The World Inside the Computer
Fred D'lgnazio, Associate Editor
It's A Hammer! It's A Sandbox! It's A Refrigerator!
No! It's A Computer!
When I'm hungry, I head to the refrigerator, grab the handle, yank it back, and voila! The door opens, and I get to gobble up whatever's inside.
Refrigerators are not something I normally spend much time thinking about. I have a certain image of my refrigerator, and that image conforms to the real world (99.9 percent of the time the refrigerator works exactly as I think it should). My image of the refrigerator is clear and it's also constant. Tomorrow I won't wake up and find that my refrigerator now works like a wind tunnel or a Corvette. I can depend on my refrigerator. It holds few surprises (except when we leave leftovers inside too long).
Computers are different. My image of a computer is not clear, and it's certainly not constant. And I propose, dear reader, that your image may be even fuzzier and more fickle than mine.
Let's try a test: Ten years ago (in 1977), what was your image of a computer? Did you think of computers as game machines, children's tutors, and capable of disappearing into wristwatches, microwave ovens, and pay telephones? How about ten years before that? (Had you even heard of computers in 1967? Were you even alive then?)
How about me? In 1967, I was reading science-fiction books about computers that lived under mountains and took over the world. By 1977, my science-fiction vision had come true: I was a programmer buried deep under the Pentagon programming a monstrous mainframe computer known as the Honeywell 6000. The manuals for that computer weighed over 500 pounds. I would have laughed if you had told me that a decade later toddlers, handicapped people, and octogenarians would be operating desktop computers which were more powerful than the behemoth that I got to see only because I had four top-secret security badges.
Now let's think about computers of today. When you hear the word computer, which image comes to mind—toy, tutor, or tool? Is it one of these or all of the above? Does it depend on your mood or the day of the week? Or what your parents, teacher, or boss just ordered you to do?
People use the word computer lightly, as if they knew what they were talking about. But don't be fooled. I think we're all mixed up. I don't think anyone is sure what a computer is. Or if they are sure, I think they're wrong.
I think it's time we stopped accepting our current images of computers and began questioning those images. Is thinking about computers any more productive than thinking about refrigerators? Yes, for two reasons. First, as I said, we're not really sure what computers are today, and we don't have a clue about what they'll be tomorrow. Second, our image of computers limits the use we get out of them. For example, if we see computers only as electronic typewriters, then that's all we can imagine doing with them. Or if we see them only as data display devices, then it's unlikely that we'll ever use them to learn speed reading, conduct a flight simulation, send electronic mail, or teach our children.
Now comes the punch line: Things are going to get worse. We are sitting on the edge of a cliff—a continental divide, a great abyss. In the next ten years, computers will change more thoroughly and more profoundly than they have in the 40 years since they were invented.
Now you think you get it. You think I must be talking about the new Tandy 1000 HX. Or the IBM PS/2 Model 25. Or maybe Apple's new secret computer that we keep hearing about.
These new computers are chips off the old block, clones of clones. I'm talking about something you can't imagine. Something so fundamentally different that the word computer can't begin to describe it. It's right around the corner, and since you can't imagine it, you won't see it coming, until—SMACK!—it'll whack you on the head and send you sprawling.
Do we want this to happen? Of course not. As educators nurturing young minds, as business people planning for the future, as parents rearing our children, we need to grab a chisel right now and start carving a new image for computers—one that strains our imaginations and opens our minds wide to the new possibilities that are in store for us.
I often end my columns by appealing to my readers to respond. Often I do this lightheartedly, but this time I'm not kidding. I'm deadly earnest. I am desperate to know what your image of computers is, and what you imagine computers might be like just ten years from now. We all know that they'll be faster, have better graphics, more memory, and so on. But let me know what you've come up with that isn't predictable—that's the exciting stuff Write:
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