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Robert Fano knew that the true power of computing lay in its ability to connect people.
June 23, 2008

In 1970, MIT Ford Professor of Engineering Robert Fano wrote an essay for this magazine called “Computers in Human Society–For Good or Ill?” Having experimented with the scarce and expensive machines for more than a decade, he knew that a revolution was at hand. And he worried that if computing power did not become broadly accessible, human liberty would be gravely threatened.

Net work: Robert Fano (left) with Marvin Minsky, a cofounder of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, which was part of Project MAC courtesy of the mit museum

Seven years before, Fano had organized Project MAC at MIT to demonstrate the feasi­bility of “general-­purpose, independent, on-line use of computers by a large number of people.” He believed that the computer’s potential lay not in its computational power but in its ability to foster “intellectual communication” and collaboration. (His insight proved true not just for intellectual communication for but every other kind, too. Throughout this issue of the magazine, we explore the rise of social networking.) With funding from the U.S. Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, whose Information Processing Techniques Office was headed by the visionary J. C. R. Licklider, Project MAC researchers perfected a time-sharing computer system that multiple users could log in to simultaneously.

The effects of this early experiment were profound. “It was unbelievable what happened,” recalls Fano, who is now 90. “Very quickly, [the network] became the storage of knowledge of the community. It was an amazing phenomenon.” The network could, as Fano explained in his essay, become a reservoir for all kinds of research, one accessible to many users.

Intellectual activities have an important common feature–their cooperative nature. One man builds upon the work of others, or he uses data generated by the activities of others, or his own activities generate data which will be used by others. In other words, interaction between people is fundamental to intellectual activities. Thus, if a computer system is to assist people in their intellectual activities, it must facilitate intellectual communication among them.

 

Fano was optimistic about the future of networked computing, but his essay painted a dark picture of the possible alternative if access were limited. In this he was influenced by Norbert ­Wiener, the great prophet of the ­Information Age, who’d died in 1964. Wiener’s ­exhortations to think through the ­negative ­ramifications of innovation were well heeded by Fano.

Computers provide access to knowledge, and knowledge is power. Thus, unless computers are made truly accessible to the population at large, there will develop a dangerous power gap between those who have access to computers and those who have not, and particularly between organizations–whether public or private–and the private citizen. I do not see how individual freedom can survive in such circumstances. Computers may indeed become the pillars of the Orwellian world of 1984, and Big Brother may well take the form of a computerized and centralized information system which has become essential to the operation of society.

Thus, the social exploitation of computers may proceed in two very different directions. The emphasis may be toward turning the power of computers to the service of the individual, so as to augment his intellectual capabilities and enable him to cope with a much higher level of operational complexity in society. Or the emphasis may continue on the automation of existing functions in human organizations, with a concomitant centralization of information and control. The first direction leads to strengthening human organizations by augmenting the capabilities of the individuals in them, while the second direction leads to the evolution of organizations into superhuman entities with their own goals, largely insensitive to human values.

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