Sunday, September 6, 2009

Sunday Musings

Ray Bradbury reportedly once said that computers were primitive technology because they are so difficult to use. When a technology is mature it is as easy to use a telephone. (I am sure he was not referring to cell phones or smart phones). Although I am a great admirer of Bradbury, in this case I think he is wrong. Computers are fundamentally different than most technology. Most technology is designed to fulfill a single purpose--or at most a very small set of purposes. A can opener is designed to open cans. A radio is designed to receive and amplify radio waves into sound. A television is designed to process television signals. A telephone is designed to receive and amplify sound waves from another phone. They are simple to use because they have a clearly defined and limited function.
Computers on the other hand do not have a predefined function. They are open ended. What they have is a small set of actions that they can perform. These actions are very simple in nature (store, retrieve. move, remove, add), but they can be combined in almost infinite sequences to achieve unique and previously unimagined results. In this way computers are like language or mathematics or the genetic code. They offer a finite set of actions with essentially infinite recombinatory possibilities. (Part of the difficulty with computers is in their openness; part is in the limited set of processor level actions they offer. Computers do everything awkwardly, but they do it so fast that the awkwardness is usually not apparent.)
This open endedness of computers is what has fostered the huge creative burst that resulted in the Internet. (I know the military created the original Internet protocols and set up the original architecture , but I mean the Internet we have today where anybody can create a presence, sell anything, write anything, share anything.) Computers began as business machines and ended up as communication devices, media players, game machines, and shopping centers.
The current trend, I think, is to try to reign in the computer, to break it up into single purpose components that can sold and managed separately. Smart phones encapsulate most of the communication functions. Media centers that combine the computer's ability to move bits of data that contain music or video with televisions and Ipods and zunes. Game consoles. Net books are optimized for Internet browsing and shopping. etc. For most people this is really what they need. They don't utilize most of the capacities of the computer and are often confused by them.
Cloud computing also represents an attempt to gain some control over the open endedness of the computer. It is essentially a return to the thin client concept of the old mainframe days. All your applications and data will be stored on servers somewhere and the personal machine will essentially be just a device to launch a browser. For companies this is ideal. It will lessen piracy. It will decrease the costs of distributing and upgrading software. It will lower the cost of providing it infrastructure for companies, since they will not have to maintain the same quality of machines or complex internal networks.
I guess I am afraid that computers will become sanitized and limited. But perhaps not. Creativity once released is hard to contain.

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