1980s >> 1981 >> no-922-june-1981

Computers under socialism

Under capitalism market forces hold production together in a haphazard and inhuman fashion. The complexity and uncertainty inherent in the profit system make methodical and rational organisation impossible. But in socialism the nature of the task of production changes: demand (or needs) become comparatively predictable and stable, but increases in volume. The multiplication in competing productive units and the vast financial, legal and governmental organisations fall away. We are left with the task of providing for many times present consumption of roughly the present variety of products—a task simplified to the extent that a rational approach is possible, but one still too complex for unassisted human management. What is required is a system of communication through the entire productive system, capable of sensing and reacting to needs, planning and monitoring production, reflecting, recording and analysing every event. It will co-ordinate but not control, recommend and comment but not dictate, being subordinate but complementary to human decision-making.

The latest advances in computer technology facilitate such a communication system. The incredible “number crunching” power of computers for scientific, engineering and design applications may or may not be important in socialism, but paradoxically it is in the area of commercial data processing that there are trends towards the sort of system we would need to set up.

The earliest commercial computers were employed almost exclusively in financial systems — the first commercial machine in the UK, the LEO I (1951), worked out the payroll for the Lyons tea shop chain. Each system was distinct and peculiar to the organisation for which it was set up. Each required forms to be filled in, punched onto cards or paper tape, processed to update a file in a specific format usually recorded on magnetic tape, and generated miles of computer print-out. The computer instructions for carrying out this processing were very “low level” that is, they were simply memoric codes for actual machine instructions and were therefore very long, detailed and complex, and required skilled programming.

As the application of computers extended into areas such as stock and production control, reservations and distribution (as well as into more sophisticated financial systems, particularly banking) radically different techniques were developed. Forms, punched cards and computer print-out gave way to video terminals, magnetic tape files to disc files, rigid serial organisation of data to random-access and database management systems, low-level languages to high-level English-type languages, detailed specific systems to general purpose “packaged” software.

Our minds have long since stopped boggling at such wonders as 64,000 bits (binary digits) on a memory chip or a processor capable of five million instructions each second or a magnetic disc holding 1,200 million bytes (letters or numbers) a spindle. The really significant advances are not in computer hardware but in software and in teleprocessing, which now make possible systems of computers distributed world-wide, capable of “talking” to one another over data networks linked by satellites. The latest software can take all the hard work out of programming and require the minimum of instructions in languages designed for non-technical people to use. “Friendly” interfaces with computers such as voice recognition and special synthesis and handwriting interpretation have been developed.

Many of these advances sit uneasily with the present economic system. There is much concern over the privacy and security of data crossing national boundaries. There are still commercial difficulties about the agreement to standardise procedures for access to public data networks. In a socialist society there would be no such problems this is one area of technology which could almost have evolved with socialism in mind.

Chris Marsh