Volume 3, Number 4, (Fall, 1985)


Computers and the Totalitarian State

By Michael E. Marotta


The July 9, 1984 issue of Computerworld printed an article by Rex Malik, titled Communism vs. the Computer which was based on an earlier essay published in England. Malik made many sweeping generalizations which were difficult to evaluate and he presented a slew of assumptions about the Soviet economy that were also not verifiable. His main themes however, came across clear as a bell, the Soviet Union cannot possibly take a lead in the computer revolution. The reasons for this are many, but in sum: they lead to the conclusion that no centralized State can survive the Information Explosion.

There is an inherent paradox in the computer. When the year 1984 rolled around, it started with a flurry of commentaries from rightwingers and leftwingers alike on the nature of the Orwellian State. Is this really 1984, they asked? In most cases much was made of the massive data banks which the Federal and State governments have assembled. Only the most well hidden people are not on some system’s file somewhere. It was obvious to the local socialist and the syndicated conservative that the computer represented a tool of the Total State.

When I heard that socialist on a radio talk show it was clear to me that he was suffering from computer phobia. He had never used his home computer to browse the stacks of the city library at 3 a.m. He had never called the NASA Gasline. He was not a subscriber to CompuServe or Dialog. I had to admit that he was correct in assuming that the State Police Red Squad was keeping his file on a disk somewhere and probably had tele-communicated the information to the FBI as well. But they had also just as probably sent paperwork through the mail.

The conservative columnist was afraid that individual liberties might be jeopardized by the Welfare and Education Departments as they gather, correlate and exchange data about you and me. He was mute later in the year when it was reported that hackers had penetrated the TRW Database which holds several score millions of people’s credit records. He also hasn’t said a word about the massive datafiles accumulated by data processing service bureaus like Automated Data Processing (ADP) and Electronic Data Systems (EDS).

The computer is, on the one hand, Just a tool. It is little more than a fancy hammer. When teaching computer literacy at local retail stores, I used to draw analogies between the automobile and the computer. Analogies are also possible between the computer and the gun.

Gunpowder gave kings the powder to topple barons and establish the first nations. Gunpowder also gave John Wilkes Booth the power to kill Abraham Lincoln. It is doubtful that Booth could have been as successful in hand-to-hand combat with Old Abe.

This nation is a republic because the people who built it were genetically individualistic. One expression of their desire to be free is the Second Amendment to the Constitution: the People hold for themselves the right to keep and bear arms. Likewise, the computer can be used for good or evil. If a machine is owned by an individualist, it is a tool for producing freedom.

It is common to assume that a centralized economy would use computers to control and regulate people. The USSR has tried this with some small measure of success. On the other band, as computers become cheaper to own and easier to operate. they are cost-effective at lower and lower levels of that centralized economy. Generality in order to use a gun, you have to own one or have acquired one in some way. This is not true of a computer.

When a small-size system is installed at a Soviet metal fabricating plant, the people who use it are not entirely limited in their activity. A computer which stores production records can also hold a copy of Dr. Zhivago.

The Soviet system discourages individual enterprise. So where do smart people put their efforts? For one thing, the USSR has a great collection of chess players. Also theoretical physicists and mathematicians. These people enjoy the power of their own thoughts and the pleasure of thinking is completely private.

Along these lines, consider the computer programmer. Can the State pretend to win in mental combat against a programmer? As G. Gordon Liddy might say it, in a Battle of Wills, the State is unarmed.

In our country, the best paid systems analysts are all but powerless when their computers are subjected to heavy hacking by a clever teenager.

Imagine the computers used at Moscow University. Can any system of locks, passwords, and audit trails really stop a student underground from using the computer as a bulletin board? Of course not. The computer is always at the beck and call of every user. It will follow a program to unlock a lock as surely as it will follow a program to relock an unlocked lock.

These problems for the State will persist and grow exponentially as the size and cost of computers decrease. It is with good reason that the USSR only builds copies of the computers which we used 10 years ago. The IBM 370, the DEC VAX, the other physically large, costly machines are the only defense against total dissolution of the Soviet State. Can you imagine what would happen if, as in America, students could check out a desktop computer? “Please, comrade librarian, I need to work some differential equations and distribute 1OO copies of Orwell’s 1984”

When the USSR acquires an American computer, they try to get the powerful, “small” systems; in comparison to the huge mainframe computers—especially the DEC VAX, which can be used to guide, control and coordinate military equipment. However, the Soviet military is merely the highest priority; it is not the only priority. A wide-open trade in computers would be a disaster for the Soviet system. They cannot afford to let every Ivan have a home computer.

The Soviet leadership is between a rock and a hard place. They must have computers to remain competitive with the West. Yet, the spread of computers will make it harder for them to control their own populace.

Dictatorships fear the spread of ideas and doctrines which do not originate with the State. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was hounded, not because he is a capitalist, but because he is an Orthodox Christian. A student of objectivism might point out that both Communism and Christianity are altruistic and collectivistic. That is immaterial to the Kremlin. They demand obedience, not discussion.

The Soviet Union, like any other dictatorship, cannot tolerate the spread of ideas. Personal computers are a powerful tool for exchanging information. The United States could weaken the Soviet ruling class by aggressively exporting computers to the USSR.

True, the Kremlin would resist. On the other hand, they also import wheat and sell platinum to the US. Personal computers could become a bargaining chip in East-West trade agreements.

Currently, the American government (imitating its friends in the Kremlin) is attempting to prevent the export of computers to the USSR. American rulers argue that letting the USSR have computers would make our enemy stronger. While there would be an apparent short-term gain for the Russians in getting enough DEC VAXS to run their anti-aircraft missiles, establish viable battlefield tactics, and make or break codes and ciphers, remember that the military is not the only lobbyist group in the Politburo. A Marxist State is a centralized democracy, not a military Junta.

Even if it were true that the first 50 VAXS would go to the military, the next 50 would go to Gosbank, the Soviet Federal Reserve. Once installed in Gosbank (or Uralmetal or wherever), these machines could be properly abused by more or less private citizens. Bank managers and industrial supervisors could deal more effectively in the black market. Editors and typesetters who now produce propaganda could create satires on the side. Urban planners could play video games. People in all walks of life could write essays or manage their meager budgets.

While the Kremlin may desire VAXS today, it will only be a matter of time before computers they import will get smaller and cheaper. A strong negotiator could get them to accept 5,000 IBM-PCs for every 50 mainframes. (Actually, the best thing would be to let our capitalists deal with the Kremlin like any other customer.)

Now the mass import of computers itself will not end Communism. The Soviet system is successful only because it is based on a well-defined philosophy. America has been losing the Cold War because we have no idea of who we are or what we are. Reagan never uses the word “capitalism” in public. Any reference to “free enterprise” is usually followed with a reference to the need for “some” government regulation. In fact, the differences between the people in Washington and the people in the Kremlin are differences in degree, not kind. The trade embargo against the export of computers is an example of this.

Like all such measures, this regulation not only fails to solve the perceived problems, it actually makes matters worse. If the USSR wants computers and cannot buy them from American companies, they will just get them from someone else. Reagan saw the error in the Carter Wheat Embargo. Perhaps he will see the error in the computer embargo as well.

Computers, CB radios and video tape players are exactly what the Soviets should fear. They can match the US missile for missile. They have no defense against ideas in the minds of their own people. The greatest weakness that the Kremlin has is that given the importance of items like these, they wwill not be bought first by Siberian farmers, but by affluent Party members.

In our own country, the statists are likewise dismayed at the Frankenstein’s monster which they must face. Without computers, there is no way the bureaucracy can function in modern terms. At the same time, they cannot be more effective than the private citizen. The Education Department might build a database of private schools that do not accept federal funds. The bureaucrat can cluck his tongue at the uncontrolled schools and promise to “do something” about it. The owners of the schools will always be one step ahead because their desktop machines match the bureaucrat’s byte for byte.

In the room where I work for one of America’s largest corporations, there are two computers. Each uses a 16 bit processor. Each has one megabyte of RAM. Each has about 500 megabytes of disk capacity. One covers 16 square feet and cost $500,000. The other covers one square foot and cost one percent as much.

The Soviet Union cannot permit the introduction of this kind of power to its people. The same party members who scrimp and save for a car will acquire computers and will be able to meet the State on its own terms. When the KGB inputs data on Comrade Smithsky’s black market vodka business, the good Comrade can also, with some effort, replace that file with a letter of merit for patriotism.

These principles apply to any North Korea, South Korea....

The analogies between the computer and the automobile break down when you consider that the auto made it possible to travel 60 miles in one hour while the computer makes it possible to “travel” without leaving your seat and to do so almost at the speed of light.

Analogies between the computer and the gun also fail when you consider that guns kill and computers expand the mind. For a nation which contemplates war, the thought of an arsenal full of guns is comforting. It is not so easy to see the State issuing its people computers to repel an increase in productivity by the Other Side.

In fact, just as the pen is mightier than the sword, the computer is mightier than the gun. No commando team can mobilize quicker than a local area network. No shock troops can out maneuver a bulletin board service. This was proven by the events of the summer of 1983. Hackers were pursued by the FBI for breaking into a computer system at Sandia Labs. The Feds made fewer than 20 arrests and called it a “major bust.” The first victim wasn’t in jail before the word was out via CompuServe that the Feds were on the move.

The American Republic was, for 200 years, protected from a fascist coup by the fact that the People held more guns than the Army. Now. our freedom is guarded by the home computer which can access, correlate and store data as well as identify, copy and purge data. America today is a nice place to raise kids because, in the words of Jim Morrison, “They got the Guns, but we got the Numbers.”

The rulers of the USSR aren’t the only ones who live in fear of the personal computer. In the Fall of 1984, 60 Minutes ran a feature called “Homework.” The piece dealt with women who manufacture garments in their homes for wholesalers. They interviewed a person who owns one of the wholesale companies. This guy said that the International Women’s Garment Union wants to stop the home worker as a prelude to controlling the many home computer businesses. When 60 Minutes took that comment to a Union spokesperson, he agreed that yes, indeed. the home computer industry is their next target!

Your home computer is a tool for your freedom. Like the printing press of old. it is the people’s friend and the tyrant’s foe.


This article is reprinted from the Loompanics 1985 Main Book Catalog. Thanks to Michael Soy, editor of Loompanics, P.O. Box 1197, port Townsend, Washington 98368.

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