This is a true story about how, in special circumstances, an engineer needs to withhold information to help the greater good. In our silence, my fellow technology writers and I helped ensure global events were shared unimpaired.
History-shattering events happened 25 years ago this week. The Chinese government's absolutely worst fear was happening. Widespread public unrest was surging from a few isolated incidents to assembled masses across Beijing. Somehow, ordinary citizens were gathering in unprecedented numbers. Clearly, pro-democracy citizens were being killed by the government. Hundreds of unarmed citizens! Yet the news on this was kept very quiet. All very local.
However, the advent of digital technology was about to confuse China's leaders on an unprecedented scale. For millennia, physical blockades and censorship kept secrets inside China. They did not know that digital camera technology and ordinary telephones were about to unleash the scale and scope of their very private citizen killings to the outside world.
Remember, this was an time before the Internet -- no mobile phones, no walkie talkies, very few private phone lines, and almost no means to privately print leaflets or banners or news sheets to alert or awaken others to a cause. When unrest happened in China at this time, it almost always stayed local unless somehow the news escaped mainland China. Chinese citizens with radios (very prized personal possessions) could listen to broadcasters outside of China for news, and gain confidence they were not alone in their dissent. Others felt as they did. They might dare to stand up and know they were not as alone as the government wanted them to feel.
Enter the brand new science of digital photography. Only Sony (in the lead) -- and Canon -- had very early (professional) digital camera systems which could use an analog phone line to transmit their megapixel images to a faraway location -- in this case, a distant newspaper, news service, magazine, or TV news station. An analog modem was used to convert the picture -- pixel by pixel -- into the chirps and squawks many of you remember from early PC data modems. A single picture would take minutes to send. Photographers were very careful in their selections -- and constantly fearing for their own lives in risking this.
Chinese officials and soldiers were watching airports, sea terminals, trains, and boats to Hong Kong. The government order was that no film must escape. No camcorders or movie film. Nothing. Tourist cameras were opened and emptied. Videocassettes were seized. Anything the size or shape of a 35mm film canister was seized. Officials took no chances.
The leaders were completely unaware of the dozens of digital cameras capturing every citizen's courage -- and every government stumble and massacre. Leaders were outraged as these pictures were being broadcast over Japanese, Hong Kong, and Korean TV. Guards were increased at every port, but still the pictures' imagery -- and the courage of the citizens -- spread beyond China's Great Wall -- to all corners of the globe.
Cut to the IEEE's International Conference on Consumer Electronics, held during the Summer CES show in Chicago. It was here that the first bundles of technical papers entailing digital camera technology were shared for the first time.
Then, instead of a press briefing, Sony's top technologists and communications team made their case to a few dozen journalists attending the IEEE ICCE -- Consumer Electronics Conference in Arlington, Ill. They pleaded with us that the technology -- detailed in several technical papers that week at the engineering conference -- must not be reported on that week, that month, or perhaps that year. After the briefing or press conference, Sony quietly invited most of the attending technology media members to a suite.
"Gentlemen, we have a very special request," Sony communications vice president Rick Clancy said. Then he showed the CNN news stories about Tank Man and the citizens' own film camera prints captured by digital cameras, which enabled the news to escape China. "I'm going to appeal to you to not report the digital camera news we had here this week. And I have the approval of most of our competitors also that you hold off reporting while China is in crisis. Too many lives are at stake."
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