Computers And Society
David D. Thornburg, Associate Editor
David Thornburg is the author of 11 books, including The KoalaPad Book, Computer Art and Animation (a Logo book available in versions for the TI, Radio Shack, Atari, and Commodore computers), and Exploring Logo Without a Computer (published by Addison-Wesley). His whimsical look at computing (101 Ways to Use a Macintosh) has been published by Random House. Later this year, his first book on Logo as a tool for exploring topics like artificial intelligence (Beyond Turtle Graphics) will be published by Addison-Wesley. Thornburg's editorial opinions have appeared in COMPUTE! since its inception.
The nightmare predicted by George Orwell in his book 1984 never came true.
Of course, there weren't many people who thought it would. Even so, it was hard to go through this past year without comparing our reality to the Orwellian vision of a totalitarian society that used technology to maintain its grip on people's lives. The technological world predicted by Orwell over 35 years ago is pretty tame compared to the technological realities we have available to us today. He predicted two-way television, word processors, and data base systems.
Our technological reality has been far more exciting than that—laser disks, personal computers, the entire personal electronics revolution. But, just as Orwell underestimated our technical advances, he overestimated the political changes that formed the basis for his novel. We are not pursued by the Thought Police (thank God), nor are we embroiled in endless wars to support the economy. Most importantly, we have not become slaves to our technology.
Rather than living in an era of repression, we are engaged in a renaissance of rediscovery. Rather than being victimized by our technology, we are liberated by it. Rather than bending our lives to fit the functional patterns of our technology, we are reshaping and refining our technology to be responsive to our ways of doing things.
What Really Happened In 1984
•It was in 1984 that the public continued its long-term rejection of chiclet keyboards. IBM, thought by some to be an industrial metaphor for Big Brother, listened to the customers and gave them what they wanted—a normal typewriter-style keyboard. In this regard, IBM joined ranks with TI and Radio Shack to acknowledge that as far as keyboards are concerned, the public knows what it wants. While this response was a result of customer rejection of the first PCjr product, it is important to know that IBM was responsive to customer's demands.
Big Brother wouldn't have done that.
•It was in 1984 that a new paradigm in personal computing was introduced in the form of the Apple Macintosh. For the first time, a relatively inexpensive computer was sold on the idea that people should be able to use this technology in an intuitive, descriptive manner—telling the computer what to do, instead of prescribing how to do it.
My guess is that Apple will have shipped 300,000 of these machines by the time the dust settles from 1984, with another 900,000 to move into people's homes, schools, and businesses in 1985.
•It was in 1984 that PROLOG started to receive more attention as a programming language in the U. S. Software companies sprang into existence to use this language to create programs that function as "expert advisers" to the user. At last the chains of rigidly defined data base structures are being broken, as users can extract information with free-form queries in an English-like language.
•It was in 1984 that people took even greater advantage of computer portability as machines like the Radio Shack Model 100 started showing up in board rooms and at the beach, replacing the ubiquitous yellow legal pad and carrying their owners firmly into the twentieth century.
Gaining Personal Control
In looking at the growth in hardware and software technology in 1984, one trend became increasingly clear as the year progressed. Technology moved in the direction of giving people independent control over their tools. Even the home entertainment software industry showed that we are far from becoming a nation of couch potatoes. Just look at the overwhelming popularity of "construction set" games such as Loderunner, in which players get to create their own playfields and game levels.
If there is a message to be gained from Orwell's 1984, it is this: People can be enslaved with the help of their technology only when they relinquish control of their lives to others. A reason that computers have failed to become the faceless masters of our future is that we have taken personal control of this technology, molding and shaping it to serve both our needs and our whims.
The existence of several million personal computers in people's homes has an importance that goes beyond the technology itself. By becoming familiar with computers, we, as a nation, have become aware of what computers can and cannot do. We are aware of their benefits and potential dangers. As an informed public, we are able to comprehend the implications and ramifications of computers in the government, workplace, school, and home.
Had we known as much about nuclear power 20 years ago, I doubt we would be facing our current dilemma on that topic.
In December 1983, I suggested in this column that it was our increased sensitivities as human beings that were going to keep 1984 from being anything like Orwell's vision for that year. I remain encouraged in this regard. A recent article in a major magazine for computer department managers suggested that we should populate our data processing departments with musicians rather than computer scientists—that diversity and breadth in education is far more important than the acquisition of intensely defined skills in a narrow field.
A Technological Renaissance
It is this sort of thinking that suggests that we are embarking on a renaissance—a period in which technology and the arts are in harmony with each other, rather than being in perpetual conflict. More and more, I am finding technologists who are "people" people first—whose sense of values is directed more toward peaceful cohabitation on this planet than towards the twiddling of bits.
In fact, it is the technology itself that makes this renaissance possible. It is made possible first by taking over the cumbersome repetitive tasks that previously occupied much of our time. By relegating such tasks to the computer, we are freed to exercise those creative tasks that are uniquely human.
Second, computer technology has allowed the creation of a new aesthetic—a new breed of art and artisans who paint through numbers rather than with them.
For example, I am presently exploring the features of a new version of Logo that lets me create and manipulate three-dimensional objects on the display screen of my Macintosh. (This is ExperLogo from Expertelligence in Santa Barbara, California.) I can, with simple procedures, create a model of a three-dimensional object that I can modify, manipulate, rotate, and view on the screen from any angle I choose. I can use programs I have written in this language to explore the properties of objects that are only fantasies of my mind—that are not yet constructed, and that may never be constructed.
This freedom to explore mental constructs with ease was unknown during the first Renaissance. It will be commonplace in this one.
And so, as we enter 1985, let us all acknowledge that it is we who shape and control our technological destiny, and that it is we who will determine whether our lives will be controlled or enhanced by our inventions.
I vote for enhancement—Happy New Year!