A Computerized Society—Science Fiction or Reality?
By “Awake!” correspondent in the British Isles
THE writers of science fiction stories often describe a world where giant computers control government, industry and commerce. More than that, they envision the time when every home has access to a computer that serves as a household manager and provides knowledge and information or advice on any subject—all at the touch of a button. Does that kind of world appeal to you? Could it ever become a reality?
During the last 25 years, the use of computers has grown from something of a novelty into a multibillion dollar industry. Twenty years ago, there were only about 100 computers in the world, whereas today there are about 300,000. The next two decades could see them numbering into the tens of millions. In view of such growth, it is appropriate to ask: What are computers doing? What developments are taking place? Perhaps more importantly, where are developments leading?
Developments in Computer “Hardware”
The past two decades have seen enormous leaps in the technologies associated with computer “hardware,” that is, the actual bits and pieces that make up the machines. Often, successive steps in technology are revolutionary and bring improvements that are hundreds of times better. A good example of this can be seen in the miniaturization of circuit components.
Twenty years ago it took a printed-circuit card the size of a standard playing card, with components mounted on it, to store just one binary piece of information. This means that such a card could retain the values 0 or 1, no more. It took at least six such circuits to store a character from the alphabet. Today, four or five technological steps later, there are circuits that can store 16,000 of such binary bits on a “chip” smaller than a thumbnail. This means that all the information on this magazine page could easily be stored on such a chip.
The internal processing speeds of computers have increased just as impressively. Older machines could process 30,000 or 40,000 instructions each second, while their modern equivalents can handle three to four million in the same time. Considering that just one instruction can perform an arithmetic operation (can add, subtract, multiply, and so forth) with two numbers of almost any sum, a person gets some idea of the capability of modern computers. No wonder they have been referred to as “number crunchers”!
Apart from “working storage”—the information, or data, stored on chips—computers have what is known as secondary storage. This is used for the bulk storage of data that is not in direct use, in much the same way as library shelves serve to store books until they are needed. This kind of storage usually is achieved by magnetic recording on tapes, strips, disks or drums using exactly the same principle as a tape recorder. In this area, too, progress has been dramatic. Recording densities have been improved from 500 characters to the inch (2.5 centimeters) to over 6,000. Mass storage units, using these densities on strips of magnetic tape, can retain over 200 thousand million characters. This is the equivalent of what is contained in 50,000 copies of the Bible.
Finally, there is the means by which we humans get information in and out of computers. In the past, this was limited to the use of cards or paper tape with punched holes, and to the familiar computer printout. The user had to be at the computer site to submit his cards and to get his printout. Today there are various alternatives. Probably the most widely used are devices known as video terminals. These are like television sets, with typewriter keyboards attached. The user types in information, which appears on the screen and which can be read by the computer. Then the computer replies by displaying information on the same screen for the user to read. By means of this kind of terminal, communication with the computer becomes interactive, that is, it becomes like a two-way conversation. What is more, these terminals do not have to be on site at the computer installation. They can be in an office, laboratory, classroom or a home hundreds, even thousands, of miles away at the other end of a telephone line or satellite link.
Developments in Computer “Software”
There also have been significant developments in computer “software” or the programs that control what computers do. In the past, if you wanted a computer to do some work for you, it was necessary to code your request into computer language. Such “programming” is complicated business and takes a great deal of time and effort. The programmer needs a detailed knowledge of a computer’s makeup. For this reason, computers traditionally have been the exclusive domain of those in the computing profession. But that is not the case today. The last decade has seen the development of control programs or “operation systems” that “manage” the computer and make it more usable. They allow users to communicate their needs directly to the computer in human language. Doctors, scientists, schoolboys, teachers, housewives—in fact, even persons with no knowledge of how a computer works—can get one to perform by using simple, English-like commands. Furthermore, the control programs “time-share,” that is, they enable many users to share computer time, allowing the enormous capacity to be used in serving many persons all at the same time.
Then, there is the problem of usefully storing vast amounts of information. If you have ever considered the task of the librarians who look after large libraries, you will appreciate that the storing of large amounts of information needs very careful organization. Computers have control programs that perform as librarians and organize data into what are called “data bases.” These data bases are so arranged that individual data records can be retrieved in fractions of a second. This means that users can be given almost instant access to volumes of information.
Another very important development in software involves computer communication via telephone lines. In recent years, the telephone networks have been used to carry coded data between terminals and computers. Due to the growth of this kind of activity, the public telephone authorities are cooperating internationally to develop networks exclusively for conveying computer information. Unlike the public telephone networks, these “data networks” will allow for multi-way conversations between machines.
Could you imagine the task of a telephone operator in such a network? This vital function, however, is not handled by a telephone operator. Control programs have been developed that enable computers to exchange information simultaneously with terminals and other computers. Using these networks, computers can parcel out the work to be done. This is called “distributed processing.” For example, one computer with a large medical data base could handle all the medical queries coming into the network.
Whereas the advances in hardware have made the computer more powerful, advances in software have made it more usable. Since computers are now more usable than in earlier years, manufacturers have been able to offer personal computing for the first time.
Uses and Misuses
In the light of all these developments, understandably the use of computers is growing daily. Large organizations use them for all kinds of applications—management and accounting, information storage and retrieval, education—the list is almost endless. Often, in large-scale applications like these, distributed processing networks stretch right across the organization, bringing the computer facilities to the desks of managers, engineers and students.
A good example is to be found in banking. A local branch may have terminal access to a computer that holds the details of a person’s account. This computer may itself be a part of a distributed processing network that covers the whole country and allows the giant banking concerns to manage their affairs in an orderly way.
Also, some large department stores and supermarkets use cash registers that are connected to minicomputers, each of which can handle two or three local stores. These computers are themselves part of nationwide networks that link whole chains of stores together.
Just think! If the banking and retail networks were connected together, a person could make purchases and his bank account could be checked and debited without his needing to use cash or credit cards. Further, if a person’s home was connected to the same network, it would not even be necessary to visit the store. The individual could choose his purchases from a catalogue, place his order and pay for the items, all through the computer network. These are very real possibilities.
It has been estimated that 13 million scientific documents will be produced each year in the 1980’s—equivalent to the total stock accumulated since scientific writing began. Without computers to manage such enormous volumes of information, the jobs of the scientist, engineer and technologist would become impossible.
Computers are active in the field of education too. Large organizations use them for staff training, and the same techniques can be used in schools and colleges. By using a computer as an instructor, there is no problem with impatience and the student can set his own pace for learning.
The last three years have also seen a tremendous growth in the sale of stand-alone minicomputers. These are often no bigger than an office desk, but they bring powerful computing facilities to the small user. They can be put to the same kind of uses as their giant cousins. However, their storing capacity and ability to support many users obviously are limited.
As in the case of other inventions, computer development has been accompanied by problems. For example, a new breed of criminal is emerging. Over 500 computer-assisted crimes have been documented. This kind of criminal activity is currently costing American businessmen 300 million dollars a year.
Then there is the question of privacy. We are living through what has been termed an ‘information explosion,’ and all this information is being fed into computers; it has to be, for there is too much for humans to handle. However, much of this information is confidential, and there is concern that it could get into wrong hands and be used for purposes that would not be in the best interests of society. It has been said that ‘he who controls the information has the power,’ and many are worried about this aspect of a computerized society.
There is also concern over the social implications of these trends. It is felt by some that the engineers and scientists who are producing these technologies often are preoccupied with the engineering aspects of their work and are not sufficiently concerned about the social implications. Another worry is that the computing and communications industries might be paying more attention to profit margins than to the effects that their services might have on society. These trends, it is claimed, could well submerge us, as it were, up to our ears in information that we could well do without.
And what of the future? It is clear from what we have considered here that the stage is set for computing to become a public utility just like electricity, gas or the telephone. Already present is the technology that will allow each office or home to have access to a vast international computing network that will provide education, information, and so forth. One authority forecasts that 70 percent of the United States work force will be using computers by 1985. What is more, experts in the fields of computing and communications predict that the revolutionary progress of the last 25 years will continue. So, then, a computerized society is not at all fictitious. But will it be desirable? This is something that only time will reveal.
[Picture on page 22]
Banking is aided by computerization