Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 11/83 item 01 - scanned

DRAWING THE IRON CURTAINS (column)

A friend of mine recently had to work for a few weeks in the USSR and her experiences made me wonder whether the West's rapid advances in electronics and communications might not divide our respective cultures more than the arms race ever will.

Neither America nor Russia is likely to start hurling nuclear weapons at each other because that whole business is now in the hands of sophisticated computers, all of which advise against such action. If anything does happen it is more likely to be the result of a malfunction, accident or sabotage than of anything else. There is an uneasy balance between the super-powers and, with a bit of luck, things should stay that way.

Although living standards are clearly higher in the West, in many other respects our citizens share similar experiences. Each society is a sort of hierarchy in which there are poor people, middle class and rich. They may differ in numbers, and the rich people may be capitalists in one country and servants of the state in the other, but I understand that the difference between rich and poor in the USSR is more marked than in the USA.

Above all these things, we are more free to choose such things as where we live and travel, what we say and write publicly and what sort of work we want to do. Now, we in the West are about to experience a revolution in communications which cannot fail dramatically to separate us from our Soviet cousins.

We are embracing all sorts of electronic systems with open arms: digital telephones, informal and formal computer networks, satellite television, two-way cable television and even video disks. All these advances bring with them massive opportunities for self-development. Imagine having all of the world's reference books available at the touch of a few keys. It will revolutionise learning and research work since the information will be sought by its contents, thus speeding and refining the selection process. Imagine too being able to receive television from many countries. This would broaden one's view of the world and probably do wonders for learning other languages. No longer would we have to rely on the media's selective views of the world. Think of the democratic strides that could be taken with two-way cable television. Even the most apathetic voter might manage to press a button on his or her television control box.

Okay, so it's not perfect and many people stuck at the bottom of society still could not participate even if they wanted to, but it must be an improvement on what exists now. Video disks coupled to computers have the potential to make learning really fun. You'll be able to dive directly to the subject which interests you and, possibly by just touching the screen, move to related items of interest. You'll be able to look at still photographs and illustrations, animated pictures or plain text. This will have a powerful impact on our motivation to learn. It seems that just when technology is coming up with devices which make learning a lifetime need, it also produces the machines to make this process more enjoyable.

Compare all this with what is likely to happen behind the iron curtain. Draw your own conclusions from my friend's recent experience. First of all, she needed three photocopies in order to carry out her tasks. She arrived on the first day and the equipment was in her office. Off she went to the first meeting, satisfied that she had the means to do her job properly. She returned from the meeting with a substantial amount of typing which then had to be photocopied in time for the afternoon's meetings. She learnt from her interpreter that the photocopiers had been taken away because they were a means of reproducing "subversive tracts". The machines were found locked in another room complete with Soviet operator.

On another occasion, my friend wanted to put through an urgent telephone call to another country and, despite reasonably sophisticated telephone equipment in the USSR, she had to wait for seven or eight hours before the call could be connected. Her interpreter helpfully told her that there was a physical limit to the number of telephone calls which could be monitored.

On her days off, my friend ventured to describe our Western way of life to some locals. She may as well have told them she was from Mars. The people refused to believe a word of what she was telling them. They truly believed that it was all some sort of plot to make people dissatisfied with their lives and that life wasn't all that different wherever you went in the world. Can you imagine when our already considerable freedoms and access to information grow exponentially? We will diverge rapidly from all countries which do not share those same benefits. Yet these countries cannot possible give their citizens the same freedoms without destroying the illusions which the state has spent so many years creating.