The Best of Creative Computing Volume 1 (published 1976)

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Computer Abuse: The Need for a Rational Perspective

graphic of page

Computer Abuse
The Need for a Rational Perspective
by David P. Snyder,
Research and Operations Analysis Division,
U. S. Internal Revenue Service*

Computers, like most modern scientific and industrial
developments, have had a lot of bad press. Technology of
all kinds has provided the popular media with an increasing
number of themes and plots in recent years. Even
documentary books about dysfunctional technological
performances have made the best seller lists (e.g., The Silent
Spring, Unsafe At Any Speed). I mention these popular
treatments of technology because they are the principle
means by which the general public becomes conscious of
the technical aspects of its environment. Few of us have
ever been inside a submarine, but most of us have a pretty
good personal conception of what we think it would be
like, because of the detailed representation of submarines in
books and films.

And so it is that most people "know" about computers.

They have read, (or read about) "1984” which has, in only
25 years, come to epitomize the pubIic's image of the
"computerized society." As required reading in many high
school curricula, Mr. Orwell's social-science fiction novel
has already served to give its author's name to an era that
has not yet (and hopefully will never) occur. This single
fictional image has become so strong that Washington
bureaucracies tended to terminate their 1974 l0-year plans
with Fiscal Year 1985 rather than calendar year 1984 (like
hotels which "skip" the 13th floor). And, in the milieu of
continuing post-Watergate revelations of secret data banks,
wire-taps, martini-olive transmitters and other elaborate
electronic arcanery, ”Orwellian" has replaced "Kafkaesque" as the most
widely-used intellectual epithet.

Given such an environment, only the most hearty
proponents of automation are not speaking cautiously
about computers as being "two-edged" swords, whose
power for social and political evil must be carefully
proscribed before we can avail ourselves of their economic
and intellectual benefits. Of course, it has always been easy
to conceive of any technology as an anti-social force, since
the existence of only one potentially destructive application will make a
technology suspect. Upon the briefest
reflection, we should quickly see that only the most trivial
technological innovation would be completely free from
such drawbacks. (The umbrella is the most recent one I can
think of.) This is why it is so difficult to contrive a
believable concept of Utopia; by definition, utopia must be
perfect in every detail; every man a king and no one's oxen
gored. By contrast, a possible socio-political nightmare may
be easily conceived simply by amplifying any one of a
number of existing social, technological or political

Of course, the mention of "imperfections" raises
another popular target of computer critics. Computers are
not perfect; they make mistakes. Never mind that the vast

*The views expressed in this article do not reflect the policies or
practices of the U. S. Treasury Department, and are solely the
personal professional opinions of Mr. Snyder.

Mr. Snyder is a Management Analysis Officer with the U. S.

Treasury Department in Washington, D. C. A former consultant to 
the RAND Corporation, he is an active writer/lecturer on info-com
technology and social values. He is a member of the Board of the
Washington Chapter of the World Future Society, and Associate
Editor of The Bureaucrat Magazine.

bulk of these mistakes are the fault of those who
programmed or loaded them. Those who mistrust
computers have ample justifications for their concerns.

What kind of confidence can we afford to place in a system
which obstinately screws up our department store charge
account for 14 consecutive months? How can we possibly
assign significant responsibilities to a device which
inexplicably sends sewer and refuse service bills to 3rd
grade students in lieu of their report cards? In short,
somewhere between the public's fictionalized and personal
computer experiences there has emerged the image of a
frighteningly powerful yet slow-witted and malicious
servant who is not to be trusted.

Small wonder, then, that practically every innovative
computer application is challenged with a flurry of
adversary questions which reflect about as much substance
and factual comprehension as the old, "Yes, but would you
want your sister to marry one?" Let's take just one current
example. Several state and local jurisdictions have recently
adopted, or are considering adoption of, a computerized
psychological testing service to be used by a variety of
public services such as juvenile aid, correctional agencies,
mental health, social welfare, and education. The economic
incentive is clear enough - consulting psychologists charge
$100-$200 to administer such tests, while the computer
testing service will charge only $3.00-$5.00 to analyze and
score a psychological profile administered by any public
service employee.

Of course, our normal first reaction to such a proposal is
one of horror; here is the archetype of computerized
dehumanization! I am inclined to share such concerns, but
not because of the use of the computer. Rather, I am
extremely skeptical about our ability to accurately
encapsulate an individuaI's psychological nature in a
questionnaire, regardless of who administers it and how it is
analyzed. However, clinical tests have shown that doctors,
conducting medical examinations of patients with routine


Members of panel session on "The Communications Revolution:

Creating the Global Community", at the Second World Future
Society General Assembly, June 3, 1975. From left to right: Stuart
Brand, Publisher of the Whole Earth Catalogue, Robert Theobald,
Socio-Economist and Author, Bob Johansen, Communications
Researcher, Institute for the Future, and Dave Snyder, Management
Analysis Officer, U. S. Internal Revenue Service. (Photo: Courtesy
of World Future Society Photographer: Jim Mack)


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