The Future of General Computing
Where is the abandoned part?
The personal desktop computer. Lots of pads, and slates, and screens, and projectors. Where are the computers? Where’s the stone box?
I’m a futurist. One of the problems of being a futurist is that you learn that things are temporary. Stone boxes are temporary. Plastic boxes, very temporary. I am temporary.
I’m a mortal human being. It’s not weird or amazing to have a human life span. It’s ubiquitous. It’s universal. Death. It’s just somewhat taboo to dwell on the subject in public.
My parents didn’t live particularly long. I used to figure I should be dropping dead around now. Dropping dead: a massive heart attack at the podium in South By. That would be awesome. Imagine how that would look on Wikipedia.
So it’s kinda disturbing to me to realize that computers are dying, not me. Computers are dying off, and I am actually in pretty good shape.
I’m not Ray Kurzweil, I’m not gonna outlive the Milky Way Galaxy personally. But I might well be hanging around for some unconscionable length of time, like maybe age ninety. That would make SXSW 57, and I would still be tottering up here, having outlived the personal computer — this amazing device which might appear, and even disappear, during my own lifetime.
And it really seems to be going. I don’t think I heard any speaker at any panel here ever use the term “PC.” Where are they? It’s just vanished like the word “Computer” in the name of “Apple Computer.”
Why does nobody talk about them? Because nobody wants them, that’s why. Imagine somebody brings you a personal desktop computer here at South By, they’re like bringing it in on a trolley.
“Look, this device is personal. It computes and it’s totally personal, just for you, and you alone. It doesn’t talk to the internet. No sociality. You can’t share any of the content with anybody. Because it’s just for you, it’s private. It’s yours. You can compute with it. Nobody will know! You can process text, and draw stuff, and do your accounts. It’s got a spreadsheet. No modem, no broadband, no Cloud, no Facebook, Google, Amazon, no wireless. This is a dream machine. Because it’s personal and it computes. And it sits on the desk. You personally compute with it. You can even write your own software for it. It faithfully executes all your commands.”
So — if somebody tried to give you this device, this one I just made the pitch for, a genuinely Personal Computer, it’s just for you — Would you take it?
Even for free?
Would you even bend over and pick it up?
Isn’t it basically the cliff house in Walnut Canyon? Isn’t it the stone box?
“Look, I have my own little stone box here in this canyon! I can grow my own beans and corn. I harvest some prickly pear. I’m super advanced here.”
I really think I’m going to outlive the personal computer. And why not? I outlived the fax machine. I did. I was alive when people thought it was amazing to have a fax machine. Now I’m alive, and people think it’s amazing to still have a fax machine.
Why not the personal computer? Why shouldn’t it vanish like the cliff people vanished? Why shouldn’t it vanish like Steve Jobs vanished?
It’s not that we return to the status quo ante: don’t get me wrong. It’s not that once we had a nomad life, then we live in high-tech stone dwellings, and we return to chase the bison like we did before.
No: we return into a different kind of nomad life. A kind of Alan Kay world, where computation has vanished into the walls and ceiling, as he said many, many years ago.
Then we look back in nostalgia at the Personal Computer world. It’s not that we were forced out of our stone boxes in the canyon. We weren’t driven away by force. We just mysteriously left. It was like the waning of the moon.
They were too limiting, somehow. They computed, but they just didn’t do enough for us. They seemed like a fantastic way forward, but somehow they were actually getting in the way of our experience.
All these machines that tore us away from lived experience, and made us stare into the square screens or hunch over the keyboards, covered with their arcane, petroglyph symbols. Control Dingbat That, backslash R M this. We never really understood that. Not really.
Computers were really, truly disruptive. Mobile devices are so radically disruptive that they even disrupted computers. They’re a bigger deal then the dead bookstores. We’ve got guys who own cell phones in this world who can’t even read.
And I’m very intimate with this spectacle. I’m very keen on all its little ins and outs.
The thing that bugs me about your attitude toward it is that you don’t recognize its tragic dimension.
This is something that literature has always been very keen on, that technology never gets around to acknowledging. The cold wind moaning through the empty stone box.
When are you gonna own up to it? Where are the Dell PC’s? This is Austin, Texas. Michael Dell is the biggest tech mogul in central Texas. Why is he not here? Why is he not at least not selling his wares?
Where are the dedicated gaming consoles you used to love? Do you remember how important those were? I could spend all day here just reciting the names of the casualities in your line of work.
It’s always the electronic frontier. Nobody ever goes back to look at the electronic forests that were cut down with chainsaws and tossed into the rivers.
Now compare, mix, and enhance this with Cory Doctorow:
Cory Doctorow: Lockdown – The coming war on general-purpose computing
Regardless of whether you think these are real problems or hysterical fears, they are, nevertheless, the political currency of lobbies and interest groups far more influential than Hollywood and big content. Every one of them will arrive at the same place: “Can’t you just make us a general-purpose computer that runs all the programs, except the ones that scare and anger us? Can’t you just make us an Internet that transmits any message over any protocol between any two points, unless it upsets us?”
There will be programs that run on general-purpose computers, and peripherals, that will freak even me out. So I can believe that people who advocate for limiting general-purpose computers will find a receptive audience. But just as we saw with the copyright wars, banning certain instructions, protocols or messages will be wholly ineffective as a means of prevention and remedy. As we saw in the copyright wars, all attempts at controlling PCs will converge on rootkits, and all attempts at controlling the Internet will converge on surveillance and censorship. This stuff matters because we’ve spent the last decade sending our best players out to fight what we thought was the final boss at the end of the game, but it turns out it’s just been an end-level guardian. The stakes are only going to get higher.
We haven’t lost yet, but we have to win the copyright war first if we want to keep the Internet and the PC free and open. Freedom in the future will require us to have the capacity to monitor our devices and set meaningful policies for them; to examine and terminate the software processes that runs on them; and to maintain them as honest servants to our will, not as traitors and spies working for criminals, thugs, and control freaks.