A careful, provocative examination of how the computer, that ""unique metaphor of our time,"" enhances the power of...



A careful, provocative examination of how the computer, that ""unique metaphor of our time,"" enhances the power of bureaucratic structures, impacts on our privacy, and affects our values. The most fundamental change wrought by the computer in American life, argues New York Times reporter Burnham, is that it encourages government, major corporations, and other institutions to store astonishingly detailed information, unthinkable in the age of manual filing systems: computerization has greatly reduced the ""economic disincentive to inspect the files,"" And those files give the folks who tend them enormous power. Tracking people down is one obvious use--Burnham examines how, in California and at the federal level, linked agency computers (IRS, Social Security, VA) are used to trace fathers who've skipped out on child-support obligations. Fine, we say. But such procedures could easily be used by a malevolent government to locate people who are in disfavor for other reasons. The information stored away by private industry staggers the mind: the five largest credit card companies have over 150 million files, not to mention the health and insurance industries, or Ma Bell. Much of this information is ""transactional""--not simply the who and what, but the when and how of our daily lives--which leads to the rapid increase of already-large data bases. Data is power, says Burnham, and institutions that have it want more. Is there really a need for a national computerized ""criminal history"" data base, including arrest records (an FBI hope), as opposed to a less-intrusive system that permits cops to check whether a detained person has outstanding warrants or is an identified suspect in a specific crime? Analysis of computer information can now facilitate anticipation of future action (what soap we'll buy, whom we'll vote for), as social scientists use ""geodemographics,"" with data courtesy of the Census Bureau, to target specific social-class audiences (tagged with names like ""Furs and Station Wagons"" or ""Bunker's Neighbors"") in political campaigns. All this careful targeting, Burnham argues, may end up by increasing the number of non-voters by segregating out and ignoring ""unwanted"" audiences. Further, computers have begun to change what we think is important, and, to some extent at least, how we think--particularly about social issues, where systems analysts (armed with allegedly ""neutral"" computerized information) make political decisions. Will we use the available technical procedures to better secure access to computer information, adopt laws that increase the likelihood that computer information will be used fairly, and meet the social challenges (lost jobs, in particular) that accompany the computer age? Burnham doesn't have the answers, but this fine, non-technical study should point a large audience toward the right questions.

Pub Date: May 31, 1983


Page Count: -

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1983