Computers and Society
David D. Thornburq, Associate Editor
Several years ago I finally bought a color television set. Prior to that time I had been content to watch TV on an old black-and-white model that had served me well. My reluctance to purchase a color TV didn't come from a lack of money; it came from a much more debilitating source—fear of obsolescence by advancing technology.
It seemed that every time I turned around, televisions were getting better. I was afraid that, as soon as I bought a TV, there would be another quantum leap in technology and I would be stuck with an "old" model. Of course, by pro-crastinating, I was missing out on the enjoyment that would have come from seeing my favorite shows in color. But still my fear of being stuck with old technology kept me from making a purchase.
By the time I finally bought a color TV, it had become apparent to me that electronic technology was in a continuous state of refinement and improvement, and no amount of time would be sufficient to insure that the technology had matured. I also discovered that, no matter what technology was in vogue at the time, color TV was pretty good!
What About Computers?
I was reminded of my color-TV experience when I heard a presentation by David Moursund from Oregon State University at a conference I attended a few months ago. David's point was that computer technology is advancing at such a rapid pace that, in a mere seven years, the price one has to pay for a given amount of computing power decreases by a factor of ten. The accompanying figure shows what I mean. Let's suppose that we can define six classes of computer technology ranging from the $10 million super computer to the $100 calculator. If we start our chart at 1980, we find that in 1987 we can get mainframe power for what we use to spend for a minicomputer, a personal workstation for the price of a mini, and so on down to the ubiquitous calculator. It doesn't matter if the number is exactly seven years for all classes of machine, the point David made is well taken—computer technology is not standing still, and it probably never will.
The recent announcement of the Macintosh II—a workstation for the price of a microcomputer—merely adds one more data point to the graph to help confirm the observation that we are getting more and more for less and less.
Protecting Your Investment
While it is nice to be able to stand back and look at the tremendous rate of technological advancement, the consequences of this rapid development are less tha'n benign for many personal computer purchasers. Many people who invested in 8-bit micros a few years ago are now finding that 32-bit machines are available for the same price they paid for a fraction of the power. Because computers are thought of as long-term investments, many computer users have invested as much in their hardware as they have in their cars. It is easy to see why many people get frustrated when a new computer hits the streets. After all, at the time of the original purchase, we each bought the best technology we could afford, and it is frustrating to see that our neighbor down the block can now spend the same amount of money for ten times the technology.
I have talked with some people who "knew this would happen" and who chose to sit out the computer revolution until "things settled down." If I thought that things were going to settle down, I would sympathize with their, plight. But, just as I missed years of enjoyment from color television, those who would continue to sit out the computer revolution are missing many opportunities for benefitting from whatever technology they can afford at the time.
If It Isn't Broken, Don't Fix It
If you have ever felt frustrated by finding the latest technological wonder a few months after purchasing last year's model, ask yourself this question: Does the computer you bought meet your needs? If it does, then it will continue to meet them no matter what new technology appears on the scene. If your original computer doesn't do what you wanted it to do, then you probably shouldn't have bought it in the first place.
I continue to use my old Apple II for some tasks, even though I have many other more powerful computers at my disposal. For the tasks I had in mind when I bought it, my Apple II still performs well. The same can be said for my Atari 800 and my Commodore 64. Just because these machines aren't glamorous any more doesn't mean that they should be junked.
Software developers bow in front of the deity of the "installed base." The massive number of Commodore 64s and Apple Us insures that software will continue to be available for these machines long after they have faded from the marketplace.
The Jalopy Of The Future
I envision an entire software industry springing up around the older computer technologies just as an industry has been created to meet the needs of those who collect old cars. By the year 2000, tinkering with eight-bit computers will be as popular as working with old Chevies is today. And, unlike classic cars, the low maintenance requirements of computers will guarantee that there will be enough of them around to support this industry quite well.
There are still some who subscribe to the "conspiracy" theory in which they see a bunch of greedy manufacturers who have conspired to parcel out technology piecemeal just to take perverse pleasure in yanking the public around.
This isn't what is happening at all. The simple fact is that the underlying technology behind today's computers is continuing to advance at a rapid pace, and the computer manufacturers are racing each other to bring the best possible products to the market. For example, I have wanted an Al workstation for years. Prior to the introduction of the Macintosh II, the only workstations that did what I wanted had price tags of $40,000 or more—far outside my modest budget. As a result of new technology, I am now able to get the workstation I wanted for one-fifth of this price.
Whenever an advance of this magnitude appears, it has several consequences. One of the most important consequences is that it brings computing power into the price range of those who couldn't afford it before. This continuing downward migration of cost has long-term consequences of great value to society.
PC's Of The Future
To take one example, let's look at the field of artificial intelligence and expert systems. Computer science researchers have spent many years developing computer programs that are able to assist people in making complex decisions by modeling the behavior of human experts in various fields.
One characteristic of these programs is that they tend to require fast computers with a lot of memory. When Al workstations had $40,000 price tags, the only people who could afford high-quality expert systems were the universities and large corporations. Now that the price for this type of technology has been slashed (and it will be slashed again), small companies are able to have access to the same computer power as their larger counterparts.
The one market that seems to be hit the hardest by the advance of technology is education. Our schools have to scrimp and save to purchase what few computers they have, and it is easy to see why schools are frustrated by the rapid rate of advancement in computers. It would be one thing if computers just burned out every few years, but they don't. As a result, it is very hard for administrators to get funding for new computer labs when the old computers are still working.
At the same time, there is another problem lurking in the background. Today's second grader will be finishing college in 14 years—the same amount of time it takes for two of Dr. Moursund's technology leaps to occur. This means that today's second grader will be entering a work force where microcomputers will have the power of today's $100,000 minicomputers like the DEC VAX. Will today's children be exposed to new technology as it becomes available, or will they still be using outdated computers and thus be ill-prepared for the reality into which they will be graduating?
I once asked Andy diSessa (from UC Berkeley's School of Education) why he was developing computer languages for children on $60,000 computers. "Because," he said, "this class of machine will be priced properly for the school market by the time we finish."
He is right, of course. The key question is simply this: Would you want it any other way?
Dr. Thornburg's most recent product is Calliope™, a "nonlinear" idea processor for the Apple IIe, c, Gs, and Macintosh computers. He welcomes letters from readers and can be reached in care of this magazine.