Weird Processing:

The Collision of Computers and Cultures at the Voice of America


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Rad Haz

One morning Al Riddick walked into my office with a grave expression on his face and informed me some members of the Russian Service staff were extremely concerned about the “health effects” of using computers.  Al didn’t know the details, but said he had accepted an invitation for the two of us to discuss the complaints in an open meeting that afternoon.  We talked it over, and concluded the problem must have been the institutional florescent ceiling lights used throughout the building.  These were unpleasant enough under any circumstances: harsh and glaring.  When they strobed against the refresh rate of the Xerox computer monitors, which might happen depending on the angle of the monitors, the effect could indeed be unpleasant.  A call to our facilities people elicited a promise to inquire about the feasibility of upgrading the office lighting, so at least I figured I was prepared with a reasonable response when Al and I faced the Russian broadcasters later in the day.

Sure enough, the first question was about the pathological interaction between the flickering florescent lights and the computer monitors.  I delivered my rehearsed answer and it seemed to satisfy the questioner.  There was silence for a moment and I wondered if the meeting was over.  I was feeling pretty smug.  But then another Russian broadcaster introduced herself as a physician (it later was explained to me that “nurse practitioner” would have been the American equivalent), and began reading a description from a medical textbook of the awful biological consequences of exposure to high doses of ionizing radiation.  The symptoms included, she said with rising agitation, blistering sores, hair loss, internal organ damage, and ultimately even death.  All that was true, I conceded, but computers produced electromagnetic radiation—and not very much of that—not the kind of high energy particles she was reading about in the medical textbook.

They do produce ionizing radiation, she insisted.

They don’t, I said.

The Patient Presents

Our dialectical impasse was broken by a short, stocky older man named Iosif Perl (not his real name) who pushed his way up to the front of the crowd and announced in a loud voice that he had been rendered sexually impotent by the poisonous rays from the computers, and expected the United States Government to pay restitution.  Not a little taken aback, I lamely made another speech about the difference between the high energy radiation the “physician” was describing to us from her medical textbook and the type of radiation that might be emitted at very low levels from electronic equipment.  Mr. Perl was not impressed.  He not only demanded money damages, he said, but these must include punitive damages because if we didn’t know in advance that serious illness would result from the introduction of computers, and therefore were guilty of malice, then we obviously had been criminally negligent.

As he spoke, his face grew redder and redder, his voice became louder and louder, and he began gasping for breath.  I decided we had lost this round and, muttering something about the need to confer with the agency’s safety officer, headed for the exit with Al following close behind me.  Our escape was blocked by a young woman.  “I want to apologize for my colleagues,” she said.  “Some of them tend to become hysterical.”  I thanked her for saying that, and said I just hoped Mr. Perl wouldn’t have a heart attack.  “Oh, no,” she sighed, “Mr. Perl acts like that all the time—and unfortunately he never has a heart attack.”

USIA Technology Newsletter, 1991

(click image to enlarge)

For several years, the VOA multilingual project was the beneficiary of benign neglect from our colleagues at the United States Information Agency, our organizational parent.  By 1991, however, they were curious enough to commission me to write a monograph about the System for News and Programming, which was published in their quarterly technology newsletter.

Meanwhile, USIA had installed an extensive enterprise network of Microsoft Windows computers running a Novell Netware protocol stack, which at the time was a subset of the Xerox Network Systems (XNS) protocol.  Nevertheless, until both USIA and VOA began to adopt the Internet Protocol in the early 1990s, there was no communication between the two computing environments.

A Rumored Solution

While I tried to figure out how to persuade the Russian broadcasters they had nothing to fear from radiation, Al confronted the problem more deviously.  And effectively.  He somehow managed to plant a rumor in the Russian Service that the Ukrainian broadcasters down the hall were sneering at the ignorant Russians for their ridiculous concerns about radiation.  A few days later, he gleefully reported that a Russian broadcaster had whispered to him that the loutish Ukrainians were too stupid to employ the computer network with the sophistication that had been demonstrated in the Russian Branch.  There was no more talk of radiation.

Shortly after that incident we hired Walter Torrance, a young former Air Force specialist with an affinity for languages, as our full-time liaison with the broadcast services.  Though Walt had no prior journalistic experience and was not at the time a computer techie, he quickly developed an understanding for what the broadcasters needed to do their work and mastered the nuances of word processing in many languages.  To my astonishment, before too long he had managed to teach himself to speak at least a few words of every VOA language.  It was largely through his efforts that our difficulties in some of the initial language services were not repeated as we introduced multilingual word processing to the rest of the organization.  (Walt worked with the VOA broadcasters to produce the translations of the Voice of America Charter which accompany this article.)

Computer scientist Douglas Hofstadter’s Law states that “it always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law.”  The multilingual computer system we envisioned in the early 1980s would take us to the end of the decade to fully implement.  By the time a popular television program called The Computer Chronicles came to VOA in 1991 to report on what we had accomplished, we were already planning a successor system based on commodity personal computers running on an Internet Protocol network.  Xerox, which had designed and manufactured the remarkable computing machinery and software that made our project possible, was meanwhile being accused of “fumbling the future” for failing to effectively market its inventions.  Maybe that’s true, although I think mostly they were just ahead of their time.  Fortunately, they came at just the right moment for the Voice of America.

Chris Kern
Washington, D.C.
October, 2007