Even with all its implications for the way ordinary people live, telecommunications policy is hardly a "sexy" issue, and it gets little public attention. Questions of privacy in the "wired society" are generally dismissed as futuristic, and the issues of communications control and access have been relegated to the marketplace. Congressional activity or even interest in the developing communications revolution is nonexistent. Indeed, only those with a direct economic stake -- for example, AT&T and the American Newspaper Publishers Association (which are now battling ferociously over control of electronic classified ads) -- have anything at all to say on the subject.
The general indifference is a mistake, according to John Wicklein's "Electronic Nightmare: The New Communications and Freedom." Wicklein, a former New York Times reporter now in charge of funding for public affairs and news programming at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, sets out to describe the problems we will face as a host or new services and technologies come together in a single integrated communcations system. Two-way cable television, electronic funds transfers, satellite communications, computerization in the home and workplace, videotex and other information services all exist now. Wicklein argues that we must make these devices serve our needs before they become widespread. If we wait until they are established and until every home is tied into the network via what he calls "the home communications set" -- a television screen wed to a computer -- it will be too late.
The dangers Wicklein describes are, for the most part, real. For example, the operator of a two-way cable television system will know, from instant political polls, its customers opinions on everything from presidential speechmaking to homosexuality: it will know whether a man sitting in his living room is watching "Gone With the Wind" or "Debbie Does Dallas," The operator of an electronic funds transfer system will know how much cash a customer has and what sort of purchases he or she is likely to make. The potential to use that information for purposes unrelated to the customer's immediate needs is obvious.
Unfortunately, Wicklein's discussion of such potential problems is neither lucid nor reliable. He has a fondness for mixing cliche, jargon and acronym in a fashion that will quickly baffle most readers. For example: "The BPO took a go-slow attitude about EFT on Prestel."
Worse, he is careless about his facts. EFT stands for electronic, not electric, funds transfers. The breakthrough introduced by Intel Corp. in 1971 was not, in fact, the silicon chip, which dates back to 1959, but the microprocessor. The Privacy Journal is published not in New York, but in Washington D.C. AT&T, the single most frequent object of Wicklein's attacks, does not have 100,000 employes, but more than a million, and its 1980 sales were not "nearly $40 billion," but more than $50 billion. Wicklein also presents the reader with an implausible scenario, set in Brazil, that is the epitome of techno-paranoia. In it, a reporter trying to reach the scene of a nuclear accident is machine-gunned to death by a police helicopter, after having been spotted by a "cellular radio-monitoring system" distributed through the countryside and capable of picking up the low-powered emission from a plastic universal identity card. This sort of thing should be left to the television movies.
Naturally, all of this makes the reader suspicious of Wicklein's larger conclusions. The most important of these is his argument that an integrated system, especially one in which technology and content are not kept under separate control, could be dominated by a few large corporations. His soluation is to put control of the technology in the hands of a single government chartered public corporation, on the model of the European Post, Telephone and Telegraph administration. This proposal ignores the miserable track record of the so-called PTTs. Wicklein also seems to forget his own reporting, earlier in the book, on the susceptibility of the PTTs to considerations other than the public good. I think a more practical approach in this country would be to foster stiffer competition among different companies and different forms of communication and to concentrate on laws preventing misuse of the new wealth of information.
On last point: Wicklein gives almost no attention to the effect of the new communications on the work place, even though that is where we are likely to encounter computerization first. He also fails to discuss electronic funds transfers satisfactorily, despite the immediate question of whether this service should be under government or private control. A serious, popular discussion of these issues is still badly needed.