Sci-fi author John Brunner once listed the things that came into our lives between 1910 and 1960—including telephones, radios, TV sets, plastics, washing machines, stereos, even automobiles. I wonder if youll guess what I consider the only equally notable innovation since—and why I think Windows XP takes us in the opposite direction.
We use radio in more ways today than we did in 1960: cordless phones, cellular phones, UHF walkie-talkies. We do things with electricity that we used to do with messy chemicals: Digital cameras dont need darkrooms. We rely on a worldwide network that we could scarcely have imagined in 1960, when we were still three years away from launching the first geosynchronous satellite.
All of these, though, are differences in degree rather than kind. Tell someone from 1960, “Thats the oven. Take off the foil and punch 6, 0 and Cook.” Or “Thats just a little two-way radio” (like the one Dick Tracy acquired in 1946). Our visitor wouldnt need to learn a new way of thinking.
But imagine a 1960 time traveler encountering a programmable device: anything from a thermostat with weekday and weekend day-night cycles to a spreadsheet with its formulas. This is what would have been genuinely new to anyone in the world in 1935 (before Turings imaginary machine) and to all but a handful of specialists as recently as 1975 (when MITS unveiled its Altair): the need to learn an abstract language that creates new behavior in a mechanism. A behavior, moreover, that cant be predicted merely by studying the mechanism itself.
In the 21st century, ordinary people can command affordable tools to carry out complex operations without supervision—in an office, a factory or their homes. But “computer literate” used to mean “able to program”; now it means “able to find Web pages.” Bad trend.
I bristle, therefore, at the Windows XP mantra of “Yes, you can do that with your PC.” What I want is a PC that gives me better tools for teaching it to do things without me.
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