"It's a changing world," Carl Helmers says, "and there are ways to profit from that change." He refers not just to entrepreneurial opportunities but to one's personal life. While some people are panicky about the growing role of computers in our lives, Helmers is calm and encouraging.
According to the young publisher and executive, personal computers will enable individuals to control their own lives to a greater extent than ever before. Whether used, he says, to monitor the power company's billing procedures, IRS activities, or the use of one's name in the media, the computer, and its accompanying network of information, is a way to gather and efficiently filter more information than ever before possible. Almost instantaneous information about practically every aspect of life is becoming accessible to those who choose to tap into it, and as Helmers likes to point out, "Knowledge is power."
Carl Helmers is the founding editor of Byte magazine, the first and most successful of the small-systems computer magazines. In 1973, after earning a physics degree from the University of Rochester and while working for a NASA contractor, Helmers started publishing his own small monthly newsletter for amateur computer experimenters. "It was very crude," he admits; but he built up a list of 200 subscribers who paid $21 a year for the self-published periodical that came out—well, "almost every month."
Two years later, at the age of 27, he met his future wife, the woman with whom he would start up Byte with $8,000 borrowed from her mother. By the time Helmers left the magazine in 1979, its circulation was well over 150,000, and it had been purchased by McGraw-Hill. Although he had a three-year employment clause built into the sales agreement, Helmers explains that "over the course of a year and a half it became clear that Carl Helmers the individualist did not fit into the mechanism of a large corporation." So he left to go out on his own.
Helmers characterizes his time with Byte as "four years rounding up the people in the field, interacting with them, and helping, I think, nurture the field of personal computers along." Indeed he did.
Today, most of his time goes into his own consulting business and new publishing enterprise. He and his vice-president wife Donna have returned to the concept of the monthly newsletter, but now he charges $200 a year for his services. Carl Helmers Personal Computer Letter is purchased mostly by companies for whom he estimates it would cost thousands of dollars to generate the information that he makes available. In addition, his company is producing more-extensive and specialized reports that cost $500-$700, and he reports that a publisher is putting together a year's worth of his original newsletters as a book for computer experimenters.
Helmers is representative of a breed of tenacious individualists who see technology—especially computers—as a way of freeing themselves from the constraints of arbitrary government. Helmers ventures into the political world on occasion. For several years he served as a regional representative from New England to the Libertarian Party National Committee. He traces much of his early political philosophy to his taste for science fiction, in particular, a juvenile novel titled Between Planets, by Robert Heinlein, which he read in the fifth grade. His philosophy was reinforced when he was introduced to Ayn Rand's near-science fiction novel, Atlas Shrugged, by REASON contributing editor Erik Mack.
When asked why so many computer-oriented people and science fiction writers and readers lean toward a limited-government, individual-rights philosophy, he says, "It is because you're working with reality every darn day long. Science fiction writers simulate reality in their heads, creating logical fairy castles in a computer. So you're creating structures that collapse in ruin if you make a wrong move. There's a discipline of all the logic fitting together that is required." In contrast, he notes, "You look into the world of politics and see all these people attempting to make inconsistent constructions, and you say, 'There's got to be a better way,' and you tend to find out that it is probably a libertarian kind of way, which is putting a little more of an incisive and logical analysis on the problems of human affairs."
Helmers is only indirectly involved in politics at the moment. Likening the personal computer to a six-gun, he believes that in teaching people to use one, he is helping them defend themselves from marauders who would take information without their permission. In fact, he says he is working on a system that would make it virtually impossible for anyone who was not intended to have it to take information from a computer.
Helmers stays on the crest of the wave of new technology. When REASON talked to him, he had just returned to his New Hampshire home from a NASA seminar on an aspect of space flight. He considers it important to stay abreast of developments in space flight because "space is the next big libertarian opportunity in terms of where the technology goes, that's where all the 'creative misfits' will go."
Despite his far-reaching goals, Helmers has hopes for the planet earth. He sees the libertarian movement as the equivalent of the European age of enlightenment, but he expects that the jump into space will be the next great opportunity for profound social changes. In the meantime, we're stuck here, but if a computer convention is held on the moon or a space station in the not-too-distant future, the odds are that Carl Helmers will be there.
Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: Computer-Bytten".