In most people’s everyday life, the computer isn’t much more than a very fast adding machine. It tends to send you bills. But it is very much more than that. The modern world could not function without computers, because they operate everything from production lines, to telephone exchanges, to traffic systems, to international finance. But the reason computers matter to you, and me, and our future, is because they have perfect memories. They never forget anything they’re told about you and me. The kind of data, say, you have to give somebody if you want a bank account, or credit, or if you want to vote, or buy a house, or if you’ve been accused of a crime. And that’s why computers contain the future within them: if you tell a computer everything about a group of people, it’ll juggle the mix and come up with the one factor that is most likely to affect the decision that group will make about something, one way or the other. Knowing that is knowing the future, and that is power—but in whose hands?
Ours is the era of big data, so that observation is almost too trivial to make. You’d be laughed right out of your TED Talk if you proposed it as a novel insight.
However, Burke said this in 1978, when computers were still using punch cards, and the personal computing revolution was almost a decade away. The idea of doing computational analysis on consumer data wasn’t exactly new, but the idea that it would be used to wield thorough and casual power over people’s lives was.
Re-watching *Connections*, I’m finding that Burke only carves out occasional space in the program to wax paranoaic about the future of technology, but his batting average (from my position almost 40 years ahead) is unusually high, compared to other futurists.