8.21: Availability and Accessibility

Perhaps the best way to ease gently into the topic of this section is to tell an anecdote about my colleague, E. D. Terminal. Eddy and I have a peculiar professional relationship. I plug him into Hydro Quebec and, then, into Bell Canada, by dialing a computer and fitting the telephone receiver into a modem on his back. By now you realize, of course, that Eddy is an electronic data terminal (EDT or Eddy for short).

A friend was visiting the office. After introducing her to my electronic colleagues - Big Mac, the word processor, and Fast Eddy, the electronic data terminal, we had the following conversation:

SHE: What does Fast Eddy do?
ME: I ask him questions and he gives me answers.
SHE: Questions about what?
ME: About you, for instance.
SHE: Me! What could it possibly know about me?
ME: Let's see.
(I dialed a computer in Santa Monica, California, owned by Systems Development Corporation, with whom I have an account, asked for the database containing articles from Quebec newspapers, and asked for citations containing my friend's name. Eddy started printing out the articles. As he was stuttering away, the conversation continued --)
SHE: A computer in California knows about me? That's strange and scary.
ME: Read the citations. Is there anything there which you did not know were part of the public record?
SHE: No.They are just reviews in the Montreal newspapers of my dance performances.
ME: Then, why is it scary? You knew that this information was available.
SHE: I knew that is was available - but I did not know that it was so accessible.
So what's new? In ye olden days, one went to a library to find such information stored in print form; now, one goes to an electronic terminal to access the same information stored in electronic form. However, the important distinction made by my friend between availability and accessibility pinpoints what is qualitatively different in the latter process. I could, indeed, have acquired the same information by searching through back issues of Quebec newspapers in a library. I could have done it but I would not have done it. The task would have been so time-consumed and tedious that I would never even have considered it. The information was available but now it is accessible. Fast Eddy found this information in two minutes. Retrieval of information from databanks stored in computers, using electronic data terminals such as Eddy, thus raises some important and interesting new psychological and social issues.

The fact that I could acquire such information about my friend is her own damn fault. She went public by giving public performances. My getting information about her is one of the prices (or perks) of fame.

You may be sitting back smugly saying "Well, he can't get any information about me - I'm not a public personality, I'm a private citizen." You are right. You have not gone public. That is, if you have never

opened a bank account,
acquired a credit card,
applied for a job,
enrolled in a school,
acquired a driving license,
registered a car,
rented an apartment,
bought a house,
got a traffic ticket,
been married or divorced,
been born.
Life is often described as a great paper chase. What is rarely mentioned is the great trail of paper which each of us leaves behind us as we make our way through life. I would have to be really interested in you to pick up your paper trail. However, if this information were accessible rather than simply available, then I may be tempted to do so.

You are right that I, personally, can not acquire personal information about you. My Eddy knows only computers which contain bibliographical information (that is, which are, the electronic equivalent of the Psychological Abstracts, ERIC, and such summaries of published material) or computers which contain back issues of newspapers. He does not associate with disreputable computers which contain personal databanks. However, other Eddies do and thus other people in other offices with those other Eddies can. Every unsolicited circular you receive is evidence of this fact. This second step from you as private citizen to you as public personality, coupled with the first step from availability to accessibility, means then that many people who do not know you can know about you.

Eddies come in many forms. They may be a Texas Instrument Silent 700, such as mine, specialized for data retrieval. They may be a personal computer, like a TRS-80, an Apple II, or a Commodore Pet, with a modem attachment. They may be a Telidon terminal, currently designed mainly to retrieve information from one particular computer with information for home and office use but easily adapted to retrieve information from other computers.

Such terminals are proliferating so fast that one informed observer anticipates that they will outnumber telephone receivers by the end of the century.1 They are useful adjuncts to the telephone receiver, since they permit us to talk to computers as well as to people. Computers are lousy conversationalists but they are very well informed.2

1   Marsh, P. The Silicon Chip Book. London: Abacus, 1981.

2   I used to refer to my "well-informed" colleague, Eddy. Electronic engineers set me right. "Eddy", they said derivisely, "is a dumb terminal. It's the computers which he links up to which are well-informed. He was good connections. In the world of machines as in the world of persons, it is not what you know but who you know".