The future of the computer age (1967)

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What comes next in the computer age: Interview with a leading authority

Today’s computer revolution is only getting started. In store are amazing new uses for “electronic brains” that will reshape the industry and alter people’s lives.

Coming are computers that will take over a major role in running hospitals and schools. Shoppers will pay by electronic impulse instead of cash. Automation will move from the assembly line to Government policy making.

For a glimpse of what is ahead in this computer age, “US News & World Report” invited to its conference room for this exclusive interview John Diebold, a computer expert who is sometimes called “Mr. Automation.”

John Diebold, 41, is president and chairman of the Diebold Group, Inc., international management consultants. An expert in computers and communications technology, Mr. Diebold is credited with coining the word “automation,” and has written a basic book on the subject. His firm includes among its clients some of the biggest corporations in this country and Europe, as well as local, State and national governments.

The future of the computer age (1967)

Interview: The coming computer age

Q: Mr. Diebold, are computers to bring big changes to our society?

A: Yes, indeed. People don’t realize yet how far-reaching these changes will be, and how their lives are going to be altered by these new machines and new technical developments.

Q: Where? In what ways?

A: Everywhere. Computers in medicine are diagnosing diseases, keeping records, helping run hospitals. Electronic machines in schoolrooms are adding another dimension to teaching. A revolution in banking and credit and in merchandising is already in progress as a result of data-processing innovations. Publishing, government, the law — all are in ferment because of new technology.

Q: Does this mean many jobs are going to be changed?

A: It certainly does. Many existing businesses are in for drastic shake-ups. But, equally important, we are going to get entirely new industries as a result of breakthroughs in technology.

Q: What kinds of new industries?

A: One brand-new industry is going to be what I’d call the “inquiry industry.” It will make use of the computer’s vast memory ability, its capability for storing and retrieving information. Today, the dollar value of this computer-based “inquiry industry” is probably less than 20 million dollars. Our studies show it will exceed 2.5 billion dollars by 1975. Huge central computers will have terminals, or outlets, in business offices and in homes. You’ll be able to request information from the computer and get it back, instantly, in the form you want to use.

Q: But isn’t that being done in business now — for airline and hotel reservations, for instance?

A: Yes, but it’s going to get bigger and develop into a national industry in which these services are sold, as a business, rather than confined to the internal operations of a single firm. The important thing is not simply that the computer will provide the information you want, but it will tailor it exactly to your needs.

Q: How?

A: Suppose you’re in a stock-brokerage office and you want to compare the price-earnings ratios of all the major companies in the paper business. You’d ask the computer to provide that list — maybe rank the companies in order. The answer would come up on a screen on your desk. Then you’d go a step further and say, “I want to know how Consolidated Paper Company stands among all the companies in the paper industry.” And the computer would immediately flash on the screen key data about Consolidated Paper.

Q: When will all this happen?

A: It’s already happening in some types of business. You can get an up-to-the-second stock quotation flashed on a screen now. More and more stock-exchange firms are installing these devices.

Q: Is the day coming when a man in his home can dial a code on the telephone and get information on stocks, or weather reports, airline schedules, baseball scores?

A: Yes, though that day is still some way off. It depends mostly on getting costs down and solving some other problems.

Q: When you can get information just by dialing, or pushing a button, will magazines and newspapers become obsolete?

A: I don’t think so. What I visualize is a completely new medium, a combination of video and hard information. I don’t expect to see the day when “The New York Times” will come pouring out of a TV set. But certain information will be produced by video that will supplement what you read in print.

For example, there’s an editor for one of the London newspapers who does occasional television broadcasts on science. He coordinates that broadcast with what’s on his science page in the evening paper. He treats in the paper, in depth, the kind of material he can’t handle well on the screen. At the same time, he can use on the screen the heavy pictorial coverage for which he doesn’t have space in the paper. I’d expect to see a lot more of that in the publishing field in days to come.

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Vintage computers for the computer age

Q: Will all these developments change people’s jobs — their traditional ways of doing things?

A: Yes, there’ll have to be changes. You’ve got to look at every job in a completely different way. For instance, a Wall Street firm put in a system for supplying stock quotations instantly to its partners’ desks, just at the touch of a button. The whole point was you could get any quotation you wanted in an instant. But they found the partners were laboriously copying down on a sheet of paper all the stock prices they were interested in. The men simply didn’t believe that there was a new, easier way of getting a quotation any time they wanted it.

In earlier days, people would sit back and say, “Let’s wait until the pioneers have finished, then we’ll adopt this new development at a leisurely pace.” You can’t do that in business today. If you don’t innovate, your competitor will — and you’ll be left behind. You can’t afford to wait. Things are moving too fast.


Q: People haven’t grasped the idea that big changes are on the way.

A: That’s right. I don’t think people really believe that things are going to be much different in the future than they have in the past, and there’s resistance to changing. It’s only when you look backward, after a few years, that you realize how much has happened, how much has been changed.

There’s a story about a British military team trying to cut down on the manpower used in handling a field cannon. Always there had been six men assigned to each cannon, but there were only five jobs. The team studied each job and went to the instruction manuals. From the first edition of every manual, it called for a crew of six, even though there seemed to be jobs for only five. Finally, they located the man who had written the manual, a retired General, and asked him what the sixth man was supposed to do, and he replied, “He holds the horses.”

Business today is perpetuating a lot of jobs that magnetic tape and electronic techniques are making obsolete. It’s going to take us time to get used to these new tools.

Q: Will competition force changes?

A: Yes. In earlier days, people would sit back and say, “Let’s wait until the pioneers have finished, then we’ll adopt this new development at a leisurely pace.” You can’t do that in business today. If you don’t innovate, your competitor will — and you’ll be left behind. You can’t afford to wait. Things are moving too fast.

Q: How many computers are there in the U.S. today?

A: About 40,000.

Q: Will that number go up sharply in the next 10 years?

A: It will increase substantially. One of our studies shows that annual outlays for computers in the next few years will be about 10 percent of the total expenditures for plant and equipment. But, even more important, computers will get larger and more versatile, so it won’t be necessary for everyone to own a computer. You’ll just rent a terminal and plug in to the central station.

Child on machine - computer age

Q: A sort of “data utility”?

A: It could be, in much the same way that we have local and regional electric utilities or gas utilities. To help hold down communications costs, we may very likely have local or regional computer utilities that serve a particular city or a region. These local data utilities, in turn, would be interconnected with other regional systems in a big nationwide network.

Q: All to be regulated by the Government?

A: The Federal Communications Commission is studying that question now. Personally, I think regulation of data handled by private computers would be a great mistake. Every company that operates nationally or regionally today is starting to have substantial amounts of data communication. If you’re going to try to regulate this sort of business activity — other than the regulation already applied to the telephone companies and other communications agents — you’re going to run into a real mare’s nest.

Suppose you have six or seven computers in one company with terminals all over the organization and coded data being fired back and forth across the country, or around the world — how on earth do you regulate all that? I don’t see how it can be done, nor do I see the desirability of it.

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