WHO’S AFRAID OF THE MICRO CHIP ? It’s only a paper wolf, after all.
by RORY JOHNSTON.
(Public Affairs Editor, ‘Computer Weekly’.)
(This article first appeared in the ‘OPINION’ column of the Sunday Times on June 22,
1980, and is reproduced here by kind permission of the author, Mr Johnston, and the
Politicans, journalists and through them, the public at large, have become
aware quite suddenly that something important has been going on in micro electronics
laboratories. Engineering has never been a subject to grip the public’s imagination,
but in this case our opinion leaders have been struck by the feeling that these
microchips could have economic and social effects far greater and more widespread than
other technical developments in the past. But how much do people outside the
laboratories understand what these chips actually are, and what their significance is?
Has the public been properly informed about these important matters by the media ? I
regret to say, no.
The invention of the integrated circuit has made the incorporating of
elaborate electronic control into a wide range of industrial processes much more
economically attractive than before. The ideas involved are not new; they are,
however, very strange to most of the population. Technical developments up to now may
have been awe-inspiring but at least everyone could understand what they were for. It
is easy to see what a jet engine does but what on earth does a computer do ?
As long as there are only a few computers about it does not really matter if
only experts understand them, but when silicon chips have invaded every corner of our
lives it is vital that both the average politician and the average citizen have an
adequate grasp of what is going on, so that they can pursue sensible policies and not
be bamboozled by the technologists.
There are already signs of panic among some people, for instance in trade
unions and civil liberties groups, leading to ill-considered action that could cause
serious harm to our economy and the rule of law.
Clearly the media have an important duty to educate the public about
microelectronics and they have taken up the task with plenty of enthusiasm. From the
heavyweight television programmes to the magazines that are given away free at tube
stations, hundreds of features have set out to explain the mysteries of the chip to an
And how have they done the job ? Disastrously. The public has been left with a
widespread impression that computers are capable of far more than they actually are,
that unemployment for the majority of the population is inevitable, that computers
when introduced assume an authority that mere humans are powerless to resist, and that
these machines provide an easy means for the establishment of a political tyranny on a
scale undreamt of by Orwell.
Certainly the task of stripping away the mysteries is not easy. For a start,
how do you explain the technicalities without boring your audience ? What, for
instance, is a 64K RAM, a product which many electronics firms are now racing to
develop ? Random Access Memory is the normal sort of data store used by a computer,
and 64 kilobits is a measure of how much information this particular device can hold.
The Wirral Globe, however, explains that it is a chip with “up to 64,000 different
uses.” The Daily Mail states that “such a powerful memory would have been called a
computer, only a few years ago.” From the distant shores of Papua New Guinea, the
Post-Courier tells us it can hold “64,000 kilograms.”