After World War II, my father was a writer and editor in New York. His byline was “Dan Gillmor” (I’m Dan Jr.), and one of his favorite publications was the Nation magazine, a prominent progressive journal (then and now) to which he contributed for many years.

Recently, my nephew Daniel Kahn Gillmor (best known as dkg), forwarded a clip from the magazine that his mother, my sister Mickey, had sent him. (Update: It may have been his father, Henry…) I hadn’t seen it before, and (like Daniel) was delighted by it.

I showed it to my friend John Markoff, the New York Times journalist who now writes primarily about  robotics and artificial intelligence, and he said, “That has to be the first thing ever written on malware.” I’m not positive about that (let me know if you know otherwise), but the piece was definitely way, way ahead of its time — consider how today’s and especially tomorrow’s robots and AI truly do threaten to erase employment on a mass scale — and a fond reminder of how smart my dad was, not to mention his acute sense of the absurd.

Anyway, here’s that piece:

Mechanical Brain Era

By Dan Gillmor
(The Nation, 16 July 1949, p.62)

Little would we suspect, were it not for Louis N. Ridenour, dean of the Graduate College, University of Illinois, that we are standing on the threshold of the Second Industrial Revolution. In an article in the May issue of Fortune Dr. Ridenour explained the significance of “mechanical brains” or “automatic digital computers.” Heretofore, he said, we have had to control machines by the regrettable device of “inserting a man” — in a steam shovel, for instance. Thanks to the new electronic super-gadgets, this era, the Era of Inserted Man, is  about to end. The automatic digital computers will take over.

The a. d. c.’s can do arithmetic a thousand times faster than men. They can remember what answer they got, compare it with the answer to another calculation, decide what to do next, do it, and type out their conclusions on a “suitably modified teletypewriter.” They have only two drawbacks, says Dr. Ridenour. The more complex they become, the more likely they are to make mistakes. Engineers try to get around this by wiring them so that whenever any little thing goes wrong, the whole machine goes crazy, thus warning its human masters that there is a bat in the electronic belfry. Human brains behave differently: “If a part fails [in ithe human brain],” says the Dean, “every effort is made to conceal the fault…” As electronic brains become more complicated, engineers will probably have to rig them so that they will not rationalize their neuroses.

The second problem is apparently to get rid of that teletypewriter on which the operator still must tell the machine what to do and vice versa. When that happens, we shall have “progressed far enough to complete the control organization of the machine–its sense organs and nervous system… While the First Industrial Revolution involved substitution of machinery for man’s musculature, the second will replace by inanimate devices man’s senses, nervous system, and brain… Though certain men at certain times perform superlatively in controlling machines, the over-all performance of a satisfactory automatic-control system Is likely to be preferable, since a machine cannot be frightened, distracted, bored, or unionized as readily as a human operator can.”

The Illinois savant has not overlooked even more desirable attributes of the a. d. c.: it doesn’t eat, sleep, switch to Calvert’s, or, best of all, get wages. “The present activities of certain labor organizations,” the Dean says, “seem calculated to encourage the trend [toward replacement of men by the new machines] as rapidly as our technology permits…. Rising wages put a premium on high productivity per worker and thus on fewer workers.  Any acts of capricious irresponsibility or malicious obstructionism on the part of labor unions put a premium on as complete an elimination of the human worker as possible.” In parentheses, Dr. Ridenour remarks, “And some union activities must have this aspect to employers.”

Strikes, contract negotiations, and demands for higher wages and shorter hours do indeed “have this aspect to employers.” But such acts of malicious obstructionism are soon to become part of the bygone era of the First Industrial Revolution. Nothing would seem to stand in the way of “productivity per worker” reaching a numerical value of infinity. Of cause a few obstructionist workers may resist such a trend, since it will eventually put them out of work. The C.I.O. [labor union] may even form a Automatic Digital Computers’ Organizing Committee. The capricious fellows may vote an assessment to buy an a. d. c themselves. For a while second-order differential equations will pour out of the C.I.O. a. d. c., as Mr. Murray and his colleagues try frantically to find a solution for the rapidly spreading obsolescence of the human brain. But the N.A.M., well in the lead with a new super-a. d. c, produced by International Business Machines, will blandly reply with a third-order equation. Hearst headlines will thunder:

taft declares nation, Taft declares.”

The Automatic Computer Subcommittee of the Un-American Activities Committee will bare a plot, hatched by Soviet agents trained on red a. d. c.’s, to wire subversive circuits into the United States Steel master-control a. d. c. Witnesses will be asked, “Are you or have you ever been have you ever been nation

The employers, who pioneered in a. d. c.’s will be one jump ahead all the time; and finally peace will settle over the land, with the Second Industrial Revolution predicted by Dr. Ridenour in full swing. Mankind will have achieved that perfect society in which there are only employers and eagerly cooperating a. d. c’s.

——
DAN GILLMOR is a feature writer on the New York Compass.

Suppose you could write in your personal blog and have a summary of your post show up on popular social-media sites like Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and Facebook – and then have responses on those sites show up as comments in your blog? You can, and if some talented programmers have their way you’ll soon be able to do so easily. In fact, it’s what I’m doing right now with this post, which is also running at Slate Magazine.

Why would you or I want to do this? Simple: We’re in danger of losing what’s made the Internet the most important medium in history – a decentralized platform where the people at the edges of the networks – that would be you and me – don’t need permission to communicate, create and innovate.

This isn’t a knock on social networks’ legitimacy, or their considerable utility. But when we use centralized services like social media sites, however helpful and convenient they may be, we are handing over ultimate control to third parties that profit from our work, material that exists on their sites only as long as they allow.

Even if most people don’t recognize what’s at stake – yet – I’m happy to say that a small but growing group of technologists does. And they’ve created what they call the “Indie Web” movement to do something about it, in an extended online conversation and at periodic in-person meetings. The latter are IndieWebCamps, where they gather to hack together tools aimed at liberating us, to the extent possible, from centralized control – what the Web’s key inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, has called “re-decentralization” of the Net. In their early work they’re taking advantage of the good things the social network “silos,” as they call them, can offer, while ensuring that the data we create, and as much of the conversation it engenders, lives in our own home-base sites.

They’re creating what the call an alternative to the “corporate-owned” Internet. And do we ever need it. The principles, as they say on their website:

  • Your content is yours. When you post something on the web, it should belong to you, not a corporation. Too many companies have gone out of business and lost all of their users’ data. By joining the IndieWeb, your content stays yours and in your control.

  • You are better connected. Your articles and status messages can go to all services, not just one, allowing you to engage with everyone. Even replies and likes on other services can come back to your site so they’re all in one place.

  • You are in control. You can post anything you want, in any format you want, with no one monitoring you. In addition, you share simple readable links such as mywebsite.com/ideas. These links are permanent and will always work.

Amber Case, one of the Indie Web creators, was drawn to it because the Web had become “a claustrophobic space where all I could do was consume, with barriers to building and owning.” She saw a new generation of Internet users who’d never registered a domain name, and weren’t even aware of what was possible.

That happened, in part, because “Twitter and Facebook showed an easier path to creating online,” says Aaron Pareki, another Indie Web organizer. “The original vision was everyone has their own space and made things . Then the silos formed and attracted people because it was easier.”

I spent two days with them and others in the movement at their recent San Francisco camp (there’s another camp being held this weekend in New York City), and came away dazzled by the vision of what they intend. I learned more about a variety of technologies they’re creating to make it happen, including things called “webmention” and “microformats,” among the underpinnings of the move toward re-decentralization.

I also came away with the open-source tools, which are still rudimentary, that have enabled me to move in a more independent direction. In my case, because I use WordPress for my personal blogging, I’ve installed several software modules that extend the WordPress software’s basic functionality. One is “Jetpack,” which lets me create posts that show up on on social network sites; another is “IndieWeb” to get the replies back to my own site.

The outbound piece depends on Tantek Çelik‘s “POSSE,” which stands for “Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere. Getting the comments, likes, favorites and other responses back depends on Ryan Barrett‘s Bridgy. I won’t go into the technical details, but this stuff is close to magical even in its currently early-days form – and far advanced from when I first heard about it, in a post last fall at Wired News.

This is also classic Internet innovation: created and deployed at the edge, not the center; rough, and constantly being improved. And if we’re lucky, and help these folks by testing it out on our own devices, it’s a vital part of the future.

At the University of Colorado in Boulder, the weather is fine and the speakers are finer at the annual Conference on World Affairs, a week-long series of panels (some 200 in all) at which folks discuss all kinds of topics.

I’m on seven panels this week, on topics ranging from the future of journalism to media monopolies to technology’s impact on reading. In the two I’ve done so far, especially a session on control of media, the university students have asked the best questions; they’ve obviously done some homework. It’s their future we’re talking about, after all.

The volunteers — program hosts, moderators, students, panelists, and more — are a joy to work with. And fellow panelists are teaching me things I didn’t know, even as we all make new friends in a busy week.

It’s hard to get me to commit myself to a full week of anything, but this tends to be worth it.