John Wicklein discusses his book "The Electronic Nightmare"
BROADCAST: Jul. 1, 1981 | DURATION: 00:54:40
Content Warning: This conversation includes racially and/or culturally derogatory language and/or negative depictions of Black and Indigenous people of color, women, and LGBTQI+ individuals. Rather than remove this content, we present it in the context of twentieth-century social history to acknowledge and learn from its impact and to inspire awareness and discussion. The dangers and nightmares of things to come, a lack of privacy and no legislation are all topics of John Wicklein's book, "The Electronic Nightmare: The New Communications and Freedom." At present, explained Wicklein, there's a dossier of some 50 million people and Wicklein questions, who's going to control the system? Wicklein argues there needs to be more social controls and more legislation.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel Because things are moving so fast, perhaps too fast, perhaps not, but the new words in our vocabulary, certainly the word "cable" has a new connotation, and dealing with the whole subject of communications, how close we are and in touch with one another the world over, the promise, at the same time the dangers, depending who controls it, and what role we ordinary humans, the public has to play, what it's about, and perhaps one of the best books on the subject written by John Wicklein, who's connected with public television, public broadcasting. Perhaps you could talk about that somewhere in passing. His book is called "Electronic Nightmare", and the subtitle is "The New Communications and Freedom". And you can add a couple of suspension points and possible [threat? threads?]. John Wicklein, my guest.
John Wicklein "This is a book about clear and present danger. It's a book about the here and now, or very soon to come. When most people hear about the marvels of the new technologies of communication, they're apt to say, 'Gee, won't that be terrific!,' and pass it off as some blue-sky thing of the future. Certainly it doesn't occur to them that the communications revolution is something for them to worry about today."
John Wicklein Well, I worry about it because all the technologies of communication are merging into a single system. We're going to be able, very shortly, from a home communications set that looks a lot like a standard television set with a keyboard attachment, a typewriter keyboard attachment, we're going to be able to get all our entertainment out of that box, we're going to get information in the normal television ways, but we're also going to get print from, on the set and printouts from the set, so
John Wicklein An electronic newspaper. We're going to be able to use that set for electronic mail, typing letters to each other, anyone else who has a similar set. So what's happening is that, on this set, which is connected up to the world with two fiber optic wires, we are going to get the basis of our information and many of the other areas of information, many of the other suppliers of information, are going to now feed into the system, rather than be distributed on newsstands, or in magazines, or something like that.
Studs Terkel Let's get the specs then, let's--an over-all picture. A man is sitting at home, or a woman, or a guy and his family, and without leaving that chair, that armchair he's sitting in, all comes to him.
John Wicklein It all comes to him. In fact, that man can do his banking, because in some of the systems there's going to be electronic funds transfer in which, if you want to buy something that you see on the television set on one of the shopping channels, you just press a button with your own identification number in it, transfer the money out of your account directly into the store's account. You're going to be able to do credit card shopping by that same system, and buy things on credit, typing in your credit card plus maybe your own private password for some protection. You are certainly going to get all the forms of entertainment you now get, plus many other channels of entertainment that are coming over the box through cable today. You know, up to, today we have 120 channels of cable in some systems, but it's going to be an interactive system in which you call up the information that you want. You could call up classified ads. If I want to know where can I buy a secondhand car, I could type in the request for the secondhand Toyotas of 1977, and they'll immediately pop up on your screen. So that's a facet of the newspaper. You can ask for articles of information from that newspaper. You can ask for consumer ratings from "Consumer Reports",
John Wicklein It can come back to you in two forms. One, as type on the television set, and the new screens that are being developed for this, and they really are already in prototype, are very much easier to read than the present-day television screen when you see print on a present-day television screen.
Studs Terkel So what we're seeing now is the shape of things to come, as we see newspapers taking a beating, certainly afternoon newspapers, and we have news electronically offered in one form or another, outline-istic, primarily. We have, that's the shape of--that's just one part.
John Wicklein That's one part. What you get, I think, in addition to the television type of news is some backup news in print. For instance, an anchorperson on a news broadcast could say, "Well, here's the headline on this story, but if you want to know more information, press button A-336. You press A-336 on your keypad, and a background story will either come up on the screen or will be printed out on a very light sheet of white plastic that's reusable and can be put right back into the machine for another story.
Studs Terkel Of course, the obvious question, this comes to the other aspect of your book, several. One is the man or the woman or the family sitting at home. Some might ask, this is an easy one. The question of alienation. You're there, without--there's no community involved, or is there? Is there community involved?
John Wicklein Well, I, that's one of the concerns that occurred to me when I started writing this book about three years ago, and I really thought about it and looked into it and talked to a lot of people about it. It seems to me that it's more engaging in a human way than is the boob tube, because you sit in front of the television tube at night and let it flow over you maybe for three hours without a thought of your own necessary. With this you're going to be asked to interact with the television.
John Wicklein Well--
Studs Terkel Q-U-B-E.
John Wicklein Yeah.
Studs Terkel What
John Wicklein Warner Communications, or Warner Cable, Warner Amex Cable, has set in a two-way television system in which people in the studio can conduct a public affairs program like this and they can ask people at home for their responses on, there's a keypad with five response buttons, and so you could have a multiple-choice response. Do you agree, or do you think this is, this line is closest to the way you think about this social issue? You could say yes/no, I'm for Carter, I'm against Reagan, I'm for Reagan, I'm against Carter, by pressing your keypad. Now, the whole system is computerized so that the system knows where these responses are coming from. It can also collect this information and tell the other viewers just how the percentages ran on any issue. You can also use that for shopping. In fact, they're already selling books on what they call "infomercials," yes, infomercials.
Studs Terkel Infomercials?
John Wicklein Yeah, that's what they're calling them, they're eight-minute programs in which they'll describe several books to you, and then at the end if you want a book, you press up, press in that fact, and the computer records your order.
Studs Terkel If I can be romantic for a moment and nostalgic and, perhaps, phonily so, the only trouble with that to me is that you do it by yourself, you and the machine decide, whereas you don't bump into somebody in that bookstore.
John Wicklein Yeah. I came down to feeling that human beings are just that, they're human beings and they're going to want that human contact nevertheless. And I think that in these two-way situations where, for instance, the example I give in the book, is the, in Upper Arlington, Ohio they had a zoning hearing, and they had had two previous hearings previous to one that they held on Qube, and they drew out about 125 people each. Well, the zoning hearing they held by way of this two-way system drew out 2,000 people and they took part in this two-way response technique. Now, the--
John Wicklein Well, they announced that they were going to hold this hearing, and they in effect cordoned off the town of Upper Arlington, so only the viewers in Upper Arlington could get this program, because they are the only ones that were concerned about changing a zone from single-family to apartment houses was the issue. The members of the Zoning Commission held the hearing and put questions to the audience in the hearing room and also in front of the television sets, and they could respond by those response buttons. Now, the next step up from that, which is already being tested in Japan, is to have a return camera and a return microphone, so that you physically, almost physically, can take part and be seen at the hearing room taking part in the discussion.
John Wicklein Well, that's what I think. In that case, I believe that if you take part in something like this, you are going to want to go, especially if this is an issue that's of vital concern to you. You want to go to the studio or to the hearing room the next time and say, I want to argue with that person in person. And I just don't believe we're going to lose our humanity that easily that we're just going to sit ourselves in front of a tube and do all these things.
Studs Terkel Not for nothing. Not the electronic promise. There's a reason for that, so let's come to that. Now, we'll come to other matters, too, in other countries, but the dangers now. If a person is taking part in this technologically, taking part, he's getting known, too, to the people there.
John Wicklein Yes. Well, the operator of the two-way system, whether it's the telephone company or a two-way cable company, is using a computer to record all of your interactions with that company. So that, if you take part in a public affairs show and express an opinion, a political opinion or a social opinion, for abortion, against abortion, if you engage in purchases through that system, the--then that computer has to know to the very penny what your bank account is, the amount of your bank account. And if you buy on credit, the computer has to know how much credit, how much in debt you are. So there's the beginnings of a financial profile of you, a social profile. It knows what books you buy. So it knows your taste in reading. Probably knows whether you're a liberal, middle-of-the-road, or conservative. It knows whether you watch a pornographic movie every night and can record that and add that to your dossier. Now, the reason it records all these things, because in a two-way system such as I've described, the company is selling you these things item by item. And, so, they want to bill you at the end of the month for these choices that you make. So they have to know your name and address and who's making the choices. But the problem is, that computer could retain all that information, it could be put together into a dossier on you of many things that don't seem very important if they're just single items, but when you put them all together and, plus perhaps, medical information, because the two-way system is certainly usable, especially with the audio and visual return, for homing examinations by a doctor.
Studs Terkel Oh, you point out that here's a good aspect, in a case of emergencies a doctor from a long distance, a family doctor or the specialist is out of town, from where he is he can advise the patient
John Wicklein Exactly.
Studs Terkel Computerized
John Wicklein Well, they do investigations, not only of your credit ratings, but also they investigate your lifestyle for prospective employers or for insurance companies who decide whether they want to help them decide whether they want to insure you or not. They'll send an investigator to check with your neighbors to see if you come in drunk every night, for instance. They put that into their computer, Equifax does, in Atlanta, which has 50 million dossiers now on Americans.
John Wicklein Yes.
John Wicklein Very, very, very good. Now, the idea that hits me is that when these two-way television systems become general and they are becoming general, they're spreading all over the country, that same kind of information could be added to the dossier that is contained in one of these investigative companies' files, so that that you could get a much more complete profile of everybody. And as I say, you might not be concerned if one person knows one fact about you, but if a complete dossier of your social life, your financial life, your political beliefs, can be put together into one big computer and then sold to anybody who wants it, which in effect is--
John Wicklein They say they will sell it only to insurance companies or to employers. But I raise the example of, suppose I typed up a letterhead and said, "John F. Wicklein Incorporated is considering hiring such and such a person," and I sent the fee, which is $15 or something like that to the investigating company, the investigating company will then send it back, send me that information back. So there's really no security in that at all.
John Wicklein Yes.
John Wicklein Sure. Sure. And, actually, we are contributing to our own dossier, you know, often without knowing about it. The people I interviewed in Columbus certainly had no fears or very little fears about this. Some said, "Well, what do I have to hide?" Well, perhaps you don't have anything to hide, but suppose you could tie in that medical information because this whole system as I said is going to merge into a single system. Suppose you could tie in the information of your last physical examination which is then transmitted to a prospective employer. Maybe you don't want it known that you've got a heart murmur because it doesn't affect your physical condition one whit. But it might affect the decision not to hire you. And I just, I think there's got to be some brakes put on the way this information is used.
Studs Terkel Oh, pardon me, may I just interrupt, forgive me. There may be a question about the system itself. How far do you go in the field of biology? You know, is a big debate about DNA and genetic engineering. How far does science go? You might ask, how far does technology go? And now we come to the question of control. But even, no matter who controls it, some may say, "I don't want this machine at all that would have my private life in every detail in someone else's hand."
John Wicklein That is the problem. But the other problem is that, maybe the ideal thing would be to say, "Okay, we don't want it because there are too many dangers." I'm not sure that there are too many dangers. But suppose there were? I don't think it's stoppable. Because there's money to be made in this system, and millions and billions have been spent on it already, and people want to recoup that money. And so, the technology is here, it's being put to use, and there's a very large potential return on it. So it isn't going to stop, so what I want to see is some social controls and legislation imposed on it so that we can get the blessings and avoid some of these threats that we're talking about.
John Wicklein Well, you're talking about private corporations, but I also give a very strong example of Brazil and the control of the media, the control that the military down there has over the media today and how much easier when all these systems have merged together it will be to control every part of the media. So I think that there's a concern in an authoritarian country, a totalitarian authoritarian country such as Brazil, about a more complete control of every phase of life through communications. I think there's a concern in Europe, not from private corporations but from what's called the PTTs, the post, telephone and telegraph companies, agencies, rather, which are government agencies which have the monopoly control of that country's technology of communication. So it isn't only the private companies I'm concerned about. I'm concerned about anybody who has the ability to control this system, whether it's a government agency, a private company, or what.
John Wicklein Well, the issue is joined in this country between AT&T and others who want to provide information for such a system. AT&T, by the fact that they have telephone lines outside of 80% of the homes in this country, is just the natural entity or seems like the natural entity to develop the technology to provide all this information, and it's just being a pragmatist. That's probably what's going to happen. However, AT&T has announced, and they've conducted experiments, they have announced that they want to get into content. They want to provide the information banks. They want to provide the news headlines and the sports and the weather and the horoscopes and what-have-you. They want to provide, in effect, classified advertising to the system. When you allow them to do that in their monopoly position, then you get into a very dangerous area, because once they're allowed to do that, it seems to me that they are going to favor their own input over the inputs of others.
John Wicklein Yes. I think that's the danger no matter whether it's with a private company or a government agency or the government itself. You've got to keep the technology separate from the content.
John Wicklein Well, again, the person who controls the electronic switch, if there are--if there's no laws to say that they can't cut off news that they don't want to see, will cut that news off. They'll cut out of the, of what would be normally--the newspapers can now print practically anything they want, because there are no restraints, no prior restraints on freedom of the press. But if it goes over an electronic system, it might very well be. Computers have been devised that can, they can pick out troublesome words, for instance, or they can pick out words that are thought to be obscene, and some newspapers won't use the word "shit," for instance "The New York Times" will not use that word. Some others will if it's in a direct quote. Well, the telephone company, if it controls the print that is going out, might decide, "Well, that's an obscene word and we're going
Studs Terkel We would never have heard, were this the case now, in the case you describe, in the hands of one outfit, a monopoly, we would never have heard of the WBAI case, the New York radio station where George Carlin, the comic, was on--
John Wicklein There are, but not very strongly. The first real attempt to block AT&T from getting into the content has been the publishers, the newspaper publishers in this country, the American Newspaper Publishers Association finally got exercised last year when AT&T went into Texas and asked the Texas utility commission to allow them to provide an information service which they were basing on their white pages and yellow pages. And they said that they would also provide information from other databanks. Well, the newspapers immediately saw this as a way for them to provide the very services that the newspapers in those areas have been providing, and that they feel they should be providing or certainly have a crack at providing, when this system becomes electronic, because the economics of newspapers is such that 80% of the cost of production of the cost of a newspaper are in production. Trucking the newspapers out of the center of a city and trying to get them to the suburbs is just not going to last very long, because this electronic means of doing it is going to be so much cheaper that they're going to have to move to that. Well, they want to know that they have guaranteed access to any backbone system that provides this delivery. They are not sure, in fact they're very scared, that if AT&T gets control of the whole system and develops its own editorial services, that they will just be squeezed out and that they might very well go under. So now they are fighting that before the Texas utility commission and they're fighting it in the federal courts to see to it that AT&T is prevented from getting into the area of providing--
John Wicklein There are very few. The most active one I know is in Nashville, Tennessee, Citizens for Privacy in Two-Way Television. And that's more on the privacy issue rather than on the control issue. They want to have an ordinance that provides that the two-way cable company that's going to be franchised there will not be permitted to take the information that's fed into the system and sell it to any third party or give it to any third party.
Studs Terkel Because we're talking, really aren't we, about a situation that, assuming things go well, in which there is a pluralism of sorts which maverick groups of one sort or another can have a way of having their opinions or views expressed, aren't we?
John Wicklein I think we have to guarantee that, and I'm not sure that's going to happen. I think there's an interesting precedent for it, though, in a situation that developed in England. The British Post Office wanted to test out or wanted to establish what it calls "Prestel," and that's a system that ties in your ordinary television set through your telephone to a computer so that you can call up information there, information and ads or whatever, information on bus schedules, or information, news information, weather, and so on. You can call up an encyclopedic information, you can call that up on your own television set and they have 150 information providers to that system which is now in commercial operation. At first, when they started this in 1974, they said to these information, these potential information providers, "Now, you give us all your material and we will re-edit it and put it into the form that it can be used on the television screen so that it would be easy to read and so on and we'll put it into the system." Well, the newspaper said, "No, indeed you won't. We are the editors of the information that we're supplying to this system." The Birmingham newspapers in particular, Birmingham, England, and they said, and all the information providers got together and said, "The British Post Office is not going to be the editors of this system. And you cannot touch anything. We want to have access to the system, we want to pay you for the service of providing the backbone, but you can't touch anything that goes into it." The British Post Office backed off and set as its policy that they would be a common carrier, anybody could come into the system who wanted to put information in, and they would transmit it for anyone to pull the information out.
John Wicklein Yes.
John Wicklein Yes, and it's going to hell in a handbucket (sic) as far as I'm concerned on deregulation. I think this is a regulation that will guarantee diversity and, yet, will not put a great onus on the broadcasting companies, for instance, because they're going to be able to get into the system, and they're not going to be regulated in the sense of the content that they're putting in, they're just going to be guaranteed a place on the system. That's the kind of regulation I want to see.
Studs Terkel So if it's deregulated, I say, a corporate outfit which appears to be the case primarily in the United States at this moment, you know, in charge of things can, they're free to handle this any way they want, whether it be invasion of privacy or whether it be having news as they see fit.
Studs Terkel By the way, a whole new vocabulary's in the book, too. Words, new words because of a new systems, "The New Communications and Freedom", and Viking the publishers, and perhaps some of those words and techniques and benefits, too. And perhaps examples of other countries, notably Sweden. [pause in recording] We're talking about the dangers of the many--whether it be an authoritarian government like Brazil and you describe that situation, we'll come to that. But what is some more--what's happening, it's so fast! You know, Einstein once said, before he died, and I'll paraphrase him badly, he says, our technological advances are so overwhelming. You know, our advances, our scientific technology, cybernetics, could be tremendous, but our social impulses are not keeping up with them and if they don't, if the technology goes beyond a feeling for community and the world outside yourself, we're in for catastrophe. That was Einstein's comment.
John Wicklein Yeah, I think that's very true. But technology doesn't do it by itself. It's people seeing that a profit in this country particularly, that a profit can be made from this technology, and so they plunge ahead and start making a profit and then the people who say, "Hey, yeah, fine, we want you to make a profit, but here are some concerns we have with what you're doing to us." And then, often it's too late. And that's why I was particularly interested in writing this book in advance at a time when you can still get hold of the technology, which we don't often do.
John Wicklein Well, a silicon chip is a, actually a mini-computer in a way. It can make possible the storage of enormous amounts of information in a very tiny space so that I talk about the little black box that's the adapter for these television sets I've been telling you, that you just use an ordinary television set, the adapter is about three inches high and eight inches long. Now that has silicon chips in it, little tiny pieces maybe a quarter of an inch square and oh, a skeenteenth of an inch thick, and those chips now store as much information in that little black box that you put on your set as could have been contained in a whole living room of computers ten years ago. And that is the answer to why this is going to come and is not blue sky and it's going to become readily available to everybody, because the costs are coming down so drastically by hundred-folds every year, that it will be certainly within the realm of possibility that most people who have televisions today will be able to have a home communications set that provide all these things within the next 10, 15, 20 years, I think.
John Wicklein Oh well, a whole book. "Gone With The Wind" could probably be stored on three silicon chips. You know, that kind of thing. And then there are other things that are coming along that are even more fantastic called "bubble memories" that will provide millions and billions of bits of information within that same quarter-inch square. So for all intents and purposes now, even now, all the information that these systems can provide to any--would want to provide to anyone can be stored in minimal amounts of storage space. The storage for this kind of a system is for all intents and purposes unlimited.
Studs Terkel What would you say? Here's something you quote in 1892. Magazine "The Electrician". In 1892. "Electrician"--someone is quoting this--wrote with distaste of modern utopian of the modern utopian. Remember way back at turn of the century earlier Edward Bellamy is looking backward, so many books on utopia involving new devices, you know. And here we are: "For whom life, a modern utopian for whom life was to consist of sitting in armchairs and pressing a button and it would have quote 'no ambition, no desires, no individuality, nothing wise about him.' In the scenario presented here, 1892, the modern utopian could retain more individuality than he has, now has, in his own way in one way that's an exciting prospect, but as the initiative passes to the machine or, perhaps we might add, who owns the machine or controls it, which shapes the path of the transactions, defines interests and meets them. The question might ask, whose individuality is retained?"
John Wicklein That is the major question, and the question is how do we use this system? If, for instance, it becomes a fully, what they call a fully addressed system, if I can address through the typewriter keyboard or through the two-way audio or video, if I can address anybody else anywhere in the country and it might be a system that is as democratic as the telephone. It might be a system, too, here's an advantage that I see to it, in which children in school can communicate with children of other cultures in a way that's absolutely impossible today using satellites, communications satellites to do this, and have a two-way interchange between classes here and in Mexico City or here and in China, and you might get to know, because your interests are similar with somebody in another city or just across town, you might, it might be a clearinghouse for getting people together with communal interests and an exchange which then would lead to human exchange quite clearly. As I say, I don't give up on humanity for one minute. I just believe people like personal intercourse and will go for that no matter if they become engaged first in the two-way system.
Studs Terkel You know, toward the end of the book, we'll come back to example of Sweden where an individual, a person, maybe is protected, but toward the end of the book you say something to me is what the key is about. Experts are telling us these things. And so it is their private domain. And you're saying ordinary people can really understand this stuff.
Studs Terkel This explains, this applies to almost every issue in the world, but here is something that is, if the ordinary person, so-called, everybody's different, this is understandable if it's explained to them directly and it is not the exclusive province of quote unquote, "the experts."
John Wicklein Well, yes, and I think the example, a little example would be learning how to use what they--the indexing system in the Prestel system in England. I was able to learn that system and pull out information that I wanted, say on what movie was playing that night and how many--whether any tickets were available for it. I was able to learn how to do that by a very simple system that they've devised called a tree logic system that you just lead step by step to the piece of information you want. I was able to learn that in five minutes. And there's nothing mysterious about any of this once, I mean, you don't have to know, I don't have to know, and I don't know, how the silicon chip does its job. I just know what it does, and that's about all you need. And in fact you can operate the system even without knowing what it, what the silicon chip does so long as you know what the system can do.
John Wicklein Syncom 1 is a communications satellite, and that is a satellite that will take a signal from anywhere in the world, transmit it 23,000 miles up into space, hit a satellite over the equator which then by a transponder sends it down to another place on the earth's surface, sends that message, and the message is sent almost instantaneously so that it could be a telephone message or it could be a direct broadcast message from a station somewhere in Africa to my rooftop antenna right here in the United States.
John Wicklein They are, over the last five years, I think with the coming, particularly of the usefulness of communications satellites, it has just enhanced the ability to, well, to send out new movies all across the country which is on a pay television system.
John Wicklein It can decentralize our lives. It could decentralize the forms of government because it could get information out to people who need to know, either government employees or in the example I cite, to employees of a huge corporation. They could have available to them information that's in the home office files instantly. So if a corporation wanted to move in that direction, they could decentralize their operation rather than using it in the reverse, but they could also do the other thing. They could use these computerized information systems to look over the shoulder of every branch manager in every branch office in the country. So yes, it can go either way and it depends on the human beings that are running it.
John Wicklein Well, we're not sure, because among working people, in some cases some, even some factories in this country are now believing that if you asked--give the workers in a group an assignment of putting together some parts of an automobile or maybe the whole automobile, they will work better because they're more excited about what they're doing, and maybe the same thing happens if you decentralize offices across the country.
Studs Terkel So where, hey we are in the middle. We have to come to Sweden. Here it is governmental but enlightened, in contrast, say, to Brazil. The two kinds of governments. Now, there is some that protects the individual. Let's say a computer goofs up and we know it does it now, the shape of things to come. The junk mail we get, you know, it's--oh, by the way, you say we're liable to have junk telephone calls as well through this.
John Wicklein Well, you could have video telephone calls and somebody would pop up on your screen when you in effect answered your screen, and suddenly in a minute or so you'd realize that this is a canned person speaking to you on the video telephone
Studs Terkel Oh, [but that?], maybe that shouldn't be. You mean to say that, if I had no TV set in my house or if I didn't have the new appurtenances, if the TV thing goes into effect I'd be seen by the person calling me?
John Wicklein Well, there's a real possibility that, there are now the, there are what they call spook devices that can turn on your telephone in your own home and use it through amplification and use it to listen to what you're saying even though you haven't lifted the telephone off the hook. Now, that is possible, that's technically possible to do that with the kind of two-way video set that I'm talking about, the video telephone. There's got to be laws and there's got to be enforcement of it.
John Wicklein It's called the Data Inspection Board. About 10 years ago the Swedes became very exercised by the fact that they felt that too many companies were getting too much information on them, and that there was no restriction on how this information was collected or how it was being used. So they enacted a law in 1973 that set up something called the Data Inspection Board. That Inspection Board was ordered to license every personal databank in the country, databank that concerned, contained personal dossiers. And the law also said that anyone could walk into any company that kept a dossier on them, and in fact they had to be informed that a dossier was being kept. Any one, if any one of these banks that wanted to keep a dossier on you had to send you a letter and say, "We have this file." You were allowed to walk in and ask for the printout from the computer. If you saw something in that printout that was in error or that you wanted to argue with, you could either say, "I want to rebut this, and you must put this rebuttal information in" if it wasn't a matter of fact but about a matter of judgment, or if it was a mistake in fact, you said, "I want that taken out." If the company says, "No, I'm not going to take that out. We believe it's true and we're going to keep it in," then you can go to the Data Inspection Board and without having to go through the courts and in an administrative way if you can prove your case to the Data Inspection Board, they will order the databank to expunge that information. The databank is also--must tell every other databank to which it transferred that information to expunge that information. It must also tell you when it updates your information and it must also tell you to whom they have distributed that information. So it's a real constraint on the, and puts some responsibility on the data keepers, the investigators, to be responsible about the data they're collecting. So I think that's a very valuable thing that Sweden has
John Wicklein No, there's nothing like that. In 1977 a U.S. Presidential Commission on Privacy recommended something similar to that with an oversight board, but Jimmy Carter said that he didn't feel that the government should be involved in anything like that, and for all intents and purposes they ditched it. They did put in a package on privacy. The only thing that it proposed that is different is that under the present privacy laws in the private sector, a company such as Equifax is not required to show you the computer printout. It has, the law says that it has to tell you the substance of the material that's in that. However, this new proposal, the bill that, I guess died in the last Congress, said that the person who, on whom a file was kept had the right to actually read that file. But there was still no redress. If you found something wrong, and you said that it was wrong and they said we won't change it, that was it. There was nothing more you can do except go to court.
John Wicklein Yes.
Studs Terkel AT&T.
John Wicklein It's governmental. And they said that in all these information systems, they had an ironclad rule that the telephone company could not interfere in anything that goes into that system, whether it's pornography, whether it's--no matter what it is, they feel that that's a law enforcement thing. And the agency that provides the system just provides the means of distribution. And as a matter of policy, anything can be put into that system. The new two-way technologies that are coming along there and are farther advanced than they are here. But the government has nothing to do with that and can't touch it.
John Wicklein Well, it worked out in France in that they set up a commission on information and liberty, which I think is very important to put those two words together and that's why communication and freedom is the subtitle of my book. I think that information does deal with our liberties and their commission is very much modeled on the Swedish Data Inspection Board. The only thing is, they require you to go into court to make the changes, which I think is unnecessary and is too time-consuming.
Studs Terkel Thinking about your book, dealing as it does with communication and liberty and freedom, you have Sweden, and then you have what? An authoritarian government can do bad as they are today, and you cite Brazil as a case in point. Citing actual, actual horrors as well as scenarios. You have, by the way, throughout the book, different scenarios of what
John Wicklein That's right. Some scenarios about, well, what a electronic news service will look like after the turn of the century, or what Brazil could do to control all the communication and have much tighter control over its people by this communication system.
John Wicklein Yes.
John Wicklein Well, in the Brazil scenario, every car radio has a transponder in it that tells the police where that car is, no matter where it's going. And I say that there's been a nuclear accident in their nuclear reactor on the coast between Rio and Sao Paolo and that a couple was driving along and they've disconnected the transponder because they were on a holiday and they didn't want to be interrupted with any government interrupt bulletins. So, they pass a police, a military police station which exists now in Brazil every few miles along the highways, and the motor of their car is killed because the transponder isn't working and they're not supposed, if the transponder had been working they'd been informed that they weren't supposed to go down that road because it was getting into the area of the nuclear explosion. So a police captain comes out and says that, why are they doing this, and they said, well, they were on holiday, it was New Year's and they just didn't want to be interrupted. And so the policeman says, "Well, I think there's going to be a very large fine involved in that for you and, but maybe we could talk about it," and he invites the professor who was driving along, into the police headquarters, and the professor knows because of the corruption from top to bottom in Brazil which exists today that you can get out of things, pay it, by paying a fine right on the spot. But in this new system, you don't pay the fine in money because that's too crass. What you do is, you take, you use one of these two-way sets and transfer money directly from your account into the account of the police captain. And as the professor did that and is walking out the door, he was given the insurance by the police captain that he needn't worry that this transaction would be listed against him or anything about this incident would be listed against him in his central dossier. And so he gets into the car and says to his wife, "Well," he said, "In a way I guess we were saved by technology."
Studs Terkel More graceful. Well, as you describe the scene you say Brazil, that's the scenario, of course you have earlier horrors of what could be a totalitarian government. Of course, our State Department says, authoritarian government, makes it different, of course. That could happen, but it could happen closer to home, too,
Studs Terkel You know, I was thinking, there's so much to your book. John Wicklein is my guest. The book is "Electronic Nightmare: The New Communications and Freedom", and Viking the publishers. So, what is it? How does it stand now, and perhaps you could read the conclusions toward the end. But, what next? I mean, what's to be done to avoid, say, in the hands of a few, even more now, and which would become almost utterly impotent, you know, even though all this stuff is at our fingertips.
John Wicklein Well, I think that what's to be done now is a consciousness-raising among people in the country and citizen reform groups, broadcast reform groups, perhaps, that in order to get people to understand that there's a problem. That's the first thing. If nobody sees the problem, then the people who control the technology, who know the advantages and disadvantages, will go right ahead and use it for commercial advantage or military advantage or whatever without any reference to the public interest. But if the public becomes concerned about this, just as in anything else, I think that there has been, for instance, a broadcast reform movement growing over the last 15 years that has made some headway. It's losing a lot now with the new administration decision to deregulate everything, but at least people are aware that we can do something about our communications. Well, I think people have to become aware that they can do something about this by getting organized themselves, especially at the community level because a lot of this, for instance, will be put in by a first, here, by two-way cable systems. Now, those two-way cable systems are franchised locally. They aren't franchised by the FCC or any national entity, and they could arouse citizens who want to inform their Congre--their councilman about this situation, can have the safeguards built in that are necessary to protect us and still get some of the blessings that are available in
John Wicklein I say that "Rather than standardization and conformity, the emerging system can lead to greater diversity of ideas and a wider variety of choices for viewers of entertainment, seekers of information, consumers of goods and users of services, the technological developments can lead to a society that's better informed than the one that we know today. An integrated media system can give us a truer picture of life in the community, the nation, the world, than could previous discrete systems. This in turn can provide a stronger basis on which we can make governmental and social decisions that affect our lives. The new technologies can lead to a decentralization of decision-making with greater local autonomy in government and corporations rather than a centralization of governmental and corporate control. A public that is well-informed via the system is less likely to be carried away on an emotional bandwagon driven by a demagogue. The new system can lead to a greater humanization of society and not dehumanization. A coherent public policy aimed at developing the new communications along socially useful lines can make--can help make us freer and happier than we have been before. But, improperly developed and employed, the new communications can lead to just the opposite of each of these things. Within the system lie serious threats to our privacy and our individual liberties. These will very likely materialize if we permit it to be guided primarily by market manipulations, military demands, and political power considerations, and most important, none of the potential benefits of the new communications will come about unless we shape the technology to human ends and not let it shape us in a commercial or authoritarian mold."