range from history to science fiction, with the common thread that they deal with the use of computers as communication aids for human beings.
The Third Wave by Alvin Toffler, William Morrow and Co.
It is almost impossible these days to pick up a newspaper or magazine without seeing reference to Toffler's ideas. Before rushing out to buy a copy of this book, however, be aware that an up-to-date technologist might be mildly disappointed in it since Toffler devotes his major effort to chronicling the work of others and threading these efforts onto a conceptual latticework rather than probing deeply into the motivation behind these developments.
The real value of this book, in my opinion, comes from the clarity with which the author is able to convey these developments to the general public in a manner which generates excitement while maintaining a good deal of objectivity. Toffler writes like a newspaper reporter, which may be of questionable value for a 500 + page book, but this style may appeal to those of you who enjoy reading only a few pages at a sitting.
The title of the book derives from the three major overlapping stages in the development of society from 8000 BC to the present time. Beginning with the idea that the rise of agriculture was the first turning point in human social development, and that the industrial revolution was the second breakthrough, then the development of what others have called the "information age" heralds the coming of the Third Wave.
As Toffler points out, there is much more than technology separating these waves. Family structures, concepts of work, time, space, even life itself, all are influenced by the nature of the society in which one lives. Life gets particularly exciting during transitionary times (as we are seeing now, for example), and one of Toffler's themes is that we should be aware of the larger context in which these changes are taking place, in order to accept them gracefully.
As for the Third Wave society, it is suggested that the advent of low-cost communications and distributed computing will be the nucleus of the new cottage industries. As in First Wave societies, many Third Wave workers will operate out of their homes. Toffler sees this in a most positive light. I must confess that the prospect of spending less of my life in airplanes appeals to me as well.
In Toffler's mind, you who are using personal computers, and talking to each other through electronic mail, represent the leading edge of the Third Wave. His view of the personal computer world is so favorable that I would bet that personal computer sales showed an upturn when this book was published.
If you give after dinner talks to the general public on personal computing, or otherwise address groups on this topic, you should read this book. You can safely bet that some of the people in your audience have!
The Micro Millenium by Christopher Evans, Viking Press
This book shares a similar theme with The Third Wave - that computer technology will have an extraordinary impact on our lives. Unlike Toffler, however, Evans presents a more detailed background for his concepts, thus making his book more readable. The Micro Millenium presents the astounding advances in computer technology in historical sequence, starting with the developments of Pascal, Jacquard, Babbage, and others.
As Evans gazes into his crystal ball, he sees much of the same sort of thing that Toffler predicts:
- Reduced work weeks and the rebirth of the cottage industry
- The disappearance of books, with their contents being stored on single silicon chips which can be "read" with special "viewers"
- Replacement of the postal system with electronic mail
- Replacement of much business travel with computer conferencing
- The ultimate success of EFT (Electronic Funds Transfer) which will eliminate the need for currency Along with these predictions (for which he provides technological justification), there is another thread carefully woven into this book - that of machine intelligence. Early on he quotes Ada, the Countess of Lovelace (who had the distinction of being the first computer software specialist). Her work with Babbage included studying his plans for the "Analytical Engine" in depth. On the issue of whether the machine could become creative, she wrote:
The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths. Its province is to assist us in making available what we are already acquainted with.
This topic comes up with increasing frequence as the book progresses until one reaches a three chapter section which deals entirely with the concept of the Ultra Intelligent Machine.
Chris Evans' views on the feasibility of machine intelligence are not without controversy. His untimely death prior to the publication of this book precludes his continued participation in this discussion, but this fine book stands as a most articulate exposition of his views.
The Network Nation by Starr Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff, Addison-Wesley Publishing Co. One of the features of personal information utilities such as the Source or Micronet, is the potential they have for creating distributed discussion groups. These discussion groups become the nucleus of a massive interconnected conferencing scheme in which the participants can take part in several ongoing conferences on various topics without leaving the comfort of their own homes. Computer conferencing is not a particularly new idea, and it is the published research on early conference experiments which gives us a glimpse of what this environment will be like for us.
The Network Nation is an interesting book for several reasons. First, the authors have widely different fields of expertise: sociology and computer science. This diversity of background gives the book far more depth than might be present had both authors been experts in the same field. Second, this book views the future from a solid base of research on computer conferencing conducted by the authors since 1970. While the systems they studied were generally limited to specific government funded projects, and had less than a thousand users, the nature of this new communications medium was carefully studied from many perspectives.
Whether it is called computer conferencing, electronic mail or chatting, it is clear from this book that communication between people through the medium of the computer is markedly different from communication through any other medium. In the case of the telephone or CB, for example, it is required that all participants in a conference be on-line simultaneously. On the other extreme, a remote conference which takes place through the mails has very long delays associated with each round of messages. Computer conferencing has a niche of its own. What Hiltz and Turoff found was that this niche has some interesting characteristics. Deprived of the body language and verbal nuances which accompany face-to-face meetings, participants in computer conferences have had to find new ways to express emotion. Also, since a single message may be sent to hundreds of people with a single keystroke, the accumulation of messages in ones "in-basket" can be quite disequilibrating. Hiltz and Turoff found that people tended to read their mail often enough to prevent the accumulation of more than seven new messages. As with any other technological "toy", some users became addicted to the system, logging on as many as three times a day. If this work can be extrapolated to the public at large, our own "Network Nation" will definitely have its fraction of information "junkies" who can hardly wait for their next "fix".
There doesn't seem to be an aspect of computer conferencing which the authors overlooked, whether it was privacy, regulation, foul language, or ways of making the system better for the novice user. As for the impact of this technology on society, the authors say:
It is our belief that we are entering an era in which the ability of an individual to function as a citizen of that society will depend on adequate access to computerized information and communication systems. Imagine today a person trying to function without being able to use the telephone. We believe that within 10 to 20 years computer terminals will be as necessary as telephones are today.
This is a scholarly work which will take on increased importance as the home information utility increases in popularity.
Videotext: the Coming Revolution In Home/Office Information Retrieval by Efrem Sigel, Colin McIntyre, Max Wilkinson and Joseph Rolzen, Knowledge Industry Publications
As many of you already know, the Europeans have been experimenting with home information utilities for several years. These activities, grouped under the generic heading of Videotext, actually comprise two very different services: Teletext and Viewdata. While both of these systems use specially modified television sets as the display medium, Teletext is a receive-only service in which textual data is encoded on several unused scan lines of the television broadcast signal, and Viewdata is a fully bi-directional system on which the data is carried over the phone lines.
Rather than concentrating in the details of the technology associated with these systems, the authors of this book describe the development of these systems from a programming, marketing, and regulatory perspective. Since we in the United States are starting to see experiments with these systems in regional trials, it is most interesting to see how these systems were developed in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.
The authors warn that these systems are not easy to get up or to sell to the public, and that the established habit of watching TV as a pastime, for entertainment only, is a major obstacle to the growth of these systems. For example, in the first two years of Teletext service in England, only 15,000 specially equipped sets were sold. This service provides captioning for the deaf, news bulletins, subtiles, and other services.
It is my feeling that the high cost of televisions in the UK may be a major contributor to the lack of enthusiastic response, but one can hardly argue with the authors' viewpoint that the initial growth will be among business and professional users who are used to paying a premium for rapid information retrieval.
This book is a good introduction to the home information terminal environment.
Viewdata and Videotext, 1980-81: A Worldwide Report, Knowledge Industry Publications
This report contains more than fifty technical papers which were presented at Viewdata 80, the first world conference on videotext. This report provides detailed technical expositions on the various home information utility services being provided all over the world. While the previously reviewed book gave an overview of this topic from a historical perspective, this report gives a raw up-to-the-minute report on the services being tried in Canada, France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Japan, Germany, the Netherlands and Finland. All facets of the technology seem to be represented, from the choice of display format to the problems of carrying advertising on the medium.
One might think that an international commission should set a single standard so that all countries can use the same system. The problem with this approach is that the television formats differ from country to country. Our televisions, which use the 525 line NTSC signal, are considered primitive by European standards, for example. Beyond the issues of display format, there is the related issue of how graphics are displayed on the screen. The original British experiments used "alphamosaic" characters for graphics (somewhat like the method used for drawing pictures on the PET). At the other extreme, the Canadian Telidon system sends "picture description information" which the local processor must decode and use to generate graphics signals itself. While this approach is presently more expensive than that using a special character generator (as is used in the alphamosaic scheme), the results are breathtaking.
What is especially heartening about this report is that researchers came from all over the world to share their views and results with the goal of building as much mutual compatibility into their individual systems as possible. In reading these papers it is apparent that thousands of people are working towards making their own "Network Nation" part of the "Wired World".
The Medusa Conspiracy by Ethan Shedley Viking Press
While it is easy to see much benefit from a "Wired World", one must always consider the potential impact of a massive system failure, it is even more chilling to think of the consequences of a subtle failure whose presence may go undetected for some time. When this failure affects international security, the results can be deadly.
The Medusa Conspiracy is a novel which deals with this very topic in such a realistic manner that it is obvious that the author is a computer scientist who writes novels on the side. Revolving around topical international intrigue (involving the Russians, United States, Israel, and the Arabs), this story deals with a data base error which brings the world to the brink of war. The President of the United States has a terminal in his office with which he contacts Medusa, a massive relocatable program which serves as his principal source of foreign intelligence information. Medusa shifts itself around the ARPANET, residing in various computers with available resources. Slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, the system starts to break down in devious ways. The services of Dr. Seth Miller, one of Medusa's implementers, are brought in to fix the problem. The story of his efforts (told in accurate technical detail), coupled with the attempts of others to thwart his success, makes for a gripping tale.
As mentioned above, the author is a computer scientist. The technical accuracy of this book adds to its suspense and Compute! readers should have no trouble with the jargon.