From Washington: public policy issues ripen with age

The computerists of 1947, as creative and foresighted as they were, could hardly have imagined that the industry they helped to mold would one day be forcing technological issues of worldwide consequence. Back then the idea was to figure out how to build computing systems; today the idea is to figure out how to live (peacefully) with what we've built. As computing systems grew in popularity and use, so did the public's concerns over the impact these new machines would have on their lives and livelihoods. It would soon become the role of computing organizations like ACM to alleviate those fears by educating the public, and later the U.S. government, as to the true power and potential of its technological efforts. However, many computer people today contend that sharing information is not enough and are urging the scientific industry as a whole, and ACM in particular, to take a more active role in government and legislative activities. The technological issues at hand—SDI, trade sanctions, public security, international competition, among so many others—are too sophisticated, complex, and volatile to handle from the sidelines. Political issues in the earliest days of the computing era most often involved business maneuvers. Edmund C. Berkeley, a founding member and first ACM secretary (1947-1953), remembers that, even in 1947, there was the hint of "corporate takeover" in the air as he wrote the original ACM bylaws with colleagues James Russell of Columbia University and E. G. Andrews of Bell Telephone. "The first bylaw we wrote stated that dues would be $2 per year," recalls Berkeley during a recent interview for Communications. "The second bylaw we wrote stated that ACM would never become an IBM organization. It was a possibility we all feared at that time because [IBM] was making use of 50 to 75 percent of the computer field. So we wrote up a rule to protect ourselves." Public concerns over the social and political implications of this new technology did not surface until computers went commercial and data became public property, remembers Mina Rees, a member of the first ACM Executive Council in 1947. Before then, computer experts were too busy building systems to worry about their long-term effects. "We didn't have any of these bright youngsters around to tell us," she muses. "The [industry] people at that time didn't known about political or public concerns." Rees's earliest memory of growing outside awareness of computerization backlash was in 1951 when the U.S. Census Bureau began automating its operation with Eckert-Mauchly's Univac (see p.832). "That was the first time people became aware that other people might be able to get hold of private information," she says. One way to allay those concerns was through education, and Rees was dedicated to spreading the word. "I made a point of accepting [speaking] invitations because, as an educator, I strongly believed the only way we would make progress would be to spread as much information as possible," she says. "There were deep sources of information and sharing that knowledge saved us from having to discover it a second time."

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