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Computers and society from the 1980s to today (Part One)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted July 23, 2012

Author's Preface to Computers and Society Report and Essay (2012): The author presents below his report and essay on computers and society as it was written in Spring 1986, with only very light retouching. Despite being written more than twenty-five years ago, the writing still holds – one might venture to say – a certain level of insight and freshness. It may be said, nevertheless, that one really big technological change between then and now is the coming of the Internet as a truly mass-medium. Whatever all the negative features of the Internet are, it also affords the opportunity for the presentation of broadly divergent, truly philosophical, thought-provoking texts.

Computers and Society: Future Perspectives and Current Dilemmas of Technological Advance

(The report below originally written in March/April 1986 – author's note.)


A Model of a Totalitarian Society based on Computer and Communications Technology

1) There are extensive centralized databanks, containing all political and personal information about individuals in the society. Records include psychological/political profiles, identifying those considered "suspect" or "anti-social".

2) Every individual possesses one authorized "social insurance card" which serves the following functions:

  1. All economic transactions can only be carried out through the use of this card. This includes food, utilities, transport, etc.
  2. Each individual is assigned a number of monetary units consistent with his "social worth", i.e., the extent to which he follows the ruling ideology of the society.
  3. Access to public transit and all buildings is conditional on the possession of this card. (Similar to modern automated banking outlet entrances.) Could also be used to restrict access to various areas or even towns, and control of all physical travel. (Because of the development of credit-card sized microprocessors with extensive memory, and entire social record could be kept on the card, which could be interfaced in various ways with the central data banks. Thus, an individual might be prevented from buying certain items merely by a command from the central computer, which would have a program for analyzing the political profiles.)
  4. All independent communications activity and all centralized computer use would be dependent on the possession of this card and of appropriate clearance.

The use of this card gives the rulers of the society vast coercive power. The removal of a card from an individual places him outside society. In order to merely survive, he will have to engage in some kind of criminal activity, sooner or later. Perhaps the system could be circumvented to some extent by barter-trade, which is why further controls are necessary.

(Note that the rulers of the society possess the duplicate of every person's card, so the effect of losing it should not be disastrous for the loyal citizen. Note that one could provide further checks such as automated thumbprint identification.)

3) Normative control is provided by control of mass media instruments. In all communications media, only the messages and symbols of the ruling ideology are permitted. All mass media, whether print, television, radio, film, video, etc., contain only the messages and symbols of the ruling ideology. The packaging of the material, as "news", "entertainment", "information", is irrelevant – all serve to transmit the ruling ideology.

This control also extends to the print-media, which become a sort of weaker cousin of the audiovisual media.

4) Education is also tightly controlled – all educational textbooks must follow the ruling ideology; computer-assisted instruction, which is heavily used, is saturated with the messages of the ruling ideology.

Thus all people in the society exist in an environment saturated with the messages, symbols, and images of the ruling ideology. By controlling information, the rulers of the society maintain ideological control. The semantic control which George Orwell predicted in his dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, is a salient feature of the society. Words are twisted, robbed of their original meanings, hollowed out, and filled with counterfeit notions. Thus, one even lacks the language with which to criticize the society with real effect.

Since access to the media is reserved only for those who follow the ruling ideology, and since social reality is constructed through the media, no effective challenge can arise to the ruling ideology of the society. (The challenge from independent – underground – publishers, is not likely to be effective.)

5) Further controls exist through the use of two-way televisions (Orwell's telescreens) which allow for further monitoring of the population. The telescreens can be installed in every home and in every place of work.

(The technology of the "telescreen" already exists, using two-way fiber optics, in which the pixels that make up the screen picture can be used to transmit in both directions.)

Random checks of people at home and at work can betray certain "anti-social" tendencies.

6) Further coercive controls can be applied by the incarceration of individuals classified as "anti-social" in pseudo-psychiatric institutions, release from which is conditional upon a so-called "heart-felt" acceptance of the ruling ideology, whether achieved by physical torture or psychological pressure.

The combination of coercive, utilitarian, and normative controls outlined above can perpetuate a given ideology indefinitely. Note that the use of computer technology as a means of coercive and utilitarian control negates the challenge to normative control which potentially exists in the computer through its potential undermining of the media and information monopoly (for example, through ease of publishing texts).

Note that in a society such as this, military/police power is marginal to the maintenance of social control, and is thus reduced to policing functions whose real aim is the perpetuation of the ruling ideology, rather than the prevention of ordinary crime and the punishment of criminals.

Similarly, the entire judicial/legal system becomes an instrument of the ruling ideology, rather than of justice.

The only threat to such a society lies in conquest by external powers, but it can easily offer the technological and material resources to placate societies ruled by other ideologies. The allure of its technological artifacts is irresistible.

There exist virtually no internal threats to the ruling ideology, apart from so-called terrorist attacks, which are unlikely to lead to significant societal change. The centralized controlling computers can be very heavily guarded, which means it would be extremely difficult to destroy them.

7) One could also note that the use of satellite reconnaissance systems could serve as a further check on individuals who were trying to live in the countryside on their own.

8) Special monitoring systems could be further constructed to keep watch over the environs of cities or important buildings. In many cases, the visual and auditory monitoring could be carried out by computer. Certain key phrases and slight movements in the landscape could be brought to the attention of further monitoring systems, and eventually human controllers.

The formal institutions and formal (elected) government of the society would decline in importance, in favor of loose, ad-hoc groups centered around key elements of the ruling ideology.

One might ask if computer "hackers" with dissident tendencies would not pose a significant challenge to the system, or if perhaps an easy way could be found of circumventing the "social insurance card" system. The answer to this question is that those who could challenge the society would have had to pass through the tight net of the normative control system. Utilitarian and coercive controls would probably be able to keep them in line.

9) In the more distant future, miniature, remotely-controlled explosive devices could be implanted in the bodies of particularly recalcitrant dissidents.

(end of the "state-of-the-art" report – main essay to follow)

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.






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