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Life in the computer age: social choices in a futuristic world

''The future is called 'perhaps,' which is the only possible thing to call the future. And the important thing is not to allow that to scare you,'' wrote playwright Tennessee Williams.

It's a scrap of peculiarly American wisdom especially pertinent in an era Williams hardly imagined: the home-computer age.

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To be sure, the ongoing post-industrial revolution has had its fervent devotees - the Alvin Tofflers and Marshal McLuhans who paint an almost-utopian picture of life in the information age.

But it has also had its doomsayers, who foresee thousands unemployed by robots and word processors.

The spread of computer technology and its future influence is explored in ''The Network Revolution: Confessions of a Computer Scientist'' (And/Or Press Inc.; Berkeley, Calif.; $7.95) by an unusually literate computer expert named Jacques Vallee.

His thesis: The spread of computer technology is forcing nations to choose between two fundamentally different systems, which he calls the Digital Society and the Grapevine Alternative.

''In the Digital Society, massive amounts of computer technology are used to control people by reducing them to statistics,'' he writes, adding that from that point of view ''Computers are repressive tools and their use for private communication is discouraged.'' He warns of a coming ''digital transformation'' that won't leave a single stone ''standing on another stone of our social edifice.''

In the Grapevine Alternative, on the contrary, ''computers are used by people to build networks,'' he continues, adding that ''beyond the simple use of these networks for information we find people actually communicating through them.'' Vallee clearly encourages this trend, noting that computers must be demystified by breaking down the aura of complexity that has grown up around them.

In its extreme form, a ''Digital Society'' would become simply a giant, clean , well-ordered Disneyworld, Vallee warns. Presidents, activated by invisible machines, would make predictable speeches before well-behaved children whose every possible move has been anticipated.

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But in Vallee's Grapevine Society individuals use their computers to form networks virtually independent of time, space, and government oversight. Dr. Vallee admits that he lacks a clear idea of what the latter society would be like - except that it would be better than the central control imposed by the increasingly powerful tools of information, and disinformation, being created.

But he points out that ''The world has never known a communication system that was global in scope and also able to preserve individual privacy.'' Without a precedent, no one knows if people will use such a system wisely. But it is clear, he says, that all governments will oppose it in the name of public safety. Even in the US, the government is doing so by classifying encryption research and promoting a national encryption standard which the government can break.

Much of Vallee's thinking borders on heresy in the opinion of his peers. They are convinced that the benefits of these tools outweighs the dangers of abuse. One such expert is Donn Parker of SRI International, a world authority on computer crime and abuse. ''Certainly, misuse of computers can and has killed people. But proper use of computers has saved lives as well,'' he objects.

''I think computer technology has become so important,'' he adds, ''that we have to impose a significant amount of discipline. It requires management control, which may sound Orwellian at first. But the result will be just the opposite.

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