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Despite its size, however, the mainframe does its work all but invisibly, behind the closed doors of a special, climate-controlled room.
Now, thanks to the transistor and the silicon chip, the computer has been reduced so dramatically in both bulk and price that it is accessible to millions. In 1982 a cascade of computers beeped and blipped their way into the American office, the American school, the American home. The "information revolution" that futurists have long predicted has arrived, bringing with it the promise of dramatic changes in the way people live and work, perhaps even in the way they think. America will never be the same.
In a larger perspective, the entire world will never be the same. The industrialized nations of the West are already scrambling to computerize (1982 sales: 435,000 in Japan, 392,000 in Western Europe). The effect of the machines on the Third World is more uncertain. Some experts argue that computers will, if anything, widen the gap between haves and havenots. But the prophets of high technology believe the computer is so cheap and so powerful that it could enable underdeveloped nations to bypass the whole industrial revolution. While robot factories could fill the need for manufactured goods, the microprocessor would create myriad new industries, and an international computer network could bring important agricultural and medical information to even the most remote villages. "What networks of railroads, highways and canals were in another age, networks of telecommunications, information and computerization ... are today," says Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky. Says French Editor Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, who believes that the computer's teaching capability can conquer the Third World's illiteracy and even its tradition of high birth rates: "It is the source of new life that has been delivered to us."
The year 1982 was filled with notable events around the globe. It was a year in which death finally pried loose Leonid Brezhnev's frozen grip on the Soviet Union, and Yuri Andropov, the cold-eyed ex-chief of the KGB, took command. It was a year in which Israel's truculent Prime Minister Menachem Begin completely redrew the power map of the Middle East by invading neighboring Lebanon and smashing the Palestinian guerrilla forces there. The military campaign was a success, but all the world looked with dismay at the thunder of Israeli bombs on Beirut's civilians and at the massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps. It was a year in which Argentina tested the decline of European power by seizing the Falkland Islands, only to see Britain, led by doughty Margaret Thatcher, meet the test by taking them back again.
Nor did all of the year's major news derive from wars or the threat of international violence. Even as Ronald Reagan cheered the sharpest decline in the U.S. inflation rate in ten years, 1982 brought the