(reprinted from _The CPSR Newsletter_, Fall, 1993)

According to the 1993 U.S. Census report, released in early 
October, more Americans live in poverty than at any time since the 
early 1960's.

In the 1980's, according to _Business Week_, U.S. companies poured 
$1 trillion into computer technology.

Poverty and the computer revolution may seem at opposite poles of 
contemporary life. The pervasiveness of computers, though, links 
the two at many levels. The connection may be the more obvious 
interaction with the computerized welfare office, dealings with an 
increasingly computerized police force, or being left out of the 
"technology future" for want of a decent education or access to 
equipment. Or the connection may be the more subtle, but perhaps 
more profound, connecting tissue of computers and the economy.

We are well underway in a radical reorganization of the world 
economy  made possible by computer technology. The host of new 
technologies which are also bound up with this process -- digital 
telecommunication, biotechnology, new "smart" materials, robotics, 
high-speed transportation, etc. -- would not be possible without 
the capabilities of computers to analyze, sort, and process vast 
amounts of data.

These technologies have made global production serving a global 
market possible, the nature of which the we have never before 
seen. It is feasible and economic to have design done in Silicon 
Valley, manufacturing done in Singapore or Ireland, and have the 
resulting products air-shipped to markets again thousands of miles 
away. Along with global production and global consumption, we also 
have a new global labor market. U.S. workers compete against 
Mexican or Thai or Russian workers for all kinds of jobs -- not 
just traditional manufacturing and agriculture jobs, but also 
software design and data analysis -- and capital enjoys remarkable 
fluidity as it seeks out the lowest costs and the highest returns.

With networking, robotics, and information-based production, fewer 
people are needed to work in contemporary industry. New terms 
emerge in management-speak to accommodate the reorganization of 
production around the new technologies: the "virtual corporation" 
focuses on "core competencies", requiring a vastly reduced full-
time workforce of "core staff." "Contingent workers", 
"consultants", and "independent contractors" absorb the shocks of 
economic expansion and contraction.  The bastion of stable jobs, 
those Fortune 500 companies that could promise steady employment, 
generous benefits and a secure retirement are "restructuring," or 
"downsizing" at a dramatic pace. According to a recent _Harper's_ 
article, Fortune 500 companies have shed 4.4 million jobs over the 
past 14 years. Even the computer industry is not immune, as the 
implosion at IBM testifies -- since 1985, it has shrunk from 
405,000 employees to 250,000. The global economic restructuring 
shows up as a declining wages for American workers (down 11% since 
1970), with more people working at temporary jobs with fewer 
benefits. The economy is failing to create well-paying jobs for 
semi- and un-skilled workers. Parallel to this restructuring , we 
are witnessing a dramatic polarization of wealth and poverty in 
the U.S. And in the Third World, the situation is much, much more 


It makes no sense to think about poverty today outside of these 
profound changes in the economy. Thomas Hirschl, a sociologist at 
Cornell University, argues that poverty in the 1990's has a 
distinctly different cast than poverty in the 1960's, when most of 
the government programs dealing with poverty were designed. In 
"Electronics, Permanent Unemployment and State Policy", Hirschl 
sees "a qualitative difference regarding the social dynamics 
associated with poverty in the contemporary United States." He 
proposes that "a new type of poverty will develop in response to 
the widespread use of labor-replacing electronic technology." 
People "caught up in this new type of poverty may ultimately form 
a new social class" that creates "qualitatively new challenges for 
state policy."

Hirschl goes on to observe that we have moved past the "post-
industrial" economy, and are now settling into a "post-service" 
economy. Labor-replacing technology, as it becomes more efficient 
and cheaper, invades the realm of service industries, across the 
board, from investment counseling to Taco Bells and cleaning 
services. So the pressure is on up and down the line, from 
executives to the least skilled clerk. We see not just "increases 
in the section of the economically marginalized population 
obtaining poverty or near-poverty incomes," but also a growth of 
even more unfortunates -- a "destitute, economically inactive 
population," writes Hirschl. "The theory of the post-service 
economy predicts that, over time, increasing numbers of workers 
will lose all economic connection to production , and join the 
ranks of the destitute... Attempts to secure economic resources 
directly from the post-service economy will be blocked by the 


Short of some radical restructuring of society that accepts that 
work, as traditionally conceived, can no longer be the measure of 
how necessities will be distributed, the government's ability to  
respond is constricted. One growing trend has been to cut the poor 
loose, by cutting benefits and public services. Michigan 
completely eliminated its General Assistance (GA) program for 
indigent adults in 1991, and other states have considered similar 
steps.  California  has cut the welfare grant to families with 
children each year for the last three consecutive years, and in 
the most recent state budget, opened the door to counties 
dramatically reducing their GA programs. (GA is mandated by the 
state, but paid for and run by counties.)

A totally marginalized population desperate to survive will do so 
by any means, whether legal, semi-legal or illegal. So police 
technology is enhanced, even militarized, to contain the social 
breakdown. It is foolish to consider the 1992 rebellion in Los 
Angeles apart from 100,000+ jobs lost in Los Angeles in the past 
three years. Or not to recognize the growth in prisons, prison 
technology (assembly line prison manufacture, automated prisons, 
high-tech ankle bracelets to track movement) and the prison 
population -- mostly a result of participating in one of the only 
viable job-schemes available to impoverished youth, illegal drug 
distribution -- as inextricably linked to the economy, and through 
the economy, to the technology revolution. The whole thing turns 
in and back on itself when the technology revolution is directly 
applied to tagging, tracking and tasering what can only be 
described as a social revolution. 


The police collection of massive databases in Los Angeles (150,000 
files of mostly youth over the past five years) under the pretext 
of containing gangs is only possible via computer technology. In 
welfare offices in California, it is becoming increasingly common 
to electronically fingerprint welfare recipients. Los Angeles has 
been fingerprinting GA recipients since 1991, and has a pilot plan 
to extend the system to welfare mothers and their kids, adding 
300,000 more sets of digital fingerprints to their files. That 
pilot program will likely be extended across the state, and since 
AFDC is a federally-mandated program, will quite likely be adopted 
nationally, unless public pressure stops it. San Francisco has a 
measure on the November ballot to give the green light to 
electronically fingerprint GA recipients there [Ed. note - the 
measure passed]. While social service agencies try to assure the 
public that this information will not be shared with police, 
California state law does provide a mechanism whereby police can 
obtain information on welfare clients; and nothing precludes 
confidentiality laws from being changed. Electronic fingerprints 
then become a common, unique  digital link between welfare and 
police computer systems.

Political support -- both for cutting government aid in a time of 
increasing need, and for extending the use of computer technology 
to tracking and controlling people -- is mobilized by fear of 
crime, and by the potent spectre of "welfare fraud." While the 
most callous could rationalize this use of technology by saying 
that "it won't happen to me", oftentimes the results do come back 
to haunt the rest of the population. For example, as Jeffrey 
Rothfeder describes in _Privacy for Sale_, computer-matching of 
databases, where government agencies go on data fishing 
expeditions by matching unrelated databases, gained a foothold in 
the late 1970's under the pretext of catching "welfare fraud." A 
House of Representatives staff member told Rothfeder that 
"anything that promises to catch welfare cheats doesn't get a lot 
of objections." After the precedent was set for welfare 
recipients, the use of matching was extended to other groups, and 
has subsequently been used on everyone who files a tax return.


Privacy, as a right and privilege, is an unknown for people on 
welfare. As a condition of receiving assistance, recipients are 
required to sign forms that basically open their lives to the 
government. Bank accounts, homes, and personal history are open to 
welfare investigators on the lookout for "welfare fraud." While 
proposals to deliver welfare benefits electronically, via ATM 
cards, has some decided benefits for welfare recipients, including 
increased flexibility and security, it also poses serious risks. 
When food "stamps" are delivered electronically, for example, the 
potential for tracking purchases and comparing them with other 
welfare data becomes a possibility. (Never mind the headaches when 
the computer system goes down, as it did twice in Maryland's pilot 
program in May, 1992, meaning that food stamp recipients were 
unable to buy groceries.)

Computers are more likely to be used, by the police or the welfare 
agency, _against_ a poor person; than they are to be used _by_ a 
poor person. The cost of the equipment, software and services is 
one obvious barrier. The limited access to computers in 
underfunded schools in poor neighborhoods is another. _Macworld_'s 
special education issue a few years ago dramatically pointed out 
the inequity by comparing a school in East Palo Alto ("a poor 
minority blip on Silicon Valley's wealthy white screen") and 
another in well-to-do Palo Alto, just a few miles away. The number 
of usable computers in the East Palo Alto school is one for every 
60 students, as compared to one for every 9 students in the Palo 
Alto school.

As government services have been reduced, the poor are most 
affected. The transformation of information into a commodity item 
over the past few decades has paralleled the defunding of public 
libraries, museums, schools, and other programs that delivered 
information and skills to people regardless of ability to pay. 
Once the barrier of an admission price is raised, those with no 
money are effectively excluded. 

Mike Davis, who has written extensively on social trends in Los 
Angeles, describes this process of a developing information 
apartheid in a remarkable essay "Beyond Blade Runner: Urban 
Control, the Ecology of Fear":

     [T]he city redoubles itself through the complex 
     architecture of its information and media networks. 
     Perhaps 3-dimensional computer interfaces will allow 
     [people] to stroll though this luminous geometry of this 
     mnemonic city... If so, _urban cyberspace_ -- as the 
     simulation of the city's information order -- will be 
     experienced as even more segregated, and devoid of true 
     public space, that the traditional built city. 
     Southcentral L.A., for instance, is a data and media 
     black hole, without local cable programming or links to 
     major data systems. Just as it became a housing/jobs 
     ghetto in the early twentieth century industrial city, 
     it is now evolving into an _electronic ghetto_ within 
     the emerging _information city_.


Computer professionals are obviously concerned about these issues, 
as the impromptu gathering at 1992's SIGCHI, initiated by CPSR 
members, signifies.  In the wake of the L.A. rebellion, several 
hundred people gathered to discuss the basic question, "what can I 

There are both defensive and offensive steps that people could 
take. One step would be to place the same emphasis on challenging 
police technology as CPSR did for military technology (and in many 
cases, it's the same technology being turned home). Slowing the 
destruction of the information commons, by promoting the 
preservation of intellectual achievements as a public treasury 
will help ensure that people still have access to information. 
Otherwise, all information will disappear into "pay-per" private 
reserves, and those without resources will be effectively excluded 
from the information society. We need to promote equity of access 
to information. This includes work that's being done around civic 
networks (e.g., the Seattle Community Network and the host of 
FreeNets), equitable access to the Internet, access to education, 
extension of free public library services, and community-based 
computing. And why not begin to consider the distribution of basic 
computer technology to every household? We also need to support an 
international information infrastructure that serves the 
underdeveloped world, not exploits it.

In the discussion of a national information infrastructure, it is 
critical that we don't lose sight of the needs of a population 
that, as one recent U.S. study indicated, does not have the math 
or reading skills to carry out basic daily activities like using a 
bus schedule. The national information infrastructure, now and in 
the future, rests on a foundation of education -- on the ability 
to acquire, process and generate information. Without ensuring 
basic educational skills for all, we will effectively relegate 
substantial sections of the population to barren information-

Beyond this, a really visionary leap would be to take up the 
profound challenge of what technology makes possible, and to 
conceive of what kind of social order can make the optimum use of 
it for all. Crisis? Opportunity.

Jim Davis
Midwest Regional Director