Unification News for May 1996
Big Brother's Biography - Part One
This month I am going to look at one of the most revered, dreaded, and least understood aspects of the modern world, the Internet. And at the freedom, or slavery, that it now offers us. This article will be in two parts.
British author George Orwell popularized the term `Big Brother' in his famous novel 1984. Others also warned of such a future. Ever since, people have dreaded the advent of this all-seeing superstate.
It hasn't worked out in quite the way Orwell envisioned, but it's already bad enough. North Korea uses hordes of ridiculously low-tech snoops to keep a sharp eye on everything. Here, American pundits refer to a `Nanny State,' a Big Sister run by feminists who loudly proclaim their compassion-but don't hesitate to call in the lawyers-or as at Waco, the Army tanks.
Big Brother is understood to rely on High Technology, thus to make the State literally all-seeing. Yet Big Brother was once an infant, and he relied on methods that seem primitive today.
Technology has people so awed that it is often spoken of in whispers, and ever greater powers are attributed to it. It even has its `negos,' who preach "disconnection from the Net," and a return to supposedly simpler times. For good or ill, modern technology is pretty amazing.
Sometimes hi-tech breakthroughs come from young students tinkering in their garage, and sometimes from teams of white-coated technicians, governmental or private. You never know which it'll be. This very April, two Stanford dropouts became multimillionaires by founding the `Yahoo!' Internet guide company-without even planning to.
For longer than you might think, the technological initiative, and the battle for its control, has seesawed between individualist tinkerers and organized government projects. "Government is power," and it naturally fears that which gives more power to the ordinary people-for they "just might" get out of control, or pass important things to an enemy.
This article focuses on that which makes Big Brother so pervasive: computers and communications. Of course, governments (to varying degrees) also seek to control travel, trade and written communication.
The earliest forms of the Internet, utilizing transmitted data, were invented thousands of years ago. The Bronze Age Greeks set up a mountaintop chain of signal fires as a way to pass along simple news. Homer tells us that such a signal brought home news of the Greek victory in the Trojan War, more than 3,000 years ago. Thanks to Hollywood, we've all heard of American Indian `smoke signals,' and native African `talking drums.' Surprisingly, the movies got these depiction's nearly right.
In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, the French set up a unique communication system, a line-of-sight series of semaphore towers, creating a link between several cities. Skilled operators could move each tower's twin `paddles,' and thus transmit data, at an amazingly fast rate. The system, built in 1794, could carry a message the 144 miles from Lille to Paris in two minutes.
The discovery of electricity brought a new leap in speed and data capacity to the embryonic Net. Samuel Morse invented the electric telegraph in 1835, along with the Morse Code it uses. His wife had died while he was far away, and out of touch. He taught himself enough about "that newfangled electricity" to invent the system, in order that no loved one would ever again have to die alone.
Morse's Western Union company, together with the American government, set up the first telegraph lines in the late 1830s. A working transatlantic cable was laid in 1866, linking America with Europe. During wartime these telegraph lines often became primary targets.
Western Union dominated the communications industry until the 1870s, when Alexander Graham Bell and Theodore Vail's Bell Telephone company largely replaced it. In an event filled with premonition, the new phone company had terrible trouble with its first operators-impudent teenage boys. They soon began hiring young women instead.
One British official is often quoted as an example of shortsightedness, for he said that while "America needs these new telephones, England does not, for we have plenty of messenger boys." What the wags don't tell you is that this same man eventually did oversee the instillation of England's phone system.
In 1895 the Italian scientist Marconi invented radio, and dependence on physical wires was eliminated. By 1901 he had sent signals across the Atlantic, using Morse Code. The military establishments of many nations took immediate interest. Private commerce soon got involved, and today, several American radio stations claim the title of `oldest.' The first successful broadcaster was San Jose, California's `Doc' Herrold, in 1912. He used his now-obsolete `arc phone' spark transmitter. His wife Sybil played gramophone music over the air, and was probably the first disk jockey.
America's First Amendment had always applied to the print media, but government took a different tack with radio and its successors. They began by assigning broadcast frequencies. The airwaves were declared a `public trust,' and licensing requirements were set forth. The former seemed a necessary role, while the latter has caused endless controversy.
Soon there were several commercial stations, and many more amateur operators. During World War One the Navy Department shut down all amateur radios, citing "security concerns." In 1919 a government inspector censored New York City's first and only radio station-for "playing unseemly music!"
During World War Two, spies and infiltrators relied heavily on secret radio transmissions. Massive Allied (and corresponding Axis) efforts were made to listen in on all radio transmissions, and to track down any suspicious ones. New and ever more devious codes were both invented and broken.
Philo Farnsworth invented television in 1935, though it did not come into widespread use until the 1950s. This eventually lead to the development of the VCR and miniature video camera, with both fixed and handheld versions. These have altered society in very many ways.
As the wags now say, "If it wasn't caught on video, it didn't happen." But when something is filmed, big things can happen. Just ask southern California.
Traditional communications, from telegraphs to television, are limited in many ways. Telephones connected only two people at a time, while TVs worked in only one direction. It wasn't until the advent of computers that these devices were able do more. Entirely new -and often unforeseen- functions become possible.
For Big Brother to be an effective menace, many millions of people must be watched, all at once. Humans alone could not handle such a vast undertaking-but computers can.
The original computers were complex gear-driven `calculating engines.' (Such as Babbidge's Difference Engine.) The first electronic computers were developed during W.W.II, to break clever German and Japanese codes. (Read The Ultra Secret by F.W. Winterbotham.)
The invention of the transistor, then the integrated-circuit chip, enabled computers to shrink from room to pocket size. Defying generations of skeptics, this miniaturization continues apace.
These tiny chips have other functions besides calculating. In recent months microscopic electric motors have been developed, which could eventually power machines and robots the size of fleas, or smaller. Tiny radars can now protect car bumpers, operate household switches, and more.
For good or ill, video cameras the size of postage stamps are now available. With infrared sensors and wireless connections, these cameras can secretly watch, always and anywhere, even in the dark. Surely this is a key aspect of Big Brother.
Such chip-based devices would be of limited use if they needed to be `accessed' by hand, one by one. However, they can be, and usually are, connected. This vast interlocking web is now called the Internet.
Here we shall pause until next month.
In my recent "Sheepenization," the town troubled by false child abuse accusations is not Ellensburg, Washington, but nearby Wenatchee. Sorry.
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