Radical 1971 Ad Predicts Technology-Enabled Oppression

July 16, 2014 | Sophie Weiner

ANIMAL’s Radicals Of Retrofuturism uncovers stories of the technological rebels of the past in vintage media and looks at their predictions in the context of today’s digital world. This week, we take a look at an ad by Computer People For Peace inside a 1971 issue of the Interrupt newsletter. 

“We urge all computer people to join us in Atlantic City in May,” proclaims a one page ad in a 1971 issue of legendary alternative periodical The Realist. The call was put out by the organization Computer People For Peace, an early association of technological activists who were gravely concerned about how corporate control of technology would affect our lives:

Computers are increasingly being used as a means of oppression. They are at the heart of every military and police system. They are at the core of every major corporation and are used to maximize profits with little regard for human needs.

In the ad for their newsletter Interrupt, the group urged fellow progressives to join them in a “multi-issue series of actions, meetings and demonstrations,” around the Spring Joint Computer Conference, which would draw big players like AT&T, IBM and Honeywell to Atlantic City in 1971.

That same year, Computer People For Peace published a paper with an early “Electronic Bill Of Rights.” The bill proposed that “arrest and conviction records, school records and other personal history should not be made ‘public information'” and that “there should be no transfer of data from one agency to another and no sale of information under any circumstances.” These demands are highly relevant today, after the revelations of the NSA’s ongoing, mass cyber surveillance and corporate manipulation like the Facebook emotional contagion study. They even mention “the role of automation on the rising level of unemployment” as an issue to be raised at their events, a hyper-relevant topic as we look towards the future with the arrival of automated technology as applicable to unskilled labor and self-driving cars.

Their Realist bulletin points towards ongoing debates about racism and sexism in tech — an issue that is still a great concern — with a snarky description of the Spring Joint Computer Conference’s demographics: “Obviously, the event is overwhelmingly dominated by white men.” Their focus on racism (mentioned in their ad above) was one of the defining elements of CPP. They are most famous for their support of Clark Squire — later Sundiata Acoli — a programmer imprisoned for  his work with the Harlem Black Panther Party. Later, in a confrontation on the freeway in New Jersey, Acoli was held responsible for the death of a New York state trooper, for which he is still serving life plus 30 years in federal prison, despite having no federal charges filed against him.