Computing history: From government secrets to a failed tech utopia
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Computing history: From government secrets to a failed tech utopia


Ever since the advent of digital computing,
technologists had been thinking about how computers could enlarge human capacity, and
both in ways that were empowering and also ways that were terrifying. I mean, worries about the robot overlords
have been with us for a very long time. You know, there was this combination of fascination
and fear with which, not only technologists, but the broader world and the American public
viewed the advent of digital computing. Originally, the first computers in the ’40s
and the ’50s were referred to as electronic brains. They were brains that could do better than
the mind of man. And that was both exciting and terrifying. By the time you got to the late 1960s, to
the Vietnam generation, computers figure in the American imagination, and particularly
in the baby boom generation imagination, as these sort of giant, ominous things that are
by and large controlled by very large corporations and by the government. That’s where most the computers were, right? So think back to “2001: A Space Odyssey” to
HAL, the computer run amok; this giant supercomputer that takes control of the spaceship. That’s what computers meant to many people
of that generation. And so, out of that generation come a group
of technologists, particularly in the Bay Area, people coming out of Berkeley, out of
Stanford. Other people, like Steve Jobs, who are growing
up in the Bay Area, who are very much shaped, not only by their exposure to computers in
this period, because that’s when computers are going into schools, like Steve Jobs’s
high school computer lab; that was one of the things about growing up in the Bay Area
is you’re one of the first places to be a high schooler with access to computers. But a lot of these students and these young
people say, OK, the computer should not be just under control of the establishment. What we need to do is, to change the world,
we need to take this immense power of the computer and figure out how to make it personal. How to take the computer and make it a tool
for empowerment, and enlightenment, and equity, and communication, rather than something that
is the holder of government secrets, a maker of war. And so the personal computer generation has
this politics — it’s a politics that’s very much adapted from the counterculture of the
1960s — all this is coexisting and happening at the same time; everyone’s listening to
the same music and doing the same drugs. But what’s really different is that technologists,
they weren’t all hippies. They were, you know, a lot of them were pretty
straight-laced. But they did share this techno-utopianism,
this belief that technology was going to be a tool for empowerment. You hear one person after another — people
like Stewart Brand, the founder and publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog. People like Ted Nelson, the person who thinks
up the idea of hypertext and creates this manifesto in the early 1970s that’s talking
about — that is entitled Computer Lib — how computers can liberate. And this is the foundational politics of this
computer generation, that all of the concerns about inequity, and sexism, and racism, and
the control by faceless bureaucracies and institutions — all that could be solved if
people had their own computers and had a way to communicate with them. Now, that’s a pretty idealistic idea. It’s an idea that powered the personal computer
generation. But it also was expecting technology to do
too much, right? Like we know now, technology didn’t fix all
those things. Didn’t fix it. We created this incredibly liberating platform
— the internet comes out, you know, the modern internet comes out of this internet culture. Social media comes out of this, politics. And social media, yes, has connected us, but
it also has divided us. So technology wasn’t able to do all the things
its creators originally hoped.

25 Comments

  • Avon R

    Humanity finds a way to be divided. The human brain is divided, yin and yang, good and bad all wrapped into one.
    Fortunately we also have a conscience to keep things in check.
    All in all we do the best with what we have and somehow we survive to keep this Planet alive.

  • Happy TX

    Boomers might be right. Personal data mining from your phone. In George Orwell 1984 telescreens are devices that operate as televisions, security cameras, and microphones. Hits too close to home. No Facebook or smartphone for me. I do catch grief for it. But I'm happy. Thanks

  • big5astra

    And yet there seems to be personal data collection and manipulation happening on a grand scale that nobody can really do anything about – even if you do not agree with it!

  • Kenny Omg

    It connected us and showed our divide. Like out of the sudden 100 million isolated tribes all meeting each other in a short time. That's what happened, because every person is unique in their view and experiences. But there is no 1 dimensional human. So maybe learn how to communicate again, teach it to your children. That's what we need for the people to connect fully through the internet. Divide is not between bad and good people it's between understanding and not understanding. You don't have to agree on everything. You don't do that in real life, so why would you need that online? Do you associate with others to get approval and affirmation? Or do you associate with people to learn and better yourself?

  • Empathy Lessons

    And now certain tech companies are more powerful than the governments of many small countries.
    Funny how things always come full circle.

  • Victor Cates

    i don't know. Computers were still too expensive for a lot of people for decades afterwards*. The first one I remember pricing (a think a mid range celeron) was over 1k (and served remarkably little purpose beyond violent computer games). So I'd want to know if the utopian thing might have been a little skewed by affluence** and whether they could really have predicted the extent of miniaturization (cpus, batteries), driven by rampant consumerism across the electronics category making computers about as disposable as toasters. I don't think we needed social media to show up for this to be less than an inspiring and rosy picture. I remember a lot of people I think when they got their first household computer, it was less about liberation and more a sense of not having a choice. We might like the story about bay area guys but the current state is likely more about ardent capitalists funding hundreds of small technologies (probably mostly in japan, taiwan or korea) without which the mobile era wouldn't be viable. The iphone is a product of likely thousands of building blocks (technologies, supply chains) developed by other people. Any of them failing to arrive, being impossible, being fractionally more costly (as a technology, for development or in terms of labor) or being fractionally less successful and we're stuck in an 90s ish era of technology. A story about hippie visionaries is cleaner than one about nations being shackled to work by email, profits driven by disposability (as people attempt to purchase a sense of meaning), e-waste and workers who produce gadgets needing suicide prevention nets.

    * If you live in a low socioeconomic area, people still use computers in public libraries.
    ** as noted having access to computers in high schools in a way that might not have been widely accessible.

  • Francesco Di Mauro

    I mean, if being able to share her ideas with billions of people through hd video is a tech failure… but of course, sexism!!

  • Jason Holloman

    And more problems abound in a more free world. I feel lucky to experience anxiety about these problems!

    Thank you for your hard work! I will continue opening (right hemisphere), so my left brain can catch up. Your physiognomy confirms the hypothesis bred of a lifetime of hard work. I will keep pressing on. I hope you will all understand at some point.

  • Optimus Phoenix Prime

    I live in a tent 👌🙄 healthcare or I dont care
    Ill vote DOOM!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=keE-K2Q7g4s&list=PLfN09hf0oyUxA5rHdORmzENkMz7NsVdaR&index=84&t=0s

  • Eli Nope

    How isn't the internet a tool of empowerment??? Do you have any idea how much education I have accessed through the internet? If you are a self motivated learner, the internet is very empowering. Knowledge IS power! If you are ignorant about how to make something, use something, recognize that something exists, then how can you use that thing to benefit you? Knowledge precedes thoughtful action, and the internet is an awesome source of knowledge.

  • Steven Newit

    This analysis stops short of describing the use of algorithms to remove conservative voices from social media. In the Internet, top-down propaganda had met its match as the ordinary person found a voice but now cyber-censors rule us with a rod of iron. The police monitor our views in search of 'hate crime'.

    Quantum computers are also a fascinating development as are smart watches, glasses and interactive AI speakers.

  • Deus Ex Machina

    I would trust a robot overlord over a corrupt human being. It's easier to fix a corrupt computer system than it is to fix corrupt humans.

  • Kilgore Trout

    Technology is power and power is usually neutral. With enough power you can accomplish all sorts of things, both good and bad.

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