This month, Senior Editor Richard Mansfield responds to an attack on personal computing in this guest editorial.
Robert C. Lock
Editor In Chief
A few weeks ago, pundit Andy Rooney launched an astonishing attack on personal computing on CBS's show 60 Minutes. It was astonishing because he revealed a staggering misunderstanding of computing. But first a bit of background.
There seem to be fewer curmudgeons around these days. It used to be that when an important invention was unveiled, dozens of experts could be counted on to denounce the device as interesting, but impractical. No more. Maybe it was the splitting of the atom or the moon landing. Who knows? For whatever reason, few people are now willing to publicly predict that an invention is fundamentally unimportant, useless, or impossible.
Most people, experts included, still secretly think like that about new technologies. They just won't talk about it with reporters anymore. There is a defect, a weakness in many people, which makes them unable to accept new machines and discoveries. Perhaps we could define this as future-blindness—a skewed view of the potential of new hardware.
Part of the problem is that hardware always precedes software. The car was invented before there were proper roads for it to travel on. TV sets were constructed before there were programs to watch.
So, in the past, when a major new technology was announced, futureblind "experts" would come out of their dwellings and talk with reporters. The experts would acknowledge that the new device was interesting, but that it was also impractical and hardly deserving of all the notice it was getting. Less stodgy experts might have gone so far as to envision a limited use for the device, a very limited use.
It's always amusing to read such pronouncements a decade or two later. For example, when the first telephone was demonstrated, one expert predicted that there would, in fact, be a real use for this new technology. He announced that he could even foresee a day when there would be one in every large city.
Such a prediction likely drew gasps and murmurs from the more severely futureblind in his audience. A phone in every major city was, of course, desirable, but hardly practical. After all, there would have to be a wire strung from city to city across the land. And that was beyond imagining.
It's always this way with hardware. Most people, and many experts, cannot understand that important new hardware is naked at first, but creates a powerful vacuum, eventually pulling in huge amounts of software. Few people realized that the automobile would throw webs of asphalt over entire continents. Or that nets of telephone wires would cover our cities. Before those webs and nets were in place, the car and the phone seemed, if not frivolous, at least pretty limited.
Yet these days very few experts are willing to reflexively denounce new technology.
Burned once too often, the average expert will now either refuse to comment or make some mild, rhetorical, anticomment like "I'm excited about the prospects of this, but I must wonder where it will lead us in our modern society." Since remarks like this say nothing whatsoever, they're safe enough.
So it was with mixed emotions that we listened to Andy Rooney attack personal computers on 60 Minutes. On the one hand, it was touchingly nostalgic to watch him denounce technology in the traditional way by confusing hardware with software. On the other hand, his stance was so grossly confused that his pronouncements cannot take a place alongside the classic, the truly great historical failures of vision.
He decided to test the value of personal computers by seeing if he could make corrections faster via word processor or pencil and paper. He timed himself and found that his pencil was indeed faster. Anyone remotely familiar with computers would immediately say, "So what?" This was not a test of word processing, much less of computers in general. But Rooney went on to draw several increasingly bizarre conclusions about computing.
Curmudgeons do serve a purpose beyond their amusement value. They are a healthy balance against promoters' hype and uncritical technophilia. But an essential prerequisite of any good denunciation is that, at least on the surface, it must appear to make some sense.