Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 14 December 2016
1984: The way we were and the way we are now
It is 1984. I am just shy of 19, Reagan is about to be re-elected in the US, Thatcher is administering the UK, and our new prime minister, Bob Hawke, along with his treasurer, Paul Keating, is planning his own quiet revolution in Australia.
Christos Tsiolkas The Monthly December 2016 — January 2017
1984 was the beginnings of the personal computer revolution. Apple’s 1984 advertisement at the superbowl was impudent but memorable. William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer seemed to show the way the future was going, at least to SciFi buffs. And, those of us interested in technology and societal change seemed to feel that we had a sort of handle on the future, we were excited by accelerating change and the ‘so called’ transition to post-industrialism.
When I began this article, I thought it was another way to avoid tackling cybersecurity head on. I’ve mentioned this a few times and even gave reasons in my last article the Secret City Trilogy by Steve Lewis & Chris Uhlmann, which was partly on cybersecurity. I also said that I’d just read The Snowden Files by Luke Harding, 2014, which made me feel bad about my cowardice over cybersecurity. I’ll get there eventually.
In a series of articles beginning with William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer published in 1984, I’ve also dealt with the art of technological prophecy. Similarly, I’ve said previously that in 1983 [or late 1982] I owned my first personal computer an Osborne. It had a five-inch screen, looked like a sewing machine in its case and had a word processor and one killer application — the spreadsheet. It was one of the first usable PCs not just a thing for tinkerers. The company went defunct in 1985.
Prior to the early 1980s, personal computers were for tinkerers — technology nerds interested in early personal or micro-computers — who were enamoured of the hardware, of being able to put strings of boolean code in to see if the code coming back out was interesting, whether it was expected or unexpected. They seemed to have no interest in doing anything practical.
I remember around 1983 or 1984 trying to get communication between my computer and that of a more computer literate friend via a modem and the telephone. He enjoyed it. I found it immensely frustrating, as I did in 1996 and the early years of the Internet, trying just to get on each time I had to set up a new connection.
In 1984, I also became peripherally involved in the development of MacLaser, a desktop publishing firm and a Mac consultancy that continued for more than a decade.
To me computers were something that I wanted to use for practical results not for tinkering, which was why I had always hated programming, IBM punch cards and trying to get anything useful from mainframes. I am not a techo, a nerd or a geek (I might be rich if I was) but I love appropriate technology which can be useful.
If you haven’t detected a commonality in my writing on these issues previously this gives you a comprehensive background. I hope the preamble hasn’t bored you because this ability to go back in time and dig out concrete evidence on what we thought then, I think, is really crucial to providing a framework to understand what we think now.
I certainly can’t remember 1984 clearly, but I do remember the Apple Advertisement celebrating the birth of the MacIntosh (a video of the advertisement is provided in Further Information at the end, if you can’t wait).
Apple’s 1984 Ad
George Orwell wrote 1984 between 1947 and 1948 on the Island of Jura, despite being seriously ill with tuberculosis. In December 1948 he sent the manuscript to Secker and Warburg and it was published in June 1949.
Luke Harding The Snowden Files 2014 takes up the story:
‘Until they become conscious, they will never rebel.’ George Orwell, 1984
It was an iconic commercial. To accompany the launch of the MacIntosh in 1984, Steve Jobs created an advert that would captivate the world. It would take the theme of George Orwell’s celebrated dystopian novel and recast it — with Apple as Winston Smith. His plucky company would fight the tyranny of Big Brother. …
Even as Apple grew into a multi-billion dollar corporation, Jobs continued to identify with computing’s early subversives and long-haired pioneers — the hackers, pirates, geeks and freaks that made the future possible.
Ridley Scott of Blade Runner fame directed the commercial. It shows Big Brother projected on a screen, addressing lines of workers. These skinhead drones wear identical uniforms. Into the grey nightmare bursts an attractive young woman. She wears orange shorts and a white tank top. She is carrying a hammer! Police in riot gear run after her. As Big Brother announces ‘We shall prevail’, the heroine hurls the hammer at him. The screen explodes in a blaze of light; the workers are open mouthed. A voice announces smoothly: ‘On January 24th, Apple Computer will announce MacIntosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.’
The 60-second advert was screened to nearly 100 million Americans during the Super Bowl, and was subsequently hailed as one of the best ever. Isaacson [the biographer of Steve Jobs] writes: ‘Initially the technologists and hippies didn’t interface well. Many in the counter culture saw computers as ominous and Orwellian, the province of the Pentagon and the power culture.’
The commercial asserted the opposite — that computers were cool, revolutionary and empowering, instruments of self-expression. The MacIntosh was a way of asserting freedom against an all-seeing state.
Calling Apple a multi-billion corporation is rather premature, leaping somewhat into the distant future. Steve Jobs was forced out of Apple in 1985 and did not come back into the fold until 1997.
Luke Harding now gets to his point:
Almost 30 years later, following Job’s death in 2011, an NSA analyst came up with the smirking rejoinder. He prepared a top-secret presentation and, to illustrate the opening slide, he pulled a couple of stills from Job’s commercial — one of Big Brother, and the other of the blonde heroine with the hammer and the orange shorts.
Under the heading ‘iPhone Location Services’ he typed:
‘Who knew in 1984…’
The next slide showed the late Jobs, holding up an iPhone.
‘… that this would be Big Brother…’
A third slide showed crowds of whooping customers celebrating after buying the iPhone 4; one fan inked the phone on his cheek. The analyst’s pay off line read:
‘…and the zombies would be paying customers.’
The zombies were the public, unaware that the iPhone offered the spy agency new snooping capabilities beyond the imagination of the original Big Brother. The ‘paying customers’ had become Orwell’s mindless drones.
It was in part this stunning arrogance on the part of the NSA and the GCHQ, UK that prompted Edward Snowden to become a whistle blower. It is a similarly stunning arrogance on the part of US lawmakers that it is not OK to spy on US citizens, but open slather for the rest of us.
I will come back to this comparison between 1984 and the present day, because it is illuminating.
Naomi Klein said of her university days and particularly the 1990s in her book No Logo 2000, while she and her fellows were agonising over gender, racism and ‘political correctness’ wars, they failed to notice the inroads that corporates were making into education (e.g. McDonalds franchising with universities and hospitals). Similarly, whilst we were celebrating our freedom of the nineteen seventies, the acceleration of technology and the affluence in our lives, the growing inequality between the super elites and the rest of the population in western countries and even more so in third world countries was occurring almost unnoticed
When you are living through history, some key events don’t appear crucial at the time. You need someone to alert you! I complain about this later but I don’t have a solution. We also seem to suffer a collective amnesia about the past, perhaps because some things are too painful to remember.
The Canberra Environment Centre in 1984
I was associated with the Environment Centre in Canberra for a while in 1984. Many environmentalists or conservationists seemed to me then to be inherently conservative, even if they thought of themselves as lefties. I remember getting on the wrong side of one — a covert Trot, if memory serves me right —who still thought the Gestetner machine was the only possible way to present environmental manifestos, because it was a tool of the revolution.
In the September-October 1984 edition of Bogong Magazine (the Journal of the Environment Centre) John Hill wrote what I thought was a fairly harmless article called Computers in Conservation, suggesting the radical idea that micro-computers, might be useful in conservation for such things as word processing, calculation and accounting, keeping records and databases, and communication between groups.
In the next issue of Bogong November-December 1984, two hostile articles appeared in response to John Hill’s article, These were Chips, with a Grain of Salt by Ian Fraser and Are Computers Really Necessary by Greg Baker, which reflected the quotation above: Many in the counter culture saw computers as ominous and Orwellian, the province of the Pentagon and the power culture.
Ian Fraser’s article mentioned structural social issues and an ‘ideal society’. He said we do not engage in opportunistic behaviour, such as the use of chemical herbicides around our environment centre or engage in socially undesirable activities etc.
He implied that Dr Hill’s article was pragmatic, whereby computers are simply a neutral tool. He disagreed with this. And further stated that one must disagree on ideological grounds as well. Technology is not and cannot be, value-free. Any technology can only ever be a function of the society, the historical process that produced it.
Fraser went on to mention the Industrial Revolution in Britain (assembly lines and Taylorism) as an introduction to the fact that: The Luddites were not superstitious vandals; they were politically aware artisans who knew exactly what was being done to them…
He continued that computerisation would destroy jobs and promote hierarchies as opposed to grass roots action.
On the pragmatic side he contended that computers weren’t a useful allocation of scarce resources and might distract from the human orientation of the movement.
I don’t want to assert that Fraser was wrong. Although he was, as we have seen, fighting an impossible rear guard action against an inevitable trend, as were the Luddites.
Nonetheless, the Luddites certainly received unfair press in their day. And, as Naomi Klein said of her student days, we were inattentive. We certainly needed someone quite like the Luddites in the 1990s to present an opposing argument to the politicians and economists — who were vigorously promoting a dangerous idea that because globalisation was inevitable, the winners and losers were inevitable too. And, nobody could do anything about it, which was a lie.
Income inequality had been a growing issue since the 1960s, but it accelerated in the 1990s and the twenty-first century. I’d like to say this was a covert movement on the part of the wealthy, but I don’t believe in conspiracies or in such abilities for ‘organisation’ in human affairs. In my experience, the wealthy are quite useless at being covert or organised.
We also needed someone in the 1990s and in the twenty-first century to remind us that science and technology drove the development of affluence in the twentieth century. The current ‘age of ignorance’ and of antagonism towards science, will eventually stultify innovation. Similarly, in Australia, the Arts are also spiraling in decline through lack of funding in 2016, because they have nothing to offer blind economic determinism.
Greg Baker’s article focused on a rebuttal of John Hill’s specific practical uses of micro-computers for an environment centre and was based on cost and resource utilisation. Underlying, this was the assumption that the Centre was contemplating the purchase of a computer, which was not the case, because computers were in 1984 still rather expensive and not quite useful enough to be justified for a small Centre with a tight budget. Although, a secondhand electric typewriter was proving useful, and a similar old photocopier would have happily replaced the aforementioned Gestetner.
My contribution in 1984
Back to the topic, as a result of this hostility towards computers, I gave a talk at the Environment Centre on 30 October, 1984 attempting to give an overview of why micro-computers were important to activists. I published an article on the talk in the January-February issue of Bogong entitled: The good, the bad and the ugly. I doubt I changed any minds.
At this distance, I can cringe at the over-writing and the naivety of some of the arguments (you can read all the articles in Further Information). However, it seems to me that we also need reminding of what we thought in 1984 because it still has resonance to the situation that we find ourselves in today.
I don’t want to dwell on my rebuttal of Fraser and Baker because at this distance the important thing is what the article showed about the new technology and what it boded for the future.
Societal change and modern economic cycles
I began the cycles part by refuting Ian Fraser’s analogy about the Luddites stating that two concepts were necessary for a ‘lesson in history’:
A ‘social project’ is a quality of every settled society. It is the pattern of beliefs and values whose pursuit gives a society its distinctive character.
A ‘leading part’ is that part of a complex living system whose goals tend to be subserved by the goals of other parts.
For example in the Middle Ages in Europe the social project was Religion and the leading part the Church. In those times pedlars and userers were marginal people.
Five or six centuries later:
The new social project became economics and trade — the pedlars and userers came into their own. By the beginning of the seventeenth century a new leading part had emerged, Capitalism, and a new social project was in the making, Work.
These were rather heavy guns for an Environment Centre.
Since the rise of Capitalism and Work … economic growth and recession has conformed to a 40-50 year cycle, the emergence of each cycle seemingly accelerated by the availability of a new and cheaper energy source. Thus the first cycle, 1790s to 1840s, is characterised by the age of textiles or machinery and took off on the over-shot water wheel. The second cycle, the railway age came with coal; the third, the age of electricity electricity (or from its major derivative, the age of chemicals) [was based] on electricity. The fourth, the age of the internal combustion engine, electronics or plastics [a byproduct of oil], was powered by oil and natural gas.
At the moment we are at the point of transition, not only to the fifth cycle but perhaps to a new social project from two hundred years of industrialism based on capitalism and work. Micro-technology could well be the new ‘leading part’ and the new energy ‘source’ for both these changes.
It was thought that nuclear fission would be the power source for the fifth cycle but it is no longer of promise and fusion is too far off.
What we thought about technology and the future in 1984
None of this was especially new in 1984. We had been talking of post-industrialism since the 1970s and of accelerating change particularly in technology. Also much of what was predicted has come to pass.
I argued that the microcomputer was a peoples’ tool because it was decentralising, whereas the mainframe computers previously had supported a ‘priesthood’ of experts and promoted centralised power and control structures.
I mentioned the accelerating cost reductions. In 1971 an early small computer machine with the same computing power as my Osborne in 1982 cost $250,000 and the other peripherals, which the Osborne had, another $250,000. A BBC program around 1984 used the analogy that if the VW had developed as rapidly it would do a trip to the sun on five litres of fuel and would cost only one dollar. We were well aware of Moore’s Law and his revision in 1975 to a doubling of chip performance every two years. We were not aware that it would hold true for decades.
I also mentioned with regard to mechanical processes:
Micro-processor systems have the ‘Midas Touch’ in that they reduce the cost of just about every machine system they come in contact with and in the majority of cases give spin-off performances that were previously desirable but too expensive to contemplate.
These things happened. I predicted that micro-chips would benefit renewable energy technologies but did not go as far as to say renewable energy would replace non-renewable energy any time soon. Although we did believe that peak oil was just around the corner and would have been surprised to hear that coal would remain profitable and used for another thirty years.
We were also aware of the likely impacts on work and that the problem was not loss of jobs but a changing workforce. I said:
There is no shortage of socially useful work in our society though much of it is underpaid or unpaid. When only 25 per cent of the labour force is required for [conventional] national economic production, there will be the same if not more wealth to distribute.
The last point is the most important. Loss of jobs in the workforce as conventionally defined, does not mean loss of work, but it does mean loss of livelihood, unless the means of buying power is changed.
I’m not sure exactly what I meant by the final phrase but the remainder is self-explanatory. I also added that the question of transforming work was a social issue not a technological one. I included a couple of ugly scenarios if things did not change, but I had no concept that income inequality would continue to expand without much attention from anyone. Is that how some civilisations fail (e.g. the Roman Empire), through increasing unfairness accompanied by complacency and lack of dynamism?
We were also aware of youth seizing the information age and the potential for subversion:
…which is why we see such headlines as: “Computer prodigy arrested for piracy, “The ‘toys’ that are being turned to crime”, FBI chases young computer spies”. These are often patronising articles about teenagers who break into a bank or security computer systems often without malice. One group even broke into the American Atomic Energy Commission’s databanks. … Indeed, the highest paid programmer in the US is only 14.
William Gibson in Neuromancer and other Sci Fi alerted us to a potential future of cybercrime and state-sponsored cyberwarfare, but I think we were naive in 1984 and didn’t expect the neglect of security and the US state-sponsored weakening of security in the nascent information economy.
Overview of technological change
In 2016, the micro-revolution has begun and has been the main new energy source for nearly thirty years, but it hasn’t developed as quickly as anticipated. It has also developed in new ways that were unanticipated and more quickly than we would have believed in 1984: think Internet, Worldwide Web, smart phones, web browsers, Facebook and Google.
Renewable energy is finally showing promise, and is quickly becoming cost effective, but has not fully developed. Micro-machines and nanotechnology are in process. Nuclear fission has become less popular, since Chernobyl and Fukushima. The timeframe needed to develop new reactors means that new fission reactors will be by-passed by history. Nuclear fusion is not yet on the horizon. We are still merely in the transition to post-industrialism.
Artificial Intelligence, which we thought would come sooner, is still a little way off, but may be crucially important, as will molecular biology, genetics and robots (both macro and micro). The global village has become globalisation and this happened quickly, but again we still need to emphasise in 2016 that inequality is a socio-political issue, not a technological one.
The pace of change
In the 1970s and 1980s (through search conferences, see The Art of Prophecy) we thought we knew about accelerating rates of change and what they meant, but we really had no idea. The 1990s and the last fifteen years have been breathtaking.
Comparison with 1984
I think my general scenarios shared by many in 1984 were actually pertinent because they were general. They weren’t as prescient or compelling as William Gibson’s cyberspace or his social scenarios, but they were vindicated by Michio Kaku’s systematic analysis of the future fifteen years later (see The Art of Prophesy).
Climate Change and Cybersecurity
I wasn’t particularly concerned by Climate change in 1984, though I was aware of it through the shrinkage of Antarctic ice since the 1970s. I did become concerned at the end of the 1980s, particularly through James Burke’s BBC TV two-part series After the Warming, 1989.
The series is worth revisiting, because it is quite prophetic and is still current (see Further Information). In the second part the planetary manager in 2050 gave a series of planetary reports decade by decade to the year 2050. In the program, everyone was worried that governments still hadn’t done much by the 2000 report.
The science hasn’t changed on climate since 1984, but we didn’t predict how much corporate self-interest and money would be pumped into climate change denial (an actual conspiracy, similar to and related to Big Tobacco’s campaigns). The inaction and lack of binding agreements to date have meant that global warming will become catastrophic after 2050 and may even precipitate global freezing. Although that appears counter-intuitive.
Too little too late? We may work out a technological fix, we may die, or we may learn to live like on Mars at home. No one knows!
Cybersecurity is something that threatens the Internet and the connected world as we know it. We knew that cybersecurity was an issue in 1984 and William Gibson with his pre-Internet cyberspace pretty much nailed the concerns we should have. I knew about Blechley Park in 1984, but had no idea that some of its secrets were still worth preserving into the 1990s. Corporate secrecy and until recently the corporate world’s total refusal to acknowledge the depth of cybercrime, and the US government’s attempting to build backdoors into crucial software and hardware in the Clinton era, have made the world vulnerable to sophisticated criminal activity and to state-sponsored cyberwarfare.
Those of us casually interested in threat levels were aware that the NSA and GCHQ and other spy agencies were probably massively infringing on our civil liberties, but until Edward Snowden the evidence was sketchy. The western spy organisations do need to be restrained and certainly Europe and other countries will be trying to do it, if not the US, whilst Russia encourages rogue hacking, China steals secrets and other players enter the game.
How this will play out in 2017 and in the next twenty years is anyone’s guess.
Politically and economically things are depressing. The maddening inequality gap is denied by those in power and shows no sign of being redressed. Hence there are no strategies for addressing work in post-industrial societies, except laissez faire. Donald Trump, Brexit and similar rejection of ‘beltway’ or ‘top end of town’ elites in Australia (and elsewhere) have been developing since I was undertaking qualitative market research on voters in the early 1990s; whether the revolt of populations will have any positive effect is moot. (I did delicately pose the idea of participative democracy in focus groups in the 1990s; but voters while they knew they were being disenfranchised by representative democracy had no idea what to replace it with.)
Some things such as space exploration, electric and driverless cars, medical technologies, and various other possibilities, including social change are showing signs of advancing without the involvment of government or mainstream corporate elites, but whether these trends are viable is also moot.
In going back to 1984, I’m surprised how much we knew. In living through it we forgot — a comment perhaps relevant to my What is History? series. I think it is a good basis to remind ourselves of what we thought in 1984 to help us understand what is happening today in context. The problems we face didn’t sneak up on us randomly. They are part of ongoing trends that we didn’t deal with appropriately in the past.
Otherwise, this century will inevitably be about the rise of China and the decline of America and it won’t be pretty.
There is only one conclusion, which is the old Chinese curse: We do live in interesting times!
Key Words: 1984, George Orwell, Edward Snowden, Apple 1984 Advert, Canberra Environment Centre, NSA, GCHQ, Canberra Environment Centre, Bogong Magazine, micro-computers, the environment movement, technological change, post-industrialism, implications for today, climate change, cybersecurity, leading edge, social project, Kondratiev cycles
Christos Tsiolkas The Second Coming: On the politics of rage The Monthly December 2016 — January 2017
Wikipedia on Osborne 1 Computer
Apple’s 1984 Ad
In 1984 Apple Computer and more specifically Steve Jobs released an advertisement at the Superbowl (shown once only) that have an extremely creepy relevance today….
The Apple Advertisement on YouTube
The Story behind the Ad
Lee Clow Creative Director TBWA/Worldwide advertising agency relates this. He says lots of people thought because of the slight blue shade of the Big Brother screen that Big Brother was intended to represent IBM but that wasn’t the intent. IBM would have been a good choice historically, but we (micro-computer buffs) at the time thought it meant Microsoft.
Certainly as future events showed Microsoft was feared by most in the industry for its bullyboy tactics and especially by new small innovators with any leading technology Microsoft might have an interest in. Michael Lewis shows this well in The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story 1999 in the case of entrepreneur Jim Clarke who always worried that Microsoft would take over anything he started.
The Story behind the Ad on YouTube
The 1984 Bogong Magazine Articles
John Hill Computers in Conservation Bogong 5:(4) 12-13, September-October 1984
Fraser and Baker
Ian Fraser Chips, with a Grain of Salt Bogong 5:(5) 12-13, November-December 1984
Greg Baker Are Computers Really Necessary Bogong 5:(5) 13-14, November-December 1984
Tony Stewart The good, the bad and the ugly Bogong 5:(5) 10-12, January-February 1985
The cycles of energy and technology are called Kondratiev Cycles or waves after the Soviet Economist Nikolai Kondratiev’s theory of 1925.
Wikipedia on Kondratiev Cycles
Wikipedia on James Burke
After the warming Part 1 (54 min)
After the warming Part 2 (55 min)
Stephen Hawking’s reaction to Trump and Brexit as a member of the elite in a Guardian article entitled This is the most dangerous time for our planet emphasises how important these issues are and how we must deal with them or face dire consequences.
Stephen Hawking This is the most dangerous time for our planet The Guardian 2 December 2016.
Wow, such a lot of information. Thanks. And yes, we are facing the most dangerous time.
It was just serendipitous. Going back in time is difficult because memory is so unreliable. Reading a book reminded me of the Apple Ad. Then I found the old Bogong magazines and it all hung from there.
It also helped that Neuromancer was published in 1984 and that I’d written quite a lot (maybe too much) on William Gibson and his technological prophesising not so long ago.
I’d also highly recommend the James Burke programs. Best watched on TV if you’ve got access to TouTube. A bit chilling watching them today, particularly when our government is still in denial!