The growing pervasiveness of computers, coupled with modern communications, is a leaven at work in the United States and other industrial societies that ''will have profound long-term effects as dramatic as those caused by the invention of the printing press.''
So prophesies the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in a major study of what it calls ''Computer-based National Information Systems.''
''Just as the printing press, by stimulating literacy and speeding the flow of ideas, supported the Renaissance and the transition from medieval society to the age of enlightment,'' says OTA, ''so the new information systems could profoundly transform the social and political environment of US and world society.''
There is potential here, OTA warns, for great good and great evil.
The printing press facilitated commerce and expanded educational horizons. It also made propaganda and dictatorial control easier. The new information technology can open even broader horizons, such as the growing ability for individuals to tap electronic encyclopedias and other large information bases. But it can also make possible new invasions of privacy and enhance ''Big Brother'' surveillance.
Using an apt, but disquieting metaphor, OTA warns of the dangers of a ''glass house society.'' It notes: ''There appears to be a trend toward a society in which information about a person's finances, medical and educational histories, habits as a consumer, daily movements, and communications with others through the telephone or the mail will be collected, stored in a computer, possibly sold to others, and used in ways over which the individual may have little or no control. There may be many benefits in terms of the productivity and efficiency of institutions, and in terms of broadened awareness and choices available to individuals as citizens and consumers. But the long-term social and political benefits of this trend - beneficial and adverse - are still largely unknown.''
Thus, OTA - the agency that analyzes major technological developments for the US Congress - adds its warning to those made by a number of other studies and analysts. The new information technology is fast transforming US society, it says, and neither the legal structure nor established governmental policies and traditions are equipped to deal with the implications.
Some feeling for the immensity of the change OTA foresees is gained when one realizes that the US is already an information-based society. As OTA points out, the information sector of the economy now accounts for over half of the US work force. This sector includes all who generate, manage, and sell information, including accounting and inventory data, plus manufacturers of typewriters, word processors, communications satellites, and other information-handling hardware.
In other words, information is as vital to the functioning of the US economy and society as is energy, if not more so. Now the scope, ease, and means of generating and using information are rapidly being transformed.
OTA foresees this affecting many major areas of law and governmental regulation with which Congress and citizens generally will have to deal in this decade. They include protection of basic rights of privacy, freedom of information, freedom of speech, and constitutional guarantees against unreasonable search and seizure, which become all too easy when computers do the searching and seizing of one's supposedly personal computerized information. New questions of freedom of the press are raised when newspapers become electronic data-bases, as some already are doing - a medium that may come under regulation by such agencies as the FCC. Copyrights are easily infringed in such data-bases, too.
To what extent will electronic mail be merely another form of letter mail, and hence within Post Office purview, and to what extent will it be a new entity rightly developed by private enterprise? Such issues, already beginning to be hotly debated and legally contested, will demand a new legal framework for their resolution, OTA says. At the same time, it warns, care must be taken not to stifle the creation of new forms of communication and information use by premature, dull-minded regulation.
And, as a new concern for a society already troubled by inequities among its citizens, there is the prospect of what OTA calls the ''information gap.'' It warns of ''the possibility that some individuals or groups would be denied access to information services vital to their survival in an information society because of technological illiteracy, lack of economic resources, or other reasons.''
As these issues become more concrete and insistent over the next five to 10 years, OTA notes, both Congress and citizens generally should realize that US society faces rapid, revolutionary change. A great deal of vision, inventiveness , and adaptation to a new way of life will be needed to make the transition at all smoothly.