Gordon Oakes – 1978 Speech on Computer Macrosystems

Below is the text of the speech made by Gordon Oakes, the then Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, in the House of Commons on 1 August 1978.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline (Mr. Hunter) both on his physical endurance—surviving the night in order to raise this important matter—and on his persistence. In his opening words my hon. Friend suggested that the House might be ​ surprised that he dared to venture into the field of computers. I am delighted that a man with industrial experience ventures into this field. Indeed, it is a field in which the ordinary member of the public with industrial experience has something entirely relevant to offer if we are to control and tame creations which should serve the public interest instead of the public interest serving them.

In so far as my hon. Friend argues for careful consideration of the pros and cons before one embarks on any computer-based project, I agree with him in both principle and practice, but it he argues, as he seemed to imply later, that we should not examine the possible roles of computers or use them for legitimate purposes when these are established, I must disagree with him firmly. One cannot put the clock back. One must make the best possible use of technological progress while taking full account of its implications.

Computers, complex though they are, are a tool—perhaps the most sophisticated tool yet available to us, but still no more than a means to an end. They can be misused by being harnessed to purposes which are either suspect in themselves or are inherently unsuitable to be pursued by computers. But when they are used properly they offer vast benefits, especially in information, communications, management, research and many other fields. Their effect is not only to reduce costs and increase the range and quality of service but also by so doing to enable skilled labour to be used more extensively and productively.

Coming to terms with the computer will require constant vigilance, not least about the effect on our individual liberties. As my hon. Friend and the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn) will be aware, the Younger Committee on privacy reported in 1972, and in a White Paper published in 1975 on computers and privacy the Government stated that computer systems in the public sector were operated in accordance with administrative rules which provided substantial safeguards against any improper use but concluded that there was a need to establish permanent machinery not only to keep the situation under review but also to seek to ensure that all present and future ​ computer systems holding personal information, in both public and private sectors, were operated with adequate safeguards for the privacy of the individual.

Nor are the Government unmindful of the underlying economic and social implications of the technological changes which are now occurring in the computer field, particularly, as my hon. Friend said, in microelectronics. He will be aware that the Prime Minister has recently made clear the Government’s concern, and much action is being taken on this front.

The Government have a wide interest and involvement in the use of computers. They must have, because if we do not take full advantage of their potentialities, we can be sure that our competitors abroad will. It would not be right for me today to discuss all the beneficial uses of computers, but I believe that the House is aware of the many fields in which computers now provide an invaluable service. It would not be too much to say that if the Government and their agencies did not employ computers, and large computers at that, to assist with scientific research, we should miss many discoveries of great interest and great potential importance to the economic and social welfare of our people.

The important point about the related technologies of computers and telecommunications is that they are moving very rapidly. Each change makes more things possible or reduces the cost of doing them. A dozen years ago, there was widespread scepticism about the use of computers in any information process. Since then they have become widely established for the typesetting of publications and the production of printed indexes. Their use in the generation and handling of library records, especially catalogues, has grown so rapidly that the question is no longer whether they should be used but what combination of local, co-operative and national services can bring the greatest benefit from their use.

In what is known as “information retrieval “—an area in which I believe my hon. Friend is deeply interested—the scene has changed significantly over the last few years with the evolution of what are called “on-line” systems, by which a user can question remote files of information direct and conduct a dialogue with them until he has the information he ​ needs. No doubt many hon. Members are aware that the British Post Office is already providing a commercially successful service which links United Kingdom users to 70 or more files of scientific, technical, economic and commercial information held in California, and at a cost which a large number of users, especially in industry, are prepared to pay. A Post Office spokesman recently said publicly that users are now connected to the system for about 600 hours a week all told. That probably means at least 2,000 searches for information a week. Access is also available, at comparable cost, to nearly 20 files held in Rome by the space documentation service of the European Space Agency, the membership of which includes the United Kingdom.

The Government have played their part in the creation of a European network for scientific and technical information, using up-to-date technology. The new network, EURONET, is expected to come into being next year and will provide easy and wide access to computer-held files in other EEC capitals. Let me give a few rough figures. At present, the “communications” element of cost in reaching California from London is about £13 an hour. New linking equipment, which will soon be in service, will reduce this cost to £8 an hour. The cost of reaching any EEC capital through EURONET has been fixed at less than £3 an hour. The potential attractions of EURONET are such that several non-EEC countries have already asked whether they can be linked to it. In due course, EURONET will be absorbed in to a public-service network handling all kinds of traffic, not just scientific and technical information.

From what I have said my hon. Friend will realise that it would be possible for this country to become wholly reliant on foreign sources of supply—in the United States and in Western Europe, where several countries, notably France and the Federal Republic of Germany, are spending a considerable amount of money on the creation of new files of information and on providing access to these and other files through computer-based service agencies. But we ought not to become dangerously dependent in such a sensitive area.

Accordingly, the British Library and the Department of Industry have cooperated in the creation of two informa- ​ tion service agencies, which are known as BLAISE and Info-line. BLAISE—that is, the British Library Automated Information Service—has been created largely to provide a national cataloguing facility. In creating it, the British Library has responded to sustained pressure from librarians. But it is also providing an information retrieval service in medicine. Info-line, which comes into operation later this year, will offer information retrieval services mainly of interest to industry and will build up a range of services distinctly different from those of any other service supplier. It is an interesting experiment in partnership.

I can assure my hon. Friend that all the Government action that I have mentioned results from careful weighing up of evidence for and against it. As my Department has made clear to him on several occasions, its own direct expenditure on information retrieval has been concentrated to a large extent on research, now financed by the R and D department of the British Library. The scepticism with which use of computers was originally viewed was backed by a widespread desire to discover, through research, what computer techniques could and could not do, and how far their use was economically justifiable, or might become justifiable, as technology advanced and comparative costs changed. We were accordingly prepared to support a variety of research on computer applications in order to establish useful data for decision making.

The research of this period has largely run its course and has made a substantial impact on thinking among information suppliers and users in this country. Partly because of it, United Kingdom users, I believe, are particularly well informed about computer-based services, what services exist, how to use them effectively and economically, what day-to-day problems they create and how these can be overcome.

My hon. Friend mentioned specifically and in some detail the Scientific Documentation Centre, which is contained in his constituency. It would seem to me better if those in charge of that centre, perhaps along with my hon. Friend, were to discuss these matters with the British Library rather than be subject to a debate in this House. I understand that the British Library board has suggested ​ several times that my hon. Friend and Dr. Davison should discuss their complaints with the British Library, but that offer has not yet been taken up.

I also understand that a Scottish member of the British Library board offered to take up Dr. Davison’s case for support of research and put it before the board. I am quite certain that it is the British Library board which should ultimately make a decision on the particular value of the manual operations of a service such as the Scientific Documentation Centre.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the Oxford evaluation study. Again I take the view, as does the British Library, that, if Dr. Davison feels that his interpretation of the findings is correct, the best course would be to allow the results to be published and independently assessed. This is a sensitive area which is far better dealt with in that way rather than to be subject to a parliamentary debate.

On a number of occasions my hon. Friend has argued that the Government have neglected manual operations and have placed their trust blindly in highly sophisticated computers. I hope that from what I have said he will accept that our trust is not blind but is based on practical reasoning, research and experiment. Frankly, I do not think that any public inquiry into this matter is necessary. I believe that we must continue in the way in which we are progressing at present. If there is scope for manual operations in all this, the case will have to be made on its merits, just as the case for computers has been made. If sensible proposals on this are to be made to any Government Department or agency, I am quite sure that they will be given proper consideration, as, indeed has happened hereto.