By CORNELIUS E. GALLAGHER
Hudson County Congressman Cornelius Gallagher talks about computer ethics, invasion of privacy, and the rise of the technocracy.
Originally appeared in Information Technology in a Democracy, edited by Alan F. Westin, Harvard University Press, 1971
From Cornelius E. Gallagher, “Computing in Real Time,” a speech given before the Association for Computing Machinery Technical symposium, June 19, 1969.
Mr. Gallagher is a Member of Congress from the Thirteenth District of New Jersey, and Chairman of the Subcommittee on Invasion of Privacy of the House Government Operations Committee.
One of Norman Mailer’s more fanciful conceits is that tuberculosis was the disease which best characterizes the nineteenth century and that cancer, in the same sense, is the disease of the twentieth century. Those who quietly and elegantly languished, gradually diminishing into death, seem to Mailer to sum up an age in which time moves slowly and meditatively. But the twentieth-century society is symbolized by a literal explosion of the life process; cells, reflecting hyperactive modern life, multiply so rapidly that they overwhelm their host.
Mailer’s pungent metaphor is a useful and provocative comparison. In terms of this audience, we should change the image to read the quill pen expressing the nineteenth century and the computer characterizing the twentieth. But we should not discard cancer, for Erich Fromm, in The Revolution of Hope: Toward a Humanized Technology, says, “Computers should become a functional part in a life oriented social system and not a cancer which begins to play havoc and eventually kills the system.”
This is, admittedly, a rather oblique entrance into a speech called “Computing in Real Time,” but it does highlight a view of the computer which is becoming increasingly prevalent. It is a view which must be recognized by computer professionals, for humanist doubts underlay the distrust of mechanistic decision-making.
From the vantage point of a century or so, it is possible to dismiss the Luddites in England as sadly disillusioned and rather pathetic figures. However, it is a fact that they were able to destroy machines and cripple factories. In the same sense, it is possible to dismiss computer critics today as merely naive and uninformed anti-intellectuals who simply do not understand the rationale of computing. But computer professionals and managers must build in relevance to their computer applications. Many of your installations may suffer from a confrontation with those who act in a manner similar to the Luddites. One of the cries of the New Left is “open it up, or shut it down.” In another hundred years it is to be devoutly hoped that these people will seem just as irrelevant as the Luddites do now. We can make sure that that happy projection becomes a reality if it is possible, now, to open up computerized information systems to the legitimate demands of the people whose dossiers create the input and the output of many systems.
It has not been the purpose of my investigations into computer privacy to encourage those who oppose all computer applications. The rewards and benefits of the computer are too essential to the health and survival of modern society. But it is extremely important that computer professionals realize that there is a body of opinion which questions the very foundations of your work.
You do not massage your data in a cloister; you are computing in real time.
But let us “disanthropomorphize” the discussion by considering some views of computer applications which restrict themselves to non-fiction. Many men, representing various viewpoints, have commented, rather unkindly, upon the current uses of the computer. I would like to give you four examples.
First is the New Left critic of American society Paul Goodman. Goodman is extremely distressed about the fact that giant corporations employ systems analysis to make computer generated decisions in areas where they have only developed the systems, not the expertise.
Goodman comments on the results of such insulated decisions regarding teaching methods: “Somewhere down the line, however, this cabal of decision-makers is going to coerce the life of real children and control the activity of classroom teachers. Those who are directly engaged in the human function of learning and teaching have no say in what goes on . . . but the brute fact is that the children are quite incidental to the massive intervention of the giant combinations.”
One does not have to agree with everything Goodman says to appreciate the perception of his insights. In addition, of course, he does represent the views of many disenchanted but deeply concerned people in our land.
Second, Robert Theobald is one of our most respected economists and social commentators. Theobald finds that a misapplication of computer technology may further aggravate situations they presume to cure. Although the computer is frequently beneficial in solving serious problems, Theobald says “. . . is also true that our attempts to reverse these trends will be frustrated if we continue to regard the ability of the computer to act with maximum efficiency in carrying out an immediate task as more important than all of our fundamental values put together. As long as we regard these values as of minor importance, to be upheld only when it is convenient to do so, we will be unable to recruit the computer to help us to attain our fundamental goals.”
Almost all of Erich Fromm’s book, The Revolution of Hope, is meaningful to the message of this speech. But I would like to repeat one thing he says about the computer’s ability to store so much data that it assumes a virtually divine status. Core storage as God-head and print-outs as divine revelation can create decisions which are totally counter to a creative use of the intellect. Fromm describes men who rely totally on computer generated decision-making data in these terms: “However dreadful the consequences of their decisions may be, they need not have qualms about the rightness and legitimacy of the method by which they arrived at their decision . . . Like Dostoevski’s Grand Inquisitor, some may even be tragic figures who can not act differently, because they see no other way of being certain that they do the best they can. The alleged rational character of our planners is basically not different from the religiously based decisions in a prescientific age.”
All the questions which have been raised about the ultimate impact of the computer on society are stylishly summarized by one of the most knowledgeable men in America today: Dr. Mesthene asked: “What happens to traditional relationships between citizen and government, to such prerogatives of the individual as personal privacy, electoral consent, and access to the independent social criticism of the press, and to the ethics of and public control over a new elite of information keepers, when economic, military and social policies become increasingly technical, long-range, machine processed, information based, and expert dominated?”
These points assume major importance, for the computer is the world’s fastest growing industry. In 1956, there were about 600 computers with a value of about 340 million dollars. Today there are more than 70,000 computers valued at more than 18 billion dollars.
Computer capacity has kept pace. IBM has stated that, in 15 years, computers increased in speed by 150 times, and the cost of each computation was reduced to 1/40 or less of the original level.
And it is predicted that by 1980 computers and computer applications will account for 20% of the Gross National Product.
If for no other than these financial facts, computing will increasingly be done in real time. And certain other problems have begun to surface.
When Judge Miles Lord of Minneapolis awarded 480 thousand dollars to a computerized accounting and inventory system user, he said, “His whole business was wrapped around a spool of magnetic tape which was not in his possession and was not even his property.” The firm which sold the system attempted to claim that it was the user’s own workers who were to blame, but the judge felt that under the circumstances, the user could not be faulted for failing to recognize that the system itself was unworkable.
In spite of the scientific, almost religious, mystique with which outsiders view computing, Judge Lord’s decision once again signals the end of computing as pure science. Legal responsibility will probably ultimately rest on the creators of computerized data systems and you will continue to represent, in the main, a part of technology, not science.
In a May 1969 speech, Admiral Rickover described the distinction between science and technology better than I have ever seen it put before: “Science, being pure thought, harms no one; therefore, it need not be humanistic. But technology is action and often potentially dangerous action. Unless it is made to adapt itself to human interests, needs, values, and principles, more harm will be done than good.”
And computing technology is certainly where the action is! And action takes place in real time. To carry the metaphor a little further, you must share time with human values. Unless society is to become a terminal patient, every computerized system must have a terminal to which mankind has access.
The Congress has taken tentative steps to address itself to the real time in which you are computing. When my Special Subcommittee on Invasion of Privacy initiated Congressional consideration of credit bureaus in March 1968, we had the benefit of the views of Alan Westin. I proposed the following question to Dr. Westin: “Is there a possibility of the formation of a data elite’s manipulating American society by their manipulation of data on individual Americans?” I would like to indicate the range of his remarks by the following excerpts. “There is a dangerous arrogance that can be built up when a small group of people believe that they have the language, the system, and the most scientific way of making decisions. Failure to keep popular participation in public decision-making, and the developing mixture of private and public decision-making in our society creates a dangerous impersonality.”
He describes a futuristic society in which “. . . there is a gap between those who have a high elite education and everybody else in the society. The people without high intellect feel they are the ones full of emotion, sentiment and love, and view the decision-making elite as cold and calculating. Such a separation is dangerous in a democratic political system because often what is required is not the wisdom of technical solutions or of scientific cost effectiveness, but a wisdom that has to do with leading and inspiring people and convincing them that they have a stake in the system.”
“I think it will be a while before the line can be drawn between what can be achieved through new management science techniques and information systems and what still remains the art of the political process. I am afraid the line is going to get very blurred in the next half decade or decades because it is essentially the poor and the black who want access into and participation in the system. They have never had a voice of the kind the middle classes had in the political system.”
Dr. Westin envisions society responding to people who want participation now in these terms: “We don’t do things that way any longer; we have new technical ways of making decisions. Why don’t you just ratify those? We can’t let you participate because the planning is so complex that you don’t even know the language and we will often have to make commitments that run 3 or 5 years ahead.”
I am afraid that these opinions of Dr. Westin’s are, in essence, correct. I find it very disturbing that computerized information systems for decision-making may be heightening rather than lessening our current agonies.
For it is a fact of the very real time in which we live that people are just not going to wait. Articulate and aggressive segments of our society are insisting upon the right to influence and alter decisions which vitally affect them. Blacks, hippies, students, ghetto parents, and members of the dissenting academy may seem like a wildly disparate group, but they are united on one thing. They all demand a greater piece of the decision-making action, or at the very least, a heightened sense of personal involvement in and control over their own destinies. It does not take an especially astute observor to discover that all around us there is real anger and a spreading disenchantment with the goals of government.
These uses of computerized information systems suggest two questions which I feel have yet to be explored in any formal or deeply meaningful way. The first question is: Can machine-based data systems assist in decentralizing decision-making? Is it possible for individuals who are not technologically sophisticated to interface with the data flow?
I have given you a segment of Dr. Westin’s judgment on that issue and it is an opinion which, at this point in time, I share. However, I am also aware that there are those who claim that the computer’s ability to digest so much data will permit a greater variety of views to enter the decision-making mix. Frankly, I do not think a definitive answer has yet emerged and I believe the Association for Computing Machinery could bring knowledgeable insights to the debate. I would urge you, both as individual members and as an Association, to address yourself to the question.
Second is a problem which, to the best of my knowledge, has never been studied in any coherent or disciplined manner. What are citizen attitudes and opinions regarding the disclosure of personal information to those who operate computerized data systems?
My staff and I have been forced to respond to the many people who have raised that question that probably the largest collection of citizen reaction to machine systems is contained in our own files. They bulge with thousands of letters from concerned people throughout our nation and with hundreds of editorials and articles which support our work in highlighting the issue of computer privacy.
This is, of course, a wholly unsatisfactory answer to you and I must admit, perhaps reluctantly, that it is also unsatisfactory to me.
Virtually every page of Datamation and Computerworld contains reports of new data systems being constructed and of new areas of personal information being reduced to machine-readable form. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, no dispassionate and scientific survey of the attitudes and opinions of the people whose dossiers are forming these systems exists. No answer has been forthcoming to the crucial question of whether these systems are the life-blood of society or are, in reality, a cancer.
When I began my studies of computer privacy, I had hoped to create a climate of concern. I believe that goal has been realized and that someeffective and promising first steps have been taken by professionals in the computer field to translate that concern into practice.
I would hope that anyone who has reliable information about the citizen’s attitude’s toward the computer will communicate with me. Perhaps more important, I would hope that we might commence an in-depth study to discover just what we are doing to our society, and even more important, whether society will permit it.
For there is a disturbing body of evidence which suggests that the ordinary American — that most extraordinary of humans — is becoming supersaturated with the toxic in the tonic of technology. The myriad forms of pollution — air, water, noise — the bomb, highways which destroy neighborhoods, unresponsive federal and local agencies — the list of such outrages to which man is subject is depressingly long.
In March of this year, I had the privilege of addressing the Chicago Chapter of the Institute of Management Sciences. I touched upon these subjects and I described all the investigations I have made into privacy: the lie-detector, psychological testing, the National Data Bank, and business intelligence firms such as credit bureaus. I concluded that speech by developing a concept called “The Intellectual Imperative” which attempted to coalesce my investigations into a coherent theory. I would like to expand on that theme this morning.
Every individual must have certain areas over which his sovereignty is absolute, as long as he is pursuing legitimate aims. Lower animals havea body buffer zone and, as Robert Ardray has so compellingly pointed out, a territorial imperative. Perhaps this can best be represented by the bull ring where the bull himself outlines an area of his own called the querencia. This is a randomly chosen spot where the bull will always retreat when the pressure of his death struggle with the matador becomestoo intense.
But where can modern man go to gather his strength when he is gored by society? Techniques to assert the individual’s right to a space of psychological control have simply not kept pace with technology’s ability to disclose almost everything to almost everybody.
In Chicago, I described the Intellectual Imperative and its necessity to the needs of modern man in these terms:
Man may choose those in whom he wishes to confide. He may discuss any issue in any terms he may desire and be. assured that an indiscretion of phrase or even an indecency of thought will remain private. A space of psychological control permits ideas to be discussed freely within his territory and with the guarantee that strict public accountability will not follow. It is just this blurring of the public and the private which makes invasion of privacy so obnoxious to personal integrity and civilized society.
The control of the flow of information about yourself, about your actions, about your beliefs, is seen as a crucial aspect of a dynamic society. Urban mass culture has destroyed for most of us the opportunity to exercise freely the Territorial Imperative; the advance of computer and other technologies threatens the Intellectual Imperative. Physically, we are constantly in a crowd; intellectually, technology has provided devices to make our forgotten actions and our unacknowledged thoughts known to the crowd.
In short, I believe that the Intellectual Imperative is just as important to humans as the Territorial Imperative is for lower animals. It is extremely dangerous for a matador to violate the bull’s querencia, and it may be equally fatal for society to presume that it can violate the space where the individual’s basic nature resides.
It seems to be a basic contention of computer-oriented planning that the nature of man is infinitely malleable and that the individual can be made to adapt to any mold deemed suitable for him. If this were true, no one would ever quit a well-paying job and no society would ever undergo a revolution.
And if technology’s might, acting on quantifiable data, could solve all problems, Vietnam would be just a pleasant memory.
So we must recognize that tools alone will not do the work of man. If we are to survive as a viable and free society, we must make sure that the light of humanity illuminates the direction in which we are moving and that we do not permit any of our technologies to extinguish the fires which warm a fully human life, and which create a spiritually satisfied mankind.