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Computer communication and freedom; Electronic Nightmare: The New Communications and Freedom, by John Wicklein. New York: The Viking Press. 282 pp. $14.95.

It has often been said that the computer will mean at least as much to human progress as the printing press has.

The basic thesis of this book is that computer-assisted communications will either enhance human freedom or diminish it, depending upon how the system is run and by whom.

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In this informative book the author, John Wicklein, who is in charge of funding for public affairs and news programming at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, presents so many things that could go wrong with our communications systems that one wonders how all of them can possibly be prevented. These deliberate scare tactics don't make for comforting, complacent reading, but the book rings an alarm that needs to be heard.

Wicklein is at odds with marketplace self-regulation. He finds more reason to be hopeful about the effectiveness of constraints placed upon electronic communications systems in some Western European countries than he is about the less regulated network in the United States.

Wicklein argues for decentralized control of the growing US communications network. At the worst, he says, it would be controlled by a single entity. The two most likely contenders for such a monopoly are the American Telephone & Telegraph Company and the federal government. Since 1980, when the Federal Communications Commission made it possible for AT&T to enter the data-processing business, the likelihood of its assuming complete control of an integrated telecommunications system has increased enormously. Other contenders are Time Inc. and International Business Machines Corporation.

The author believes that competition is a safeguard and possible preventive to any monopoly. Wicklein wants to awaken sensitivity to this issue so that the public will demand decentralized development. The key, Wicklein insists, is a code of regulations that separates content from technology - requiring the transmitter of messages to serve a multiplicity of customers.

Wicklein cites the British Broadcasting Corporation as an example of a somewhat independent noncommercial and nongovernmental model that American broadcasting companies might emulate.

In light of the communications questions Congress will have to decide in the near future, Wicklein's book is especially timely.

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