Computing Blog

Dec 062011

A generation has been born not knowing the internet never existed.

In this interview, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, observes that “In Facebook, I am really old.” She goes on to say that Mark Zuckerberg sometimes asks her “What was it like before the Web?” (and she also notes that, when coming from Mark, this question really annoys her).

By that measure, I’m really, really old. I received my first email address in 1979, an ARPA account that I used while teaching at the United States Air Force Academy. If memory serves me correctly, we had small document that contained the email addresses of everyone on the ARPANET. In effect, I could hold in my hands the email address of every person in the world.

I can’t imagine going back. I have co-evolved with computing, and now bits are the very oxygen that I must breath.

Thought we swim in a sea of bits, we are still at our core human, born in different waters and transplanted to this digital ocean that teems with possibilities. Still, there is value in taking a Digital Sabbatical, a Digital Sabbath so to speak. As Gwen Bell remarks, one does so “to live in the world and be refreshed.”

A quick aside on the visual in this post: the central image is Savile Lumley’s classic poster from 1915, which I’ve updated to modern times. Look closely at the toys with which the young boy is playing: can you identify all five of them?

Nov 302011

Galileo did much to advance the human experience; the results of his work changed our view of the world (especially that promoted by the Catholic church at the time) and contributed to the cascading consequences of a scientific point of view.

There are similar stories in the history of computing, people whose names are not as well-known to the public as Galileo: Turing, von Neumann, Babbage, Englebart, Backus, Catmul, and many, many others. Turing’s efforts shorten World War II by two years and yet because he was homosexual, he was later condemned by the very country he helped save and ended up committing suicide. Babbage died in frustration at his inability to bring to fruition ideas inspired by the Jacquard loom. Englebart, inventor of the mouse, was very much a product of the 60s counterculture. While we may rightfully celebrate the stories of the Jobs and Gates and Zuckerbergs of our time, reality is that this myth of the Heroic Inventor masks the deeper stories behind these people and the context of the time in which they did their work.

A generation has been born digital. For them, computing is part of the very fabric of their lives; it is the oxygen they breathe, it colors their days. For most, the science and technology of computing are of passing interest. We are often just as incurious about the movement of the stars. It is enough that our computers work, it is enough that the stars do what stars will do.

And yet, we are from time to time compelled to look at the stars and ask how and why, knowing that we are changed by the asking. It is the same with computing. We seek to pull back the curtain of the mystery and the matter behind the desktop and ask how, and why.

In our research, we’ve come across about a hundred documentaries and hundreds upon hundreds of books on the history of computing. The Computer History Museum, the National Science Museum, the Heinz Nixdorf Museum, and others around the world preserve and celebrate the artifacts of our relatively young industry. The stories of the people, the events, and the inventions of computing are full of the grit, surprise, and drama that follow all such scientific and human ventures. And yet, the full story of computing has just begun. It is important for each of us to understand what computing is, what it is not, and what it can be, for it is inexorably linked to every element of the human experience: business, war, science, religion, the arts, the social structures formed among individuals, groups, nations, and even civilizations are all profoundly impacted by computing. Computing has irreversibly changed who we are as humans.

Computing: The Human Experience seeks to tell these stories with a focus on the implications of computing to the human experience. Computing is not simply a history of computing – although we will attend to the significant people, events, and inventions – nor is it a dull exposition of scientific topics – although we will certainly explain the fundamental science behind software and hardware in an approachable and entertaining fashion. Rather, Computing is intended to tell the story of computing to a global audience in a manner that permits different audiences to engage with that story in multiple ways. Our premise is that an educated populace is better able to reconcile its past, reason about its present, and be intentional about its future; our point of view is that the story of computing parallels the story of humanity, both being driven by human needs. Follow the needs, and you’ll see the consequences, and those consequences enter into every element of the human experience.

Software is the invisible thread and hardware is the loom on which we weave the fabric of computing. The artifacts of computing can amplify what we celebrate about being human; they may also magnify the worst in us. And ultimately, computing challenges us to consider what it means to be human, to be sentient.

Nov 282011

I continue to slog through the pile of books you’ll see in my geek cave (as shown in the background of our Kickstarter video), adding them to the Computing list of book resources.

In the end, this list will include several hundred books (and yes, I’ve read them all). I’ve divided them by topic, corresponding to the major themes you’ll find in the series. If you’ve a favorite to recommend, do send me a message.

Nov 242011

In the new few days, we’ll be launching a Kickstarter project to help us advance the work of Computing to its next phase. While producing a video for the Kickstarter project page, I used this vacuum tube to tell a story.

My wife and I have visited Bletchley Park a few times; Tony Sale and his colleagues graciously offered me a handful of old vacuum tubes from the Colossus project, all but one of which (with their permission!) I in turn passed on to the Computer History Museum. Holding that tube – or valve as the British say – in my hand was a humbling experience: here was a device through which coursed signals from a different time and place, signals that were a tiny part of a transformative human drama. The Colossus project, I’m told by historians, shortened the war in Europe by perhaps two years, saving countless lives. How staggering it is to trace the information that flowed through this one, spent vacuum tube to events that changed the course of the world.

As I noted in the Kickstarter video, while the stories of the technology are interesting, it’s the human stories that really move me. From that generation came Alan Turing, Tommy Flowers, John von Neumann, Grace Hopper…the list goes on and on. Reflecting on the use of technology in the Arab Spring or the Occupy Wall Street Movement, one cannot forget that the human stories of computing continue. Who will emerge as the Turings and the Hoppers of this generation? While computing technology unto itself is interesting, it’s how we apply computing, how humanity co-evolves with this technology, that is for me the most fascinating story of this generation.