Back to the Future

“There’s a bit of a debate going on right now about CMTV.

It was sparked by this rather unfair criticism. Our response is at the bottom of the page. I thought this was a peerless example of a genre of marketing known as “moral panic” . That was until I discovered this gem on display in the British Museum of Witch Hunting.

It shows how computer manufacturers, like Sperry Univac, Borroughs Machines and Digital Equipment would have reacted to the launch of the personal computer (they are not available for comment today as they went out of business years ago) all those years ago.

Institute of Data Processors (c. 1978)

Malcolm Windley, Press Secretary

Dear Sirs,

You’ll see the headlines this month are all about a new breed of computer – the Personal Computer – that anyone can buy. According to the press, these personal computers will replace current mainframe systems that are safe, secure and efficient.

Who needs these new personal computers anyway?

Let us heed the words of legendary IBM CEO Thomas J. Watson who predicted: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” He didn’t get where he is today by giving untrained civilians access to unsafe computers.

The makers of these personal computers say that one day you will be able to do all kinds of things with them? Oh really? Can you buy the latest T Rex single with a computer? Of course not. Could Concorde be designed on a computer? Where would the engineers put their blueprints? In the computer?

Doctors are currently pioneering new techniques for heart surgery. Can you imagine them using a PC to help them carry out operations? Of course not! The punch cards would raise the prospect of infection. Besides, they could catch fire if the doctor’s cigarette falls out of the ashtray. What are we going to do about that: ask doctors to give up smoking and drinking?

But the personal computer merchants won’t admit any of these dangers. They hope to sell more computers and call this a “natural progression from the mainframe”. However, concerns have been raised across the institute of data processors – especially at IBM – in relation to the unregulated nature of these ‘personal computers’.

They always give them a misleadingly cuddly names don’t they? A more fitting name, we would suggest, might be ‘devil on your desktop’.

The rules about data processing are far too complex for the layman to understand, but let me warn you that these personal computers are over turning clearly defined responsibilities that have taken experts years to establish.

Any industry has to be sensibly regulated and any so called progress has to be viewed with suspicion. It’s the one issue that unites both workers and management in Britain’s car industry, which is the envy of the world – and always will be. You don’t see British Leyland bending in the wind of consumer demand. Which is why the Austin 1300 and the Morris Marina are the flagships of Britain’s economy. Where British Leyland leads, Britain will follow.

Thank goodness there are no computers involved in the car making process.

But the computer industry is different. Any Jack the Lad can stroll in off the street and buy a personal computer – no questions asked – without anyone inquiring where he got the money from. It doesn’t matter that he (or even she – don’t laugh!) doesn’t understand what he’s getting himself into. Nor do the vendors care about the possible dangers he could expose himself – and those around him – to.

People are rushing headlong into ‘personal computing’ with no guarantees on safety and with no proper training.

This would never happen in any other industry, like Security, where all staff would be personally vetted by upstanding members of the community, such as Mr Bellfield.

It’s quite understandable how jealous smaller retailers and homeowners may be tempted to use these inexpensive personal computers, and think they can do their own data processing. (Don’t laugh)

However, giving unidentified civilians access to a computer – which potentially contains sales records of purchases made by children and vulnerable adults – clearly raises concerns.

Our chief executive has outlined his concerns in a white paper which calls for a sensible debate. Please send an SAE for a copy of Goodness, Won’t Somebody Please Do Something?

What these personal computer makers – and their willing victims – are doing is not illegal. If we were to drag them to court, there are plenty of technicalities that would enable a lilly livered liberal judge to bounce them back on the streets without so much as a slap on the wrist.

Incredible isn’t it? How did it come to this? Well, by arguing that the stringent requirements that regulate the building of a data processing centre don’t apply to a desktop machine, the personal computer owners manage to circumvent the law.

Personal computer owners don’t need to be trained or vetted, which means that respectable mainframe makers can be undercut by these cheaper schemes.

The Data Processing Association has lobbied tirelessly, on the public’s behalf, for controls that would protect the established vendors. Unless our market can be ring fenced, jobs will be lost and the economy could be sent into a downward spiral. What the data processing industry needs is more legislation – and that legislation should only be processed on a registered – safe – mainframe computer.

Putting a desktop computer in every home would be a terrible retrograde step. Look at all the trouble that’s been caused by giving everyone the vote.

One of the strengths of the data processing lobby is that nobody voted for us. As a result, we have been able to regulate the data processing industry as we see fit because we know best.

With this in mind, the DPA has written to Mr Bellfield, the Data Processing and Security Commissioner to seek clarification on the legal implications of ‘Personal PCs’.

It’s not just in our interests. It’s a question of public safety, liberty and the rule of law.

There are still many, many things we don’t understand about the implications of computers. Until we do, it is vital that we stay in control of the market. Not just for our sakes, but for Britain, it’s children and it’s children’s children.