A 1985 Essay From A Bulletin Board System Admin Eerily Foretold Our Future


 31 years ago, in the dimly lit back corridor which stretched from the refectory down to the lower common room, somebody put an essay on one of the noticeboards outside the administration office. Nobody would have taken any notice of it usually, but there was some kind of industrial action going on, and the accommodation section was being annoying about the rental payments, and our landlord was being less than understanding.


 This meant there were big queues outside the office, and we all stood in a line waiting our turn to argue with the administrators. I could have sworn that this bunch of papers had not been on the noticeboard the day before, but it was here now. Oddly, it was typed on yellow legal pad paper, almost as if the person writing it was either going tight on money or that they wanted to catch people’s attention with the bright color.

Usually, we would all have just walked past this particular notice board; it was used for notifications about plans, parking restrictions, fire drills and club and association fees - that sort of thing.

I kept looking at it, and finally, curiosity got the better of me. It was called, “Reflections From The Pool.” I unpinned it from the board and leafed through it.

Computers were in their infancy in 1985. They had crude games and messaging systems but there was no internet, no Google, no Facebook - nobody really knew whether these big, unwieldy machines would catch on. Unless you were in academia, the military, or business, it was hard to see the point of them for most people.

As I began to read this essay, I saw shades of 1984, the book by George Orwell, which I had read again the previous year - in 1984! Like the novel, the author, Michael Inman, drew on themes of hidden economies and mass surveillance, and introduced me to something now known as hacking.

Inman was a member of an early bulletin board called “The Pool” which was set up to explore and communicate a concept called “Telidon.” Telidon was a crude method of transmitting graphics over phone lines and was a development of a system called Videotex.

What is interesting is that, even though the technology itself was crude and clunky and had no real impact beyond the immediate circle of users, Inman foresaw, not only it’s future use, but its potential misuse. The genius was that nobody really knew what the machines and the programs would even be applied to at this stage. He said,

As we use computers for security, banking, shopping, etc., our privacy is threatened. Detailed files on our political, consumer, lifestyle and entertainment tastes will grow as we live. We must entrench laws that will give us complete access to these files without any fear of scrutiny or punishment, as well as those laws preventing or at least controlling the access to these files by outside parties. These laws protecting our privacy must be created while the technology is still being formed: for it will be more difficult after it is established.”

That is upstaged by an even greater insight; Inman predicted the rise of “The Dark Web” as well. He explained that people were disillusioned with Governments and Corporations and were dealing with each other in quieter and more subtle ways - under the radar - and he predicted that computers, and the way that they networked and could be made private, might be harnessed to aid the “underground economy.”

He also went on to expound about how this network could aid other aspects of the system. If somebody was involved in an anti-Government cause, or a campaign for a noble cause then recruiting and dissemination of information, meeting places, hearing other’s attitudes and general discussions; these could all take place without interference or worries of infiltration. Or could they?

The corollary of this aspect was that he foresaw computer crime being an up and coming problem for Governments and industry. He said that nobody had any idea of what had been taken using such methods, and that it could result in the collapse of the whole system.

The final part of the essay dealt with privacy; and Inman noted that with the usage of computers for shopping and banking, personal details would be disseminated across an increasing number of entities, and we would become vulnerable to the misuse of this information. He suggests that laws and controls be put in place so that such information can be accessed freely and that third parties be prevented from using them for purposes other than that for which they were intended. He further suggests that this legal infrastructure be set up before the formation of the “network” he envisaged, as it would be a difficult task to unravel it once established.

 I put the essay back onto the notice board and thought long and hard about that. I then went back to my daily life, and it all got forgotten in the mists of time.

 Sometimes, someone somewhere, has incredible gifts of foresight and vision - sometimes we should listen …

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