The Best of Creative Computing Volume 1 (published 1976)

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The Computer: Threat to Society? (Interview with California Senator John V. Tunney)

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The Computer. Threat to Society?

An Interview with Senator John V. Tunney

Senator John V. Tunney of California has long taken a
major interest in the protection of individual rights and has
continually proposed legislation to meet these goals. He is
currently Chairman of the Subcommittee on Constitutional
Rights of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, and
also the Subcommittee on Science and Technology. Senator
Tunney recently took time from his busy schedule to
respond to some questions posed by Creative Computing.

CREATIVE COMPUTING. On one hand the computer is a
powerful tool for extending man’s intellect. On the other, it
is a monstrous dehumanizing force. Which will prevail?


TUNNEY. Obviously, the computer has an enormous
ability to make our lives more rational and convenient. ln
industry after industry, the arrival of the computer has
facilitated the provision of services on a scale that was
beyond imagination only a few years ago. Yet many
Americans are concerned, quite rightly in my opinion, that
the technological imperatives that flow from the rapid
spread of large computers and telecommunications
networks will gradually overwhelm traditional democratic
values, leading ultimately to the loss of individual
autonomy and the concentration of extraordinary power in
anonymous and unresponsive bureaucracies. Congress seems
to be aware of these dangers, which are so reminiscent of
the nightmare visions of Kafka and Orwell. If the current
level of Congressional concern remains constant, then the
American people stand a good chance of gaining control
over the powerful technologies of computer science.

CREATIVE COMPUTING. Large data banks of credit
rating information are one of the most visible "computer
threats" to individual privacy. Yet these data banks have
probably prevented millions of dollars of fraud and stopped
thousands of people from going into debt beyond their
ability to pay. ls this a worthwhile use of computers or
does the possibility of misuse outweigh the benefits?

TUNNEY. Few will complain about the inclusion of
objective "ledger" information about a person's financial
history in a computer databank. However, any attempts to
computerize subjective opinions about an individual's
personal habits raise substantial doubts. The computer's
phenomenal speed, availability, efficiency, convenience,
low cost and long-distance capabilities all combine to pose
serious questions about our present ability to protect
innocent citizens from the devastating and lasting
consequences of inaccurate or malicious information.

CREATIVE COMPUTING. Most computer errors are
actually human errors in programming the computer. These
are commonly referred to as "bugs". It is a rare program
that doesn't have some bugs even after years of successful
operation (the routine with the bug may be very
infrequently used or a small error in a complex set of
calculations may not be recognized). Most pathology
departments in large hospitals use computers for analysis
and diagnosis today. Would you feel comfortably in such a
hospital suspecting you had recently picked up an unusual
disease from the Far East?

TUNNEY. I would feel comfortable in such circumstances
if I could be assured that the computer would serve only in
an assisting role and not become a substitute for the
doctor's professional judgment.

CREATIVE COMPUTING. In one sense a computer is a
tool just like a hammer or lathe. But a very powerful tool
that can replace low-skill jobs. Do you think computers will
create as many jobs as they eliminate? Will the new jobs
require specialized training? If so, will people who have lost
their job to a computer be able to get such training? Will
they be willing?

TUNNEY. I think it is logical to conclude that in the long
run the computer industry will create as many jobs as it
displaces. However, it seems equally logical to assume that
particular individuals who lose their jobs because of
automation will not necessarily be able to find another in a
computer-related industry. Obviously, some kind of
re-training is advisable.

CREATIVE COMPUTING. From small-sample public
opinion surveys, computers have been programmed to
predict the outcome of entire elections. Do you feel that
such predictions unduly influence the actual voter later on?

TUNNEY. No, I do not believe that early predictions
necessarily affect the outcome of elections.

CREATIVE COMPUTING. By making projections from
early-reporting precincts, computers predict on TV the
outcome of elections long before all the ballots are cast on
the West Coast, Alaska and Hawaii. Do you think voters in
these areas are unfairly influenced by these predictions?

TUNNEY. In Presidential elections I do not believe that
computerized projections should be announced until all
polls have closed. In 1964 and 1972, for example, I believe
that voters in the West, after hearing projections of
Presidential landslides lost interest and didn't vote. This
absenteeism especially affects statewide and local races and

CREATIVE COMPUTING. High School students have
repeatedly cracked the passwords and access codes of
timesharing computer systems thereby demonstrating that
the most secure computer systems are not at all secure.

How do you feel about the fact that research on some of
our most advanced military systems is done on the ARPA
computer network to which thousands of college students
also have access? (Educational users supposedly do not have
access to research accounts but - )
TUNNEY. I have been assured by Defense Department
officials in hearings before my Judiciary Subcommittee on
Constitutional Rights and my Commerce Subcommittee on
Science and Technology that ARPANET is not used for
classified work. If that testimony is incorrect, then I am
greatly concerned.

CREATIVE COMPUTING. We have no information that
classified work per se is being done on the ARPANET; the
point we were trying to make is that there is no such thing
as an absolutely foolproof, secure computer system.

One last question - do you feel that the functions and
applications of computers are beyond the understanding of
the average individual?

TUNNEY. Any reasonably informed person can understand
computer functions and applications if they are explained
in plain English. Unfortunately, computer specialists are
like all professionals and tend to cloud their explanations
with opaque jargon.

CREATIVE COMPUTING. One of our goals is to cut
through this jargon and to bring facts and information
about computers to students and, indeed, to people in all
walks of life.

TUNNEY. Thank you for devoting so much time and
consideration to these matters and thank you also for the
opportunity to contribute to Creative Computing.

CREATIVE COMPUTING. Thank you Senator Tunney.

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