Bad Dreaming About Computers


Electronic Nightmare, by John Wicklein, New York: Viking Press, 1981, 282 pp., $14.95.

The title of a book often tells a great deal about its content. John Wicklein's Electronic Nightmare is an example of this premise. Before we open the volume, we know the author has a strong point of view and will not hesitate to place that view in the reader's eye. But there is a problem with rhetorical writing of this sort: it is easy to let the point of view dominate the argument, occasionally at the expense of truth.

The subject matter of Electronic Nightmare is the new electronic and computer communications media, and the book attempts to provide background information on the subject. It is organized as an introduction and conclusion with a series of anecdotal essays sandwiched in between. We are reminded of a series of Sunday newspaper magazine articles bound up in book form.

We start with the introductory essay, "The New Communications: Promise and Threat." The wonders and threats of Qube, the system installed as two-way cable television in Columbus, Ohio, is the second major essay. The history of England's Videotex system—and its slow sailing in North America because of the lack of a central government agency—provides the third essay. Other topics include the idea of electronic newspapers, satellite television direct to consumers, the red herring of insidious data banks, etc.

The dominating premise of the book is a rhetorical suspicion of all new ideas and new ways of doing things. It takes little time to realize the filter through which author Wicklein views the world. He as much as states this filter early in the first chapter: "We have to make ourselves aware of such technological 'advances' and their dangers to freedom before they are presented to us as faits accomplis." If it hasn't been done before, we had better have some controls in place before it is done.

The solutions to many of these problems is—of course—an all-knowing government agency. Wicklein speaks glowingly of a European-style Post, Telephone, and Telegraph administration. In his view, it is downright uncivilized that such an agency does not yet exist in the United States. The reader is left with the strong suspicion that Wicklein would be pleased to serve as a consultant to Congress on the matter of creating it. He is no doubt sincere enough for the job.

Knowing the filter, the book can then be read for its true worth: a very selective set of information about mass-communications technology and how it is developing. The selectivity may be based on a lack of knowledge; but whatever its source, readers should be aware of it. I find it personally hard to believe that the author could write such a book in the 1979–81 period without being aware of personal computing devices and their meaning in the context of his concerns.

Why worry about that great data bank in Washington when every citizen is armed with a personal data bank of his own? The relatively free and liberal individualism of North America already has fostered the installation of more than five million small computers—with the implication of five million highly decentralized private data banks. Yet Wicklein makes no mention of this in regard to the problem of centralized information providers.

The author's selectivity may have caused him to miss the most important implication of the personal computer in communications: the privately programmed computer can be used to simulate (automatically) an "acceptable" message in a network context. If I want to send a message today that would take millions of years to decode with today's best computer hardware, a $2,000 personal computer is all I would need to encode its semantics. But such private message encoding would run counter to the "need for" a central all-knowing agency.

The argument of this book is really an argument for centralization. Although written with the noble goal of raising citizen awareness of authoritarian awfulness, it proposes more of the same.

Carl Helmers, founding editor of Byte magazine, publishes the Carl Helmers Personal Computer Letter.