Records, Computers and the Rights of Citizens. From Record Keeping to Data Processing


In this country, the end of World War II unleashed the deferred wants and pent-up purchasing power of the war years onto a labor-poor, capital-rich market. To help deal with the social and economic dislocations created, first, by demobilization, and later, by the Cold War, government kept in force many of the controls it had established during the years of all-out mobilization. The nation's pride in its wartime accomplishments lent a tone of confidence to even the most ambitious planning. Industry, for its part, took advantage of new technologies emerging from. wartime research and development to make revolutionary changes in its methods of producing and distributing goods and services.

Acting together, these forces rapidly expanded commercial and governmental activities in the late forties and early fifties, forcing a vast increase in the volume of transactions requiring records about people. Compared with pre-war years, the number of bark checks written, the number of college students, and the number of pieces of mail all nearly doubled; the number of income-tax returns quadrupled; and the number of Social Security payments increased by a factor of more than 35.7

Technology developed during the war years was available to meet the challenge posed by this rising tide of recorded transactions. Automated data processing, transplanted from its military origin, quickly blossomed into a powerful industry, feeding on the demands of commerce and government for fast and efficient data handling, and in turn, fueling that demand by significantly changing the philosophy and practice of management itself. Since most industries based on a highly technical product must quickly develop a mass market to recover the high development and tooling costs, the computer industry devoted much attention and talent to marketing its products, without appreciating the implications of the technological revolution it was unleashing.

By the 1960's, attractive prices, persuasive salesmen, and ingenious computer software services had stimulated the introduction of automated data processing equipment into a great many record-keeping organizations, sometimes with far too little attention to the objectives and costs of automation. Although there were many examples of diseconomies and a few outright failures, the successes were so spectacular that the prestige of having a large-scale data processing capacity often prompted managers to keep their computers running, even at a financial loss.

The computer scored its earliest successes as a record keeper in fields where the data were mainly numerical. The speed with which the computer can do complex arithmetic, and the compactness of numerical data as compared to natural language, were major factors in quickly amortizing the considerable expense of installing a computer, and of converting an established record-keeping operation to take full advantage of the computer's capabilities. Thus, the earliest successes were heavily concentrated in science and engineering, banking, insurance, and accounting, and, above all, in the space program, where the value of computers in handling the intricate logistics of production, assembly, and testing was soon discovered.