26-Year-Old Steve Jobs Debates the Utopian & Dystopian Promise of the Computer (1981)

The deep­er we get into the 21st cen­tu­ry, the few­er aspects of our lives remain dis­con­nect­ed from the dig­i­tal realm. The con­ve­nience of this arrange­ment is unde­ni­able, but the increas­ing dif­fi­cul­ty of get­ting through a day with­out hear­ing the lat­est ver­sion of the pub­lic argu­ment about pri­va­cy and data secu­ri­ty sug­gests an accom­pa­ny­ing dis­com­fort as well. Have our online lives stolen our pri­va­cy — or have we per­haps freely giv­en it away? Some us now even look long­ing­ly back­ward to a time before not just social media but the inter­net as we know it, a time in which, we imag­ine, nobody had to wor­ry about the large-scale har­vest­ing and sale of per­son­al infor­ma­tion.

As the 1981 Night­line clip above reveals, these con­cerns went main­stream well before most Amer­i­cans owned com­put­ers, much less went online with them. Even so, Ted Kop­pel could open the seg­ment claim­ing that “as a soci­ety, we’ve become used to com­put­er prob­lems of one kind or anoth­er, just as we’ve become used to com­put­ers. We’re so used to them, in fact, that few of us stop to think of the extent to which they now play a role in our every­day lives, a role that shows every sign of grow­ing even big­ger.”

There fol­lows footage of the con­texts in which com­put­ers involved them­selves in the lives of the aver­age per­son in the ear­ly 80s: mak­ing a phone call, get­ting mon­ey from the ATM, buy­ing gro­ceries at the super­mar­ket, book­ing an air­line tick­et. Nev­er­the­less, actu­al­ly own­ing a com­put­er your­self could still get you inter­viewed on the news with the chy­ron “Home-Com­put­er Own­er” beneath your name. After we hear from one such enthu­si­ast, the scene switch­es to the head­quar­ters of the five-year-old Apple Com­put­er, “the Big Apple in this land of high tech­nol­o­gy.”

A 26-year-old Steve Jobs appears to describe his com­pa­ny’s cre­ation as “a 21st-cen­tu­ry bicy­cle that ampli­fies a cer­tain intel­lec­tu­al abil­i­ty that man has,” one whose effects on soci­ety will “far out­strip even those that the petro­chem­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion has had.” But then comes the anti-com­put­er coun­ter­point: “Some peo­ple feel threat­ened by them,” says reporter Ken Kashi­wa­hara. “Some think they tend to dehu­man­ize, and oth­ers fear they may even­tu­al­ly take over their jobs.” Over satel­lite links, Kop­pel then brings on Jobs and inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist Daniel Burn­ham for a debate about the promise and per­il of the com­put­er.

“The gov­ern­ment has the capac­i­ty, by using com­put­ers, to get all kinds of infor­ma­tion on us that we’re real­ly not even aware that they have,” Kop­pel asks Jobs, under­scor­ing Burn­ham’s line of argu­ment. “Isn’t that dan­ger­ous?” For Jobs, “the best pro­tec­tion against some­thing like that is a very lit­er­ate pub­lic, and in this case com­put­er lit­er­ate.” Pre­dict­ing, cor­rect­ly, that every house­hold in the coun­try would even­tu­al­ly have its own com­put­er, he finds reas­sur­ance in the inevitably wide dis­tri­b­u­tion of com­put­ing pow­er and com­put­er lit­er­a­cy across the pub­lic, mean­ing “that cen­tral­ized intel­li­gence will have the least effect on our lives with­out us know­ing it.”

But Burn­ham nev­er­the­less warns of “a tremen­dous dan­ger that the pub­lic is not aware of enough at this moment.” He did­n’t describe that dan­ger in the forms of over­grown e‑commerce or social media giants — both of those con­cepts hav­ing yet to be real­ized in any form — or even ide­o­log­i­cal­ly opposed for­eign coun­tries, but the Unit­ed States’ own Army and Cen­sus Bureau. What hap­pens when they decide to use the data in their pos­ses­sion to “break the rules”? Com­put­ers are here to stay, it seems, but so are our incli­na­tions as human beings, and one won­ders how clean­ly the two can ever be rec­on­ciled. As apho­rist Aaron Haspel puts it, “We can have pri­va­cy or we can have con­ve­nience, and we choose con­ve­nience, every time.”

via Pale­o­fu­ture

Relat­ed Con­tent:

From the Annals of Opti­mism: The News­pa­per Indus­try in 1981 Imag­ines its Dig­i­tal Future

Steve Jobs on Life: “Stay Hun­gry, Stay Fool­ish”

A Young Steve Jobs Teach­es a Class at MIT (1992)

Steve Jobs Mus­es on What’s Wrong with Amer­i­can Edu­ca­tion, 1995

Steve Jobs Shares a Secret for Suc­cess: Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

Steve Jobs Nar­rates the First “Think Dif­fer­ent” Ad (Nev­er Aired)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Kshitiz says:

    Hi Team Open Cul­ture,
    Thanks for shar­ing the infor­ma­tion and out­line ideas on the rel­e­vant top­ic that I was look­ing since a long time. I am always keen to know in depth on this. My knowl­edge has now stepped ahead and helped me to make my cre­ative idea to go on a per­fect way. Your blog will be a help­ing hand for me espe­cial­ly , as I am keen and begin­ner in Dig­i­tal Mar­ket­ing field. So, let me be a part of your blog read­er on reg­u­lar basis and let me stay con­nect­ed with your blog for the lat­est updates.

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