THE ULTIMATE computer would, in a single monster data base, store everything there is to know about everybody: a person's social, religious, and economic background, family details, personal income and expenses, outstanding debts, credit rating, political views, voting record, hopes, dreams, sexual preference and practices, detailed medical history (including psychiatric treatment, if any), moral character, alcohol and drug use, and so on, and on--and on.
A fantasy? Unlikely to be seriously proposed even by the most intrusive, authoritarian government? David Burnham, in this scary yet thoughtful book, reminds us that something very like the ultimate Big C was tried during the Johnson administration, when the Office of Management and Budget, backed by economists, planners, and other powerful officials of the executive branch, proposed what was called a National Data Center: "The proposed center would collect, on a single computer, all the statistical information obtained by scores of different federal agencies about everyone in the United States." That is to say, everything that the Internal Revenue Service, the Social Security Administration, the Census Bureau, and a lot of other agencies already know about us. Public opposition to the National Data Center caused the administration to drop the proposal, but it is unlikely we have heard the last of it.
The push to centralize, collate, match, and compare data about all of us is almost an irresistible force, a corporate and governmental tide that can no more be stemmed by the individual than King Canute could hold back the waves.
"The computer," Burnham writes, "panders to the natural human instinct to desire more information about everything." Advocates of centralization, of bigger and better computers to store more and more information about us, offer tempting counterarguments. The information already exists, they say. It is scattered about in various government agencies and private entities. Centralization is merely a form of efficiency.
The difficulty is that in dealing with computers, the whole may be more than the sum of its parts. When information is consolidated, and made easily and instantly available to those who govern, something new and more ominous is created. The checks and balances, the protections afforded by normal bureaucratic inefficiency, the chance of slipping through the cracks, all of these are gone. We are left with no place to hide.
David Burnham has thought long and well about computers, what they are doing to our values, to our society, and to ourselves. He is The New York Times reporter whom Karen Silkwood was on her way to meet when the plutonium worker and activist was mysteriously killed in a car crash. He is a very good reporter, and in The Rise of the Computer State, he has applied his skills to produce a perceptive examination of the machine that is, more than any other, changing the nature of the world in which we live, moving us with breathtaking speed in unpredictable and not always beneficial directions.
The computer, it is true, has vastly increased the efficiency of institutions that must deal with large numbers of people or complex technological problems--we could not make an airline reservation today or cash a check without it. But as Walter Cronkite points out in his introduction, the same computer that sent us into outer space can "leave us naked" before whoever gains access to our personal file.
Burnham, in by far the most interesting section of the book, looks ahead a few decades into the future and sees, quite possibly, a computerized world in which the rich transact much of their business by computer--even "meeting" each other in the form of holograph figures transmitted to distant places by computer--while the poor, lacking access to computers or the training to understand them, inhabit a sort of universal South Bronx.
Burnham sees us moving toward a cashless, printless society, with newspapers a quaint memory, like sarsaparillas sipped under fans on high-legged chairs in soda parlors. Electronic Funds Transfer (EFT) already accounts for one-third of all Social Security payments. The check in the mailbox can be stolen; under EFT, the government deposits the money directly in the recipient's bank account. But EFT also makes it that much easier for intelligence agencies to trace our financial transactions.
One of the intriguing points made by Burnham is that the computer has created a whole new category of "transactional information . . . that automatically documents the daily lives of every person in the United States." When did you deposit the money? The bank knows, to the minute. When did you turn on your television? Under some TV systems, the computer knows. When did you make the long distance call, and to whom? The phone company knows.
The capabilities of the computer for privacy invasion are astonishing. Burnham reveals that computers in some cars can actually spy on the owners, although General Motors denies it. The computer can tell "how many times the car has been driven faster than 85 miles an hour and also how many times the engine was started after the 'check engine' message first lit up on the dashboard." GM explained that the computer "is just to help mechanics repair cars."
The computer is often just plain wrong. Which of us has not spent a frustrating morning, or even days, trying to straighten out a department store or a bank that has made a hideous computer error? The smug institutional assumption, of course, is always that the computer is right and and we are wrong.
Not so. In Los Angeles, a retired postal inspector named Leonard Smith was arrested a few years ago for being drunk in public and held for six days because the computer showed that a Leonard Smith was wanted for violating probation 27 years earlier. (The other Leonard Smith had bounced a $10-dollar check.) Smith was only one of "the thousands of Los Angeles citizens who were mistakenly taken into custody each year because of a faulty computerized warrant system ."
The combination of fear--fear of crime at home, of communism abroad--plus the burgeoning number of dossiers is leading us, Burnham argues, toward a computer state, i.e. a police state. But isn't it even more likely that we will blow each other up first? Perhaps because of computers. On June 3 and June 6, 1980, the computer at NORAD headquarters in Colorado Springs erroneously warned that the Soviet Union had launched a massive missile attack on the United States. False alerts could trigger a nuclear war and have occurred many times; this one was traced to a small electronic component worth 46 cents.