the return of the mainframes

Apr 24, 2015  

Thomas Watson famously1 mispredicted the rise of Personal Computers in 1943 (“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers”) — but substituting “cloud service providers” for “computers” might soon be more accurate.

The “Personal Computing Revolution” happened for various reasons (plummeting costs of ever-faster microprocessors, various lucky accidents), but beyond the technology itself was (perhaps?) a utopian social vision where everyone would have computing power they owned, that they controlled.

This is particularly clear in the writings2 and work of Alan Kay, who might have some claim to have invented the term3. His 1972 paper4 lays this vision out with an example of two children who use their DynaBooks to easily create a complex simulation that they play as a game and challenge each other, and learn from each other.

Today, four decades later, we know that’s not what people use their wonderfully networked computers for. It’s porn5, essentially. And cat videos6.

Lest I get too hypocritical here — yes, that’s what I used my early internet time for too. That and lots and lots and lots of video games.

So it shouldn’t be too surprising that there’s little reason to keep this computing power personal, when it’s more efficient now to centralize it and call it the “cloud”. Your cat videos are faster, your porn is better, and you can catch up on all the daily minutiae of various people you’ll never meet in real life.

A guy called David Noble wrote “Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation”7 which has this quote:

technology leads a double life, one which conforms to the intentions of designers and interests of power and another which contradicts them — proceeding behind the backs of their architects to yield unintended consequences and unintended possibilities … technologies rarely fulfill the fantasies of their creators.

Yes, this was written in 1986, and I’ll leave drawing present-day analogies out of this — but whenever you hear people trying to change the world through technology, be atleast a little skeptical.

For a bit “heavier” discussion, see “The Social Meaning Of The Personal Computer: Or, _Why the Personal Computer Revolution Was No Revolution_”8 by Bryan Pfaffenberger (more recent, in 20019). A sample quote:

Contemporary theories about technical innovation lend some weight to the view that the myth of a personal computer revolution was promoted, perhaps rather cynically, to sell hardware. Several recent studies suggest that technological innovators not only try to manipulate technology when they create a new artifact; they also try to manipulate the social world for which the new artifact is intended … prefers to speak of the “heterogenous engineer”, a figure who creates not only a new technology, but also a new framework of social roles, meanings, and values within which the new artifact will be situated. That the founders of the personal computer industry found the myths of personal computing advantageous for such purposes cannot be doubted.

In a spirit of keeping this “fair and balanced” (!), all is not gloomy. There is an enormous DIY movement that has sprung up over the last decade, highly “tinkerable” machines such as the Arduino and the Raspberry Pi are huge successes, and lots of people really do want to know how computing systems really work10 — but it’s always a bummer to swing from optimism to realism. The utopian vision of personal computing was probably just never meant to be.

Suggested alternative titles included: The revenge of the mainframes, The mainframe strikes back, etc. You get the point.