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Computer-age politics

It is clear that the accelerating revolution in automatic information processing technollogy will affect the way Americans work, arrange their leisure hours, and organize their homes and personal affairs. What is less apparent is the equally fundamental transformation these new bits and pieces of computer hardware and software are capable of wreaking on our political system. Still, from the relatively unadvanced stage of system integration we are at today it is possible to detect the harbingers of what may well become a problem of profound moral dimensions in the near future.

Bubble memories and denser disk drives make the storage and retrieval of information faster and incredibly cheap. Cable television offers two-way access into the home, in a medium with proven impact and growing penetration. Already Columbus, Ohio, is wired up, and the experiment is a popular success. Advertisers benefit by targeting their campaigns at narrow demographic groups, and managers in the public and private sectors rely on the polling and forecasting industries.

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None of this opinion research would be possible without modern computers and data reduction techniques. As equipment and software accumulate over the years, our technical environment becomes increasingly fertile, and the most stolid observer will recognize that this is likely to produce great social changes.

One area of resistance to automation is already apparent. The individualist in each of us balks at being reduced to a number, a statistic; worse still is the idea that somewhere in the bowels of a superpowerful machine is a listing of our vital statistics, our tax records, our homework scores from the sixth grade. (The ultimate nightmare is the specter of a program that analyzes all these data to preduct our behavior in a given situation.)

To argue that the records already exist begs the issue. Computers exercise a great (and often evil) power in the imagination, and it is misguided to ignore the antipathy that many people, including a goodly number of the highly educated , feel toward these mysterious machines.

However, it may be that an opposite problem is more dangerous. Computers, integrated into national databanks, wired into the home for convenience, may become as indispensable as the telephone.

Is instant analysis of opinions solicited by a two-way television network unthinkable? Perhaps -- today. It is certainly feasible, as the 30,000 homes in Columbus demonstrate.

It may be instructive to recall the experience of the recent election, where many voters in Western states are said to have stayed home and not voted after broadcast networks began to preduct an insurmountable Reagan lead, based on computer analysis of returns in a small number of key precincts. Indeed, then President Carter conceded barely half an hour after the Eastern polls closed when his own pollsters saw doom in their (computer- generated) figures. This early concession and projection of a Reagan landslide may have altered the outcome of local and state contests in many areas -- and the data used to drive the computer models essential to the predictions were gathered in a primitive fashion, by simply asking voters leaving the polling place their choice for the top office.

The uniquely American experiment in representative government has weathered many difficult periods. Wars, civil wars, natural disasters, and economic upheavals have tormented and swayed us. Yet we seem to remain curiously upright. The complex system of checks and balances in Washington and in the state capitals often seems inefficient, like a constantly dragging brake. Yet one of the most overlooked benefits of our way of doing things is precisely this slowness; it takes time for things to happen, time for legislation to be proposed, public opinion to be sounded, compromise to be reached. As we enter the age of system integration, with an electrical nervous system coalescing before our eyes, it may be prudent to reflect on the virtues of making haste slowly.

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In the fully automated home or office of the future the one-man, one-vote principle may assume uncomfortable dimensions. Tied in, on-line, tabulated and analyzed in the wink of an eye, our thumbs-down may someday register before our cooler heads are able to prevail.

For more on computers see the special section today (except in the Eastern edition where it will appear tommorow).m

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