The time is sometime between 1973 and 1980. Our man sits down to his telephone. It is a deluxe model, with a television screen, television camera, teletype outlet, electronic writing pad, copier, and, yes, a handset. He flips on the machine and speaks towards the television screen (there is a mike and speaker next to it). He identifies himself and asks for his “mail.” The computer checks his voiceprint and visual identity, and then displays the return address of the first “letter” on the screen, at the same time announcing it over the audio.
“No audio, please,” he demands of the computer. “And skip this letter for now. Do you have the one from Betty?”
“Yes,” the computer flashes, and displays a short handwritten note. He reads it and asks the computer to file it electronically under both her name and the date. The display fades and is replaced by a diagram sent by one of his engineers. He instructs the comp. to file it under name, date, and 3 cross-referencial subject headings after making a copy for himself. He finishes the rest of his mail, answering as he goes along, with the comp. automatically entering a “carbon” of each letter he writes into his file. Most letters he dictates to the comp. Some he types, and the note to Betty, he writes with the light pen.
Those visionary paragraphs appeared in the mimeographed September 1968 edition of reason. The date was a little optimistic and some of the details were off, but founding editor Lanny Friedlander basically described the world we live in today. Using computers, we communicate via electronic mail, viewing the messages on video monitors, and—in some cases—have them announced (“You’ve got mail!”). We can dictate emails and memos using voice input software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking, we can write them using a stylus on tablet computers, and, of course, we can type them. We routinely save “carbons” of our emails, files, and articles. And we often take security measures to protect their privacy.
Appreciating the liberating possibilities of technology and science is deeply inscribed in reason’s intellectual DNA. Though concrete predictions such as Friedlander’s have been rare, the magazine has concentrated on breaking the regulatory shackles that limit scientific research and hobble technological progress. In that effort, reason supplied intellectual ammunition that helped break up government-sanctioned monopolies controlling mail and telephony. We explained how government exacerbated various energy crises and killed people by slowing medical progress. We explored the failures of industrial policy, NASA’s death grip on space travel, and federal efforts to snoop on private citizens. And early on, we identified the statist strain within the environmental movement as a danger to technological progress.
Reading back through 40 years of reason also reveals, somewhat dishearteningly, that Luddites and technoconservatives never quit, and that no advance of technological progress is ever permanently secure. And yes, we occasionally got some things wrong.
Imagining the Web
Friedlander wasn’t the only reason writer to anticipate the communications and computer revolutions. In January 1977, the economist David Levy hailed the vinyl video disk as a way to break the stranglehold of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on television. “Freedom of speech entails the right to annoy people. Unregulated video disks will create the right of the producers and the purchasers of video message to annoy anyone they wish,” Levy wrote. “The production of television signals will be freed from the veto power of groups acting through the political process.” Though Levy’s dismissal of videotape as being too expensive for home use proved less accurate, his insight that consumer access to non-broadcast video would reduce the FCC’s power was right.
In October 1983’s “Hanging Up on Your Phone Company,” Peter Samuel noted that 15 years after AT&T had first applied for a license to build a cellular phone system, the FCC finally issued 25 permits to build networks in Chicago, New York, and other cities. “Within just a few years,” he predicted, “millions of cellular-radio subscribers will be placing calls with portable telephones like the Motorola Dyna TAC hand-held unit.” Described as the “world’s first truly portable phone,” the Dyna TAC weighed 1.8 pounds, measured 8 by 3 by 2 inches, and was good for 12 three-minute phone calls on a battery charge. By 2008, one-fifth of American adults had ditched their landlines altogether, and nearly everyone carries smaller, cheaper, and much more powerful cell phones in their pockets.
“‘Telecommuting’ is another phenomenon that modern telephony can make possible,” Samuel noted, explaining that “with portable terminals hooked via telephone to remote computers and data bases, people can draw information from their offices down the phone line and feed their work back down it again.” In fact, Samuel added, he wrote his article on a Tandy Radio Shack TRS-80 computer hooked to just such a phone line. The TRS-80 weighed 3.8 pounds, featured 8K of memory, and cost $599 (about $1,250 today). In 2005, a Reason Foundation study showed that telecommuters now outnumber mass transit commuters in most of America’s 50 biggest metropolitan areas.
Even as we use such technologies to liberate ourselves, the government seeks to use them to control us. The attorney Robert Corn began August 1985’s cover story with a confident prophecy: “Two-way wrist radios used to be a comicstrip fantasy; soon you’ll be able to buy them at the supermarket.” Today, of course, prepaid cellphones can be purchased for cash at many supermarkets, drug stores, or convenience stores—though most people refrain from wearing them on their wrists. But Corn was worried about the ability of the police to use cell signals to track citizens. To avoid this problem, he suggested that cell phone companies allow subscribers to “unlist” their phone’s locator functions or provide an on/off locator switch.
Corn observed, “Perhaps the most important measure would be for cellular-telephone companies to contract with their subscribers not to release information without the subscriber’s consent or a court order.” Unfortunately, as Americans recently discovered, AT&T and other telecoms have for years turned over the records of millions of private phone, email, and text messages to the National Security Agency, in defiance of the Fourth Amendment and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Distressingly, Congress approved legislation earlier this year granting retroactive legal immunity to companies that cooperated with the illegal spying.
In March 1989’s cover story, “Capital Flight,” the economist Richard McKenzie reported that portable computing was internationalizing capital. “As a consequence,” he argued, “the power of government to tax and regulate may be in its twilight years.” McKenzie, optimistically, suggested that the technology-enabled freer flow of capital explained the fall in income tax rates in most developed countries during the 1980s.
In July of the same year, Jerome Ellig of Citizens for a Sound Economy worried that regulatory hurdles were slowing the spread of videotext services into homes. “In the not-so-distant future, nearly every household with telephone service could reach out and touch, and be touched by, thousands of new consumer services through an inexpensive screen and keyboard plugged right into the phone outlet,” he wrote. If the Baby Bells were allowed to compete, he argued, they would supply home videotext services. Right idea, wrong competitors. Even as Ellig was writing, consumers were being brought online by CompuServe, Prodigy, and America Online.
In January 1991, the novelist and game designer Greg Costikyan described a Secret Service crackdown on hackers and pointed out the ways it imperiled free speech on the nascent Net. Costikyan argued that electronic bulletin board services should be legally treated as common carriers and that networks should not be viewed as criminal enterprises just because they may have once carried data used in or derived from fraudulent activity. Why? Because Costikyan lyrically foresaw a brilliant future for the Internet. His vision is worth quoting at length: