In 1978 at the age of 17, I wrote an essay for schools competition about the future of computers.

It was run by Barclays Bank in the UK. The topic I chose was “The Computer- a benefit or threat to society?”. The prize was a 2 week trip around Europe.

I found a yellowing typed copy of the essay the other day.

It was written on the boundary between the analogue and the emerging digital world that we are still living through.

At the time my only experience of computers was seeing friends make Sinclair calculator kits and using a tele-printer terminal at school in a tiny room with a connection to Surrey University mainframe. A small group of early nerds, we played a “Moon landing” game — typing in velocity and direction instructions….then waiting 5 minutes for it to chatter out the answer, and know whether we had crash-landed. Great fun.

Re-reading this voice from a “younger me”, I am surprised and pleased at how many trends and issues have come about, and even the ones that have not, or in a different way. Things like:

  • Impact on employment from automation (written at time of printer strikes)
  • Computerised manufacturing
  • Simulation modelling (though no mention of computer games)
  • Leisure time issues — boredom
  • Company monopolies and Customer sovereignty (Google, Amazon?)
  • Personal privacy

I read much Isaac Asimov, so maybe this had an effect on my early futuring and foresight skills. In fact I think the ending is a reference to one of his short stories.

Oh yes… the essay did win a place for a trip around Europe with 49 other school kids. I wonder where they are now. and what would be a good future essay question for today’s 17 year olds.

I have put the text below, if you want to read.

THE COMPUTER — A BENEFIT OR A THREAT TO SOCIETY?
Martin Silcock- 1978. Godalming Sixth Form College, Surrey UK

Throughout history Man has faced many challenges. The curiosity for the world around him has led him into new fields of science and technology. The discoveries he has made have lasting impacts on the society of the time. This is part of his destiny and evolution.

The Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century is the most recent example of one of these challenges, the consequences of which are constantly being felt today. Countries which had known only cottage industry were suddenly swept into the confusion of the factory age. Mass immigration from the land to the new industrial cities caused widespread hardship, not least the pressures resulting from a rapidly increasing population. Society’s structure evolved adapting to the new environment. In this example the prime-mover was the harnessing of a new source of power — steam — to turn the wheels of industry.

Today there is yet another challenge which must be met. The Age of the Computer has arrived. But, will it have the same impact on society as there was in the Industrial Revolution? If so, can our society adapt to the effects of the revolution and deal adequately with its benefits and threats?

To understand the challenge society faces from the computer, it is necessary to know what a computer is and is not.

As science became more complex there developed a need for a machine which could process information at very high speed in volumes outside the scope of the brain. This is what ultimately led to the birth of the computer.

A computer is simply a mass manipulator of numbers. It has no intelligence other than that programmed into it from human sources. It obeys instructions literally and without question. This can be a disadvantage as in some cases it may repeat the same meaningless operation, stopping only by the intervention of an external influence. Where it exceeds the brain’s functions is in its fantastic speed of operation — multiplying, dividing, adding and subtracting in mull-seconds — performing calculations which would have taken a human lifetime to complete by hand. In its most advanced form it also has a superior storing and recall facility for information. It does not, however, compete with the brain in any imaginative or irrational functions as it has none.

It is therefore its speed of operation in activities involving large scale routine work, highly complex calculations and the control of automation in which it excels. “Automation is”, as Peter Donaldson says, “, distinguished from mechanisation in that computerization enables machines to take over areas of decision-taking and rectifying errors as well as the more mundane operations”.

Now that man has built and tried to perfect his tool, for that is all a computer is (and should always remain), to what uses can he apply these activities?

In its original form as a solver of complex problems the computer has been very successful. For example, it would have been impossible for Man to go to the Moon without one to accurately calculate escape velocities and flight paths.

To return to earth!, it is currently being used by banks and similar institutions to reduce repetitive mundane calculations which abound. This has enabled staff to concentrate on providing a more personal service.

In manufacturing industries computers will probably have their greatest impact. Just as the brain is the co-ordinating centre for limbs so can the computer be put to the same use on an assembly line. Mass production is based on the principle of the Division of Labour, or the splitting of a complex process into its simplest operations. At the moment many individual processes are done by humans — this can be a very boring and unrewarding job. If a computer can be used to co-ordinate machines in production higher efficiency, reliability and quality can be obtained. However, this will obviously result in a loss in demand for labour.

The ease with which the computer can store and recall information is an application with sinister undertones. Information collated and processed in a centralised position is always vulnerable to abuse. Already there is concern about the desirability of personal information being loaded into computers memories which never forget and never ask questions as to the reason why the information has been stored. Wrongly used this must be a real threat to the individual. Although this storing of information may seem threatening it has a beneficial aspect.

Information gathering and classification can be used to predict future trends. Simulation programmes for urban development, construction techniques and designs allow action to be taken with a greater degree of certainty than ever before.

These are just some of the applications of computers. But, what will their effect be on the life of the ordinary citizen and society as a whole?

The effect of the computer will be felt greatly in the Industrial sector. Automation will produce an increase in unemployment. He not only will the unskilled and semi-skilled feel the impact but also accountants, clerical staff and even junior management. Workers will lose their jobs because of automation and management due to decision making by computers.

In the early days of the Industrial Revolution workers — the Luddites — frustrated at losing the jobs to machines turned to violence, defiantly vandalising the new machinery. The situation has not become as heated as that yet but an analogy can be drawn between the Luddites’ action and the Times dispute. In this case part of the dispute is that typesetters will lose their jobs if journalists by-passed them, typing their copy into computer terminals as a prelude to automated typesetting. This was opposed by the Unions — acting in the short term interest of their members — and when no agreement could be reached with management production was halted.

Measures to offset this kind of unemployment (discussed later) ultimately lead to an increase in leisure time. This can have two effects. Firstly, it will be beneficial in that it will improve the physical and mental qualities of life. However, if leisure time has no object or direction boredom and frustration may create the feeling that life is no longer worth living and result in violence to obtain some stimulation in life.

It is significant that in Northern Ireland before the troubles there was 14% unemployment. Religious differences have been used as vehicle for violence but the fire was undoubtedly fed by unemployment.

Individual liberty and privacy are things which the Western world treasures highly (and takes for granted!). In the computer age, unless some action is taken now, these freedoms may be under threat.

There is, of course, a need for some personal information collecting, but this should be obtained with the consent of the subject and access should be available to information which may unnecessarily damage the reputation or the prospects of a citizen. Although this may be difficult to implement, we must try.

But, this is not the only development affecting citizen rights. The emergence of common data in commerce and industry through the development of the computer is an incentive for firms to merge. Merging can concentrate control and create monopolies which can threaten democracy itself. It has been estimated that if the present trend of mergers continues the result would be one hundred widely diversified groups dominating production and the market in this country. The computer can only give a boost to this trend. At first sight this situation does not seem very threatening, especially as the economies of scale will produce lower cost, greater output and ultimately lower price. However, what must be taken into account is the erosion of Consumer Sovereignty. This is the ability of the consumer to decide what is to be produced in a free market. A hundred or so “conglomerates” controlling the market would mean that producers will not and cannot be concerned with the whims of the individual, but only with larger market trends. A ‘depersonalisation’ would result where the consumer is dictated to as to what he can and cannot buy.

After examining some of the many applications of a computer, is it possible to formulate any practical measures to make the changes in society easier to bear?

Whatever measures are taken to alleviate hardship there will inevitably be some suffering during the transitional period. If society is to change without the strife of the nineteenth century then it is essential for long and short term objectives to be planned.

For the older generation the impact of the computer on their working lives will be minor, as they are reaching the age of retirement. It is the younger people of today who will be most affected.

Workers under the threat of redundancy ought to be retrained, if young enough, or guaranteed financial security for the rest of their lives. Money for this could come from the profits which will be made with the new technology. This method is currently being tried in the West German Newspaper Industry. Earlier retirement and a shorter working week are also measures which must be considered. The results of this will be a demand for leisure activities which ought also to be provided by industry as industry is profiting by the new technology. As a fundamental long term objective the size of population must in some way be restricted or at least the rate of growth checked.

To control the erosion of individual privacy and freedom, good laws must be made now to examine the uses and abuses of computers in all areas of their application, and firm action taken to combat their misuse. These measures should exclude police criminal records and information vital to a country’s defence.

It is evident that the computer is here to stay and its development will continue finding new applications — we are now developing the micro-processor! It is pointless trying to halt these new advances and existing application. Society itself must adapt as it can (and as it has done at every evolutionary stage) and try to exploit the benefits and minimise the threats. There is a time lag between discovery and its effect on society and this time must be used wisely. Education and laws are our best defences, and if we are successful the transition of society into the computer age will be easier and we can continue our evolution to the next challenge, whatever that might be. Above all we must ensure that the computer always says ‘please’!

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