Politics & Policy

Computers On My Mind

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is William F. Buckley Jr.’s March 29, 1991, “On the Right” column.

It has been many moons since I have written to bring to the attention of my beloved reactionaries some of the uses of the computer.

Converts are slowly coming around. The other day, movie critic autocrat John Simon of New York was overheard to whisper to someone that he was going to get a laptop, provided he could find one that was colored in black, to suit the reviewer’s mood.

The war will not have been won, of course, until George Will surrenders, which will require us to persuade him that those noble sounds and analytical catherine wheels of his can just as readily come from a word processor as from his fountain pen. We are winning, but there are holdouts, and we must be patient. They hadn’t discovered the wheel in Peru when Pizarro got there.

Comes now computers viewed from an entirely different angle–namely, as instruments by which to extract information from refractory government sources. “Have you considered,” a correspondent writes in, “the doors slammed and locked against us by computers? Steven Anzovin of Compute Magazine has. And so has Leonard J . Umina, a former Republican who is concerned that no honest citizen in Massachusetts can find out what the hell’s going on in the state’s finances.


“Computers. We hear so much bushwah about the computer’s threat to our privacy . Nobody seems to have noticed that facts the public is entitled to know are not available because they’re no longer on paper ; they’re all on diskettes or magnetic tape . Public business now is private business.”

So I chased down the trail to Leonard Umina. He ran for governor of Massachusetts last year on a ticket called Public Access Computerization . His program calls for pouring all government information into a mainframe . Into it would go the proceedings of legislative bodies, the income and expenditures sheets of government bodies, the full text of government contracts . The mainframe would be run by an independent agency. Any American citizen would have access to the material banked in the mainframe. You would not need a computer of your own : Public libraries and federal and state buildings would have them, and your job would be merely to approach one and dial up the information you wanted.

Proclaims Umina proudly, “With government’s every action so visible, waste, corruption, theft and dishonesty will be eliminated.”

With that promise and some ham, we could have a ham sandwich. But do not automatically dismiss the point. It is worth pondering.

The newspapers and the congressional investigating committees are supposed to do the basic spadework for democratic self-rule . They go and hunt down the facts and present these facts to us, on the basis of which we make our decisions about future policy.

Now the Public Access Computerization Party is telling us, really, that there are sexy facts out there that are neatly cataloged in government computers, which are ignored by incurious legislators or unthorough newspaper reporters . Steven Anzovin editorializes : “Massachusetts is currently suffering through a major recession, but the state government sat on the budgetary bad news as long as possible before making it public . This forced local officials to make last-minute guesses at future levels of state aid . Under Umina’s system, state fiscal information would be visible a t

all times, making budgetary guesswork unnecessary and cutting

waste .”

What questions would John Q. Citizen think to ask his computer? And what would be the level of technological competence of the operator ?

Suppose, just to suppose, that Restive Intelligence A decided one spring afternoon to discover exactly how much money the state of New York had paid out during the previous year to mothers of illegitimate children . There is no question that the data are there to answer that question . But to shake loose those data would require a familiarity with computer protocols alongside which Restive Intelligence A might decide he could learn more quickly to play the “Flight of the Bumblebee” on the piano.

No, Umina’s insight is solid, but John Q. Citizen is going to need an intermediary to help him get at the information he seeks. Should the federal government pay ombudsmen to stand at the door of the public library prepared to extract from the mainframe the information desired by the curious citizen?

Well, if we are going the way of a full welfare society, why not? A computer would in due course advise us how much our computer curiosity was costing us.


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