Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 04/86 - scanned

COMPUTERS: BOON OR BANE IT'S UP TO US

Let me ask you a few questions and, for the moment, don't worry about why I'm asking. What dictates your decision-making - maximisation of profit? Concern for others? A mixture? What sort of computer systems do you prefer - multiuser? Free-standing? Networks? Do you think information should be: very profitable, freely available, low-cost?

If you preferred the first answer in each group then you fit in quite well with our twentieth-century ways of doing things. The last answer in each group marks you as someone who has a reasonable set of values and a practical emphasis on the achievable. The middle answer labels you an idealist who will have one heck of a hard time trying to get the rest of the world to see things your way.

Computers, like nuclear fission and the internal combustion engine, have the power to enhance our lives as well as to threaten them. There can be no questioning the benefits the motor car has brought us, as long as you ignore the horrendous toll of deaths and serious injuries each year. Not to mention the pollution of the atmosphere. Nuclear power too has apparently brought us huge supplies of cheap electricity, but along with that a legacy of 'hot' plutonium which has to be secreted away for half a million years or so. And that ignores well publicised leaks and accidents.

So what harm can computers do? They don't pollute. They don't kill people. They don't produce anything which needs to be looked after for half a million years. Phew! Have we found a technological achievement which can be used for the unqualified benefit of mankind?

Nope, computers can be used to centralise power, which can then be used for good or harm. Computers can be used to progressively disenfranchise ordinary people and to separate them from information they need in order to make sense of the world.

It is our responsibility, yours and mine, to decide where we stand with regard to certain key issues and then to do all in our power to ensure that computers are used wisely and in accordance with the values we feel are important. It's no good dashing off a few thousand lines of Ada code to help target a Cruise missile if we actually don't believe in nuclear 'deterrents'. Equally, there's no point in designing a factory automation system if we feel any concern for the workers who will be displaced by such a system.

You may, of course, decide that Cruise missiles are the only way to ensure the absence of tension between nations in which case, go right ahead and write your programs.

Rather simplistically perhaps, I am beginning to see everything in black and white terms. On the one hand, we have what I'll call the exploitative elements and on the other, the harmonious. I'd like to think that the future belongs to the harmonious, but there are signs that this won't be the case.

The exploitative group tends to: have power, have money, have possessions, be aggressive, be competitive, monopolise information, be centrally directed, maximise profit, consume. Genuine concern for people is generally low. Concern for the bottom line is paramount and the effect on staff or the environment is disregarded, providing they can get away with it. They drive the flash cars and go to the right parties. They have power because of their centralised approach and because present day society is ideally shaped for their needs.

The harmonious group are generally less concerned about money and power. They want to see the frictions and divisions in the world healed. They envisage a more symbiotic relationship with others and with the environment. They are less inclined towards the quick fix and more towards discovering and tackling causes of problems. They see life more in terms of individual achievement than of profit at any cost. They would prefer to see power and information distributed rather than centralised.

We actually have a choice and, having made it, we should ensure that our individual actions reflect that choice. In computer terms we may decide that we want to install only single-user systems and small networks, thus giving smaller companies the ability to compete effectively.

We may decide to steer clear of companies and activities which lead to human misery or pollution. We may decide to help through low cost bulletin boards or 'desktop' publications, providing the little guy with information to help him in his battle with the big corporations.

The initiatives, whatever they are, will come from you. There won't be a centralised direction, simply a change of heart by millions of individuals all round the world. The good things about it as far as we're concerned is that the personal computer has given us the means to distribute power and information effectively.