Fact-hunting with a blunderbuss is rife. Vogue magazine states that “The
National Enterprise Board has two non-government funded schemes, INMOS and EXMOS, for
high technology.” INMOS indeed exists but EXMOS is a figment of the imagination.
Confusion has been rife between “silicon,” the chemical element that forms the basis
of microcircuits, and “silicone,” an organic compound best known for its use in
More serious is the problem of understanding just what computers can do.
Woman’s Weekly told its readers: “You could soon find yourself sitting beside your
home computer telling it to have the lawn mowed, windows cleaned, carpets vacuumed,
freezer defrosted and dinner cooked.” I hate to disappoint readers, but no, you could
not. Physical tasks such as washing windows are far too complex for any general
purpose mechanism that will be built in the short or medium term future.
We read in The Daily Telegraph: “This article was written on a machine that
makes my trusty manual typewriter as out of date as a quill pen. When I made a mistake
it corrected it ...” No, it did not. It made it easy for the writer to correct it, by
pushing buttons rather than struggling with a rubber.
The spectre of technologically-produced unemployment is closely tied to this
overstating of the computer’s capabilites. Clement Freud MP said on “Any Questions?”
“One of these chips equals, ooh I don’t know how many hundred people.” The technical
staff’s union ASTMS was more definite about it: “One chip can replace 800 white
collars.” In reality chips do not equal people, but in the office-automation field
that ASTMS is dealing with, a machine incorporating a chip can increase a worker’s
productivity by at a very rough average 100 per cent – so for “hundreds” read “one.”
It is when casting the computer in the role of Big Brother that the media
indulge in the most bizarre flights of fancy. The Daily Mail tells us: “By 1984, it is
not inconceivable that every computer in the country could be linked together in one
gigantic data retrieval operation.... When one computer is allowed to talk to another,
who knows how much damaging gossip can come out about every one of us ?” In fact it is
totally inconceivable, being both technically impractical and pointless. And computers
Dozens of similarly mindless opinions have appeared over the last year. But
more serious are the “1984” stories that are factually incorrect. For instance, in
reports in February about telephone tapping, it was stated that a computer was being
used to convert telephone conversations automatically into printed text. This is
nonsense. The technology of “Voice recognition” is a very long way from being able to
do that, and yet the assertion was repeated unquestioned by most of the national
newspapers, showing alarming degrees of both gullibility and ignorance.
Sadly, the image of the tyrannical computer is a very engaging one and it is
difficult for the truth to elbow out the emotion. Consequently, in addition to the
public worry, ill-conceived schemes are put forward to control computers and the uses
to which they are put. These controls are neither practicable nor necessary;
technology changes but human rights and the principles that protect them stay the
Our major problem now is that it is the image of the computer and its high
priests that has become tyrannical, not the machine itself. Beneath the fear there is
a great deal of awe of a technology that is really not worthy of it. A social
researcher has only to say that his data has been analysed by computer for his
conclusions to be taken as irrefutable. Still, there is hope for the future in our
schools, where many children are learning to use computers from the inside out. In the
media as well, there are signs that quite a few journalists and politicians are
beginning to find out what a 64K RAM is.