Technology and Society: The IBM Years

When Fred Bernard began work at International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) in 1952, he brought with him both strong technical skills in electrical engineering, honed at MIT and Cal Berkeley, and a deep interest in the social implications of science, technology, and engineering.  He was part of a newly formed research laboratory at IBM San Jose, CA.  By his own recollection, Fred Bernard took the IBM job in part to get closer to the realm of industry where the then nascent computer and data communication technology could be applied to real world problems.  His electrical engineering background was directly relevant, as this was a time before either computer science or computer engineering existed as a separate discipline or department.  Fred Bernard’s experience with microwave radar came in handy with regard to what became a primary focus, data communication, or the movement of digital information between computers using telephone lines.

Working Within IBM

For his first few years at IBM, Fred Bernard excelled in his technical work, as measured by conventional standards such as IBM technical papers prepared and patents granted.   IBM San Jose was still a small  outpost.   Fred Bernard soon transferred to the newly established IBM West Coast Advanced Systems Development Laboratory (ASDD), with new facilities first in South San Jose and then in Los Gatos, CA.  The latter was a modern, light and bright laboratory set in the Los Gatos foothills of the California Coast Range.  It was here, at ASDD, that Fred Bernard spent his most  productive years at IBM.  It was also during these IBM ASDD years that he began to experience conflicts with IBM management over his involvement in social responsibility activities.

Fred Bernard’s early forays into the social responsibility arena as an IBM employee appeared to have been successful.  He occasionally corresponded with scientific and technical leaders using his IBM affiliation.  See for example his letter to Dr. Pigman, of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Committee on Social Aspects of Science. In 1958, Fred Bernard proposed to IBM management that he present a paper on the social responsibility of engineers at the upcoming Western Joint Computer Conference (WJCC). Fred Bernard’s presentation was eventually published in a leading engineering journal, and this heightened his visibility in the social responsibility arena.  Concurrently, he was recognized for his noteworthy technical accomplishments at IBM, and was appointed by the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (the forerunner of today’s American Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) in 1959 to its prestigious Data Communication Committee and in 1961 to its Communication Theory Committee.The membership list of the Communication Theory Committee shows that Fred Bernard was in the company of other distinguished technical leaders from the academic and  industrial electrical engineering community. Within IBM, by 1960 Fred Bernard was part of the core technical team working on data transmission, the movement of digital data over communication lines.  A book on this topic was proposed, and although Fred Bernard felt the effort somewhat premature, IBM looked to him for guidance on how to proceed in this breaking technical area.

Outside Involvement in Cybernetics

After this pretty auspicious first decade at IBM, Fred’s relationship with IBM management hit some rough seas by 1964.   The precipitating events seemed to be several fold.  First, the general topic of science, technology, and society was receiving attention in the major media, including concerns about the impact of computers and automation on jobs, and the links between science, weapons development, and national security.  See for example select clippings from the San Jose Mercury-News from that time period.  So Fred Bernard’s social responsibility topic now had a much higher profile.  Second, in part because of Fred Bernard’s success in giving presentations on this topic at technical meetings, and even publishing a paper in a mainstream technical journal, he became known to the social responsibility leadership and was invited to participate in two key meetings on the East Coast.

Fred Bernard was invited to participate as a Charter Member in the inaugural meeting of the newly formed American Society of Cybernetics.  Cybernetics is defined as the science of communication and control in man and machine, and its application could be extended to all sectors of society.  Thus while cybernetics had its roots in the technical professions of engineering, mathematics, and physics, it was inherently concerned with the use and misuse of this science by the larger society.  Fred Bernard was invited to both the October 16, 1964 inaugural dinner, for a select few at the Cosmos Club in downtown Washington DC, and to the Cybernetics and Society Symposium on November 19 and 20, 1964, at Georgetown University.  Fred Bernard did attend both events, and found himself among the top US technology and cybernetics leaders.

Fred Bernard was also invited to attend the conference on The Cybercultural Revolution—Cybernetics and Automation, sponsored by the Congress of Scientists on Survival on June 19-21, 1964, in New York City.  This conference covered a wide range of topics on the implications of computers, automation, and cybernetics for all major sectors of US society, with dozens of well known speakers.  Fred Bernard struck a chord with the conference organizer, Mary Alice Hilton, and two exchanged letters in the month or two leading up to the conference.  In the end, Fred Bernard attended the conference and participated in a panel discussion on the presentation by noted automation specialist Ben Seligman.

Communication with IBM Management in 1964

Fred Bernard’s request for IBM travel support for these activities precipitated a crisis.  IBM management was slow to respond, then denied travel support, then agreed to pay for Fred Bernard’s travel to the East Coast to meet with IBM officials in connection with a possible job transfer within IBM.  This would allow him to be in the vicinity of these activities where he could attend on his own behalf and not be representing IBM.

The exact chain of events is unclear, but somewhere along the line Fred Bernard went over the heads of his local management and brought his concerns to the attention of senior IBM corporate management.  He sent several letters to Thomas J. Watson, Jr., the then CEO of IBM.  The first letters were on the general topic of social impacts of computers and automation.  For example, on June 7, 1964, Fred Bernard wrote TJ Watson about Fred’s earlier work on social responsibility dating from his MIT years.  In a friendly response, Mr. Watson noted that “It appears that you [Fred Bernard] were at least 19  years ahead of your time.  I would add that if more people had the facility for hat changes that you apparently possess, we might be closer to solution of some of these problems.” On June 21, 1964, Fred Bernard sent TJ Watson a cover note with a copy of Mr. Ben Seligman’s speech at the Cybercultural Revolution Conference, on which Fred Bernard served as a commentator. On June 29, 1964, TJ Watson sent a cordial response.

Throughout the fall of 1964, Fred Bernard kept up direct communication with IBM corporate management, including further letters to TJ Watson, Charles Bowen, Manager of Educational Projects at IBM Corporate HQ, and Dr.  E.R. Piore, IBM Vice President of Research and Engineering.  Fred Bernard copied his own local management on these letters, and also maintained direct communication at the local level, including the local IBM Personnel Manager at the time

In his October 1, 1964, letter to TJ Watson, Fred Bernard for the first time specifically mentioned to the IBM CEO Fred’s perception that IBM local management was pressuring him to stay away from the social responsibility of engineers and cybernetics-related topics, despite some interest and support at corporate headquarters.  Time would tell that Fred Bernard had perhaps won the battle but lost the war.  He was able to attend these major events of 1964, through a combination of indirect partial IBM travel support plus his own time and travel.  But when Fred Bernard requested travel support to attend the 1965 joint meeting of the Society for General Systems Research and AAAS, his local management denied his request, noting that the intensive review in 1964 concluded that IBM would not support Fred Bernard’s outside activities in the cybercultural field. 

Wearing Three Hats

LetterheadThe 1964 experience reinforced for Fred Bernard the validity of his earlier work on the concept of wearing of three hats—Engineer, Philosopher, and Citizen—in order to help avoid the kinds of complications recounted above.  For many years he used a letterhead that had three check boxes, one for each of the three roles.  He addressed these issues in several working papers, including “Engineering Work and Social Responsibility” and “The Two Cultures and the Social Responsibility of Engineers"

Nonetheless, it was (and still is) difficult to keep these roles separate for those working in large corporate or government organizations.   Fred Bernard learned that himself at the June 1964 Cybercultural Conference, when he found himself on the defensive from a critique of corporate computing work by Mr. Seligman.  Sometimes it is difficult to wear only one hat.
For the most part, from the early 1960s through his retirement from IBM in 1981, Fred Bernard kept his official duty IBM work separate from his personal pursuit of social responsibility, cybernetics, and systems sciences. 

Occasional opportunities at IBM did arise, for example when a corporate social responsibility initiative prompted a generic local IBM response that could have been read as supportive, but did not translate into ground reality for Fred Bernard’s work life.  He had some further contact with IBM corporate officials, but received polite and non-committal responses.  Fred Bernard did maintain communication with working level IBM staff who shared common interests.  He also continued to participate in activities of the Society for General Systems Research, Society for the Social Responsibility of Science, and American Society for Cybernetics, among others, and continued to self-publish through his Socio-Engineering Problems Reports and later his Computer Social Impact Research Institute, but all on his own time and money.  For the last decade or so of his IBM tenure, Fred Bernard’s management was tolerant of his outside activities, so long as he adhered closely to the separation of roles and “hats.”

From the mid-1960s on, Fred Bernard considered at times transferring within IBM or retiring early for an academic position, in the hopes of finding a job situation that would allow him to wear more hats at once and to consider the technology, society, and implications all in one venue.  In the end, Frederick Bernard Wood retired from IBM in 1981 with 29 years of service.  That was his last major paid position, although he continued his volunteer professional work vigorously for over two more decades.