AT A RECENT PRIVATE MEETING of sixteen intellectuals in an Eastern European capital, the keynote speaker opened the debate with these words: "Let me warn you that my views are rather extreme.... I know of no example in the history of mankind where quantitative changes of this order of magnitude did not cause a revolutionary qualitative change...."
A discussion of Solidarity's program in Warsaw?
No, it was a meeting of computer science researchers and manufacturers in Budapest discussing the latest developments in the new generation of supercomputers now on the drawing boards.
It is no accident, as the Marxists love to say, that computer science conferences in the Soviet sphere increasingly sound like veiled political debates. Computerization is a major element in the evolutionary changes now building in the Soviet Bloc. There can no longer be any doubt that within this decade, the Soviet Bloc will be completely transformed.
In today's world, computerization is an economic necessity. If the Soviet Union and its satellites were to try to prevent the spread of computers within its borders, its industries would be doomed. They simply could not compete with the rest of the world.
However, as computerization does continue, the Soviet Bloc faces even larger contradictions. Contrary to the once-popular belief, computerization brings with it a transformation which is just the opposite of that projected by Orwell in "1984." "Big Brother" -- the party dictatorship centered in Moscow -- can no longer watch the whole society. Instead, tens of thousands of computers in the hands of analysts and technicians dispersed all over the continent are watching Big Brother, creating new opportunities for decentralization and debate.
The economies of the Bloc countries are still planned economies, but the planning process is changing, and as a result, so are the societies. In the past, an elite could direct the movement of vast resources with very little feedback from the lower-level managers who were supposed to make the system work.
But the most common dictum of the computer age is helping to change this. That dictum is "Garbage In, Garbage Out." What that means is that computers, by their very design, require that they be programed with a coherent data base, a common set of numbers, a common set of assumptions, a common view of the future, in order that their results not be meaningless.
Computers make it possible to prepare various versions of state plans, to vary the parameters, to break down the plans and build them up again with input from enterprises below. This makes possible a real debate of the pros and cons, a debate which takes place in time to make a difference, a debate in which all participants are working from the same data base. And the data base is made up of stable, reliable statistics.
The environment in which this debate takes place is already light years removed from the dark days of Stalinism. In the 1950s, party apparatchiks would announce an unrealistically ambitious plan and subsequently herald its "overfulfillment."
Then, reality would slowly emerge, and failures would have to be admitted. Rather than pinning the blame for this on the purveyors of the "garbage in," which led to the "garbage out," the obtuseness of the system allowed a search for scapegoats. The "Titoist agents" of "Allen Dulles' CIA" who "sabotaged the plan" would duly be hanged.
How else could those in power deal with the fact that oil wells pumped too fast filled with water; that tractors run without oil burned out; that improperly reinforced concrete structures collapsed? There was no way to bring to account those really responsible. Not only were the plans rarely congruent with the facts, but there was no common data base to which to appeal.
Thirty years ago the CIA had to hire agents to copy down engine block serial numbers and count freight cars entering and leaving factories in order to obtain reliable statistics on Soviet bloc industrial production. Today, such statistics are published daily in the official communist press.
The de-Stalinization of data made possible what economic success the bloc now enjoys. But it increasingly deprives the political leadership of that arbitrariness which is part of the definition of tyranny. Freedom, to paraphrase Marx, is the recognition of reality.
Real power -- the power to make decisions -- is passing from the hands of the party to the hands of the technical intelligentsia. Although the legal system offers no more guarantee against a return to rigid party dictatorship than did Stalin's constitution, the information system which has evolved makes such a return impossible, or at least would make it very short-lived.
In Hungary, in many ways the most successful economically of the bloc countries, they are already speaking openly of the next steps in this transformation. These were recently detailed in an address to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences by Tibor Vamos.
Vamos is no "dissident," but a loyal citizen of the society he serves, one of those responsible for its relative success. He is director of the Computer Technology and Automation Research Institute of the Academy of Sciences, and chairman of the Janos (John von) Neumann Society of Computer Technology.
Vamos stressed "the much stronger decentralization which appears after the initial centralizing trend of computer technology" and went on to say: "The development of... communications networks, of data banks and of information systems, makes necessary an administration which differs completely from what has gone before. On the one hand this is a requirement if we are to work competitively, but on the other hand it is an opportunity to improve the quality of life...."
The Western-style, computer-driven Hungarian economic reform of 1968 faltered in the mid-1970s when hard-line ideologists regained control of the economy. Interestingly, however, this time the reformers were not hanged. They returned to their academies and lay low until the statistics they continued to generate with their computers proved them right. Then, in a rare display of rationality, they were invited back to get on with the job of running the economy as if it had some connection with the real world. Czechoslovakia and East Germany are probably most ripe for similar changes.
In fact, it was that quintessential hard- liner, East German party boss Walter Ulbricht who first formulated a comprehensive theory of "cybernetic revisionism."
In his address to the congress of the Socialist Unity Party in 1967, Ulbricht even called for "a new way of thinking." It was a way of thinking that had nothing to do with Marx or Lenin. Its biggest debt was to the computer revolution. American management techniques were to be applied to the economy, Ulbricht proposed, and even in the political sphere "feedback" was to take the place of "democratic centralism."
There was no pretense of following the Soviet example in any respect. The party was to enjoy an apotheosis into philosopher king while the government, mirable dictu, would run the country. Ulbricht was going to use cybernetics to get the "People" (the name the party had appropriated for itself) off the government's back.
The real, everyday people, in Ulbricht's version, would make their will known -- on a daily basis -- through government offices set up for that purpose. You could "vote" every day at the corner drug store. Of course, all of this would be possible only because computers would process the ceaseless flow of information, handing it on to the appropriate decision-makers. And every problem would be resolved at the level most appropriate for the resolution of it.
Ulbricht was before his time, but the time has now come. In the past 10 years, the number of large, main frame computers in the bloc has increased about six times. The many minicomputers are not even counted in the statistical yearbooks. And the wave of micros, equivalent to the home computers of the West, has just begun. Some bloc countries are already linked into Western international data bases. Those working in academic institutes can communicate with their colleagues throughout the country via their terminals. There are now half a million people in the bloc directly employed in computer technology.
The natural allies of these problem solvers are those who define the problems. And again, in an example of the change technology has wrought, this does not mean the party.
Vamos, like Ulbricht before him but with less soiled credentials, foresees the transformation of state administration into a "real service activity." He foresees "countries without a capital" and "international, non-hierarchical cooperative systems of the type hoped for by the pioneers of socialism; systems without centers in the present sense."
And Vamos has, or at least knows of, hardware beyond Ulbricht's fondest dreams: "With the aid of artificial satellites and light- conducting cables, broad band, extraordinarily swift digital transmission makes possible the united transmission of voice, picture, data and written text throughout the world.... There is no technical obstacle to extending this capability to any private household via a telephone."
Such a system, Vamos says, will put an end to the "alienated state" because "decisions and regulations will be accessible to and can be reviewed by everyone" and the "responsible person or body" will be immediately apparent. Obviously, it's tough to run a tyranny under such conditions.
When will this revolution come about? Vamos says within this decade. But the really remarkable thing is that these speculations are being publicly voiced in a country where it is a crime to have a printing press, mimeograph or xerographic copier without a police permit. Such devices are listed in the criminal code along with firearms and explosives. However, the law does not apply to tape recorders, which are already so ubiquitous as no longer to be status symbols. Couple the cassettes, which of course can record books in digital form as easily as they record music, to word processing computer terminals, and the samizdat genie is out of the bottle for good and all. There can be no censorship in the electronic global village.
With the restratification of society brought on by the second industrial revolution of cybernetics, the "workers," with pipewrench in hand, in whose name the party rules, are in a distinct minority. "The real economy," as Marx predicted in 1858 (and Vamos is careful to cite the book of the prophet, chapter and verse), "is dependent on the general status of science and on the progress of technology."
However extravagant the details of Ulbricht's plan or Vamos' vision, the fact remains that the party has lost the last shred of its bogus legitimacy. Everyone knows it. The secret is out. The party's replacement is in place -- an electronically linked network of governmental, industrial, social and research institutions dominated by Western-style managerial-technical elites. The "parallel system" has already taken up the load. It could take only one bread riot in the Ukraine to finalize the transformation.
A world empire rapidly becoming computerized can be run on totalitarian, ideological, "garbage in" for only so long.
But perhaps more important, because of the decentralization process inevitable to an advanced wave of computerization, Big Brother is being watched.