Wednesday, March 23, 2011

February 21, 2011

Recently our youngest daughter saw an original picture of a late 1960s model IBM 360 computer and thought it was a picture of a laundromat or something. It was hard for her to comprehend that her hand-held Blackberry has more computing capability than that room full of equipment. This discovery led us in to a whole conversation about how, not only computers, but technology as a whole, have changed in the twenty one years since she was born.
Before 1990 there was no internet. DVDs weren’t invented until 1995. No Facebook, no Twitter or You Tube, no Netflix. In fact, prior to 1990, very few households even had a personal computer in their home. The odd computer geek might have had a Commodore 64 or an Apple II kicking around, but it’s not even close to what it is today.
She listened with astonished wonder at how in the early 1980s we used to have to rent a whole VCR machine, along with the tapes, when we wanted to rent a movie; carrying the huge contraption home in the silver suitcase that looked like you were about to board an Apollo rocket or sell plutonium to the Russians or something. Now VCRs are pretty much obsolete. Walkmans and Discmans have given way to iPods. Any song, TV show or movie ever produced is available now with the touch of the keypad.
Back in the 1960s some visionaries did foresee a future where computers would dominate our personal lives. Take this excerpt from the November 1968 edition of Mechanix Illustrated-“The single most important item in 2008 households is the computer. These electronic brains govern everything from meal preparation and waking up the household to assembling shopping lists and keeping track of the bank balance. Sensors in kitchen appliances, climatizing units, communicators, power supply and other household utilities warn the computer when the item is likely to fail. A repairman will show up even before any obvious breakdown occurs.
Computers also handle travel reservations, relay telephone messages, keep track of birthdays and anniversaries, compute taxes and even figure the monthly bills for electricity, water, telephone and other utilities. Not every family has its private computer. Many families reserve time on a city or regional computer to serve their needs. The machine tallies up its own services and submits a bill, just as it does with other utilities.”
Unlike other predictions from the 1960s like flying cars, personal jetpacks or time travel, and with the exception of the part about the repairman showing up before something breaks down, the above description is pretty close to today’s reality, isn’t it?
Today computers are winning at Jeopardy and social networks are involved in the downfall of tyrannical rulers. Whether you like it or not, Wikileaks is changing our world because everyone, including governments, terrorists, anarchists or loveniks, has to be accountable and transparent or some computer hacker is going to expose their every thought or action and only history will tell us whether that will be a good thing or bad thing.
“I'm a great believer that any tool that enhances communication has profound effects in terms of how people can learn from each other, and how they can achieve the kind of freedoms that they're interested in.”
Bill Gates (1955- ).

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