Nov 142011

At one time, computing was a priesthood, then it became personal; now it is social, but it is becoming more human.

In the early days of modern computing – the 40s, 50s and 60s – computing was a priesthood. Only a few were allowed to commune directly with the machine; all others would give their punched card offerings to the anointed, who would in turn genuflect before their card readers and perform their rituals amid the flashing of lights, the clicking of relays, and the whirring of fans and motors. If the offering was well-received, the anointed would call the communicants forward and in solemn silence hand them printed manuscripts, whose signs and symbols would be studied with fevered brow.

But there arose in the world heretics, the Martin Luthers of computing, who demanded that those glass walls and raised floors be brought down. Most of these heretics cried out for reformation because they once had a personal revelation with a machine; from time to time, a secular individual was allowed full access to an otherwise sacred machine, and therein would experience an epiphany that it was the machines who should serve the individual, not the reverse. Their heresy spread organically until it became dogma. The computer was now personal.

But no computer is an island entire of itself; every computer is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. And so it passed that the computer, while still personal, became social, connected to other computers that were in turn connected to yet others, bringing along their users who delighted in the unexpected consequences of this network effect. We all became part of the web of computed humanity, able to weave our own personal threads in a way that added to this glorious tapestry whose patterns made manifest the noise and the glitter of a frantic global conversation.

It is as if we have created a universe, then as its creators, made the choice to step inside and live within it. And yet, though connected, we remain restless. We now strive to craft devices that amplify us, that look like us, that mimic our intelligence.

Dr. Jeffrey McKee has noted that “every spe­cies is a tran­si­tion­al spe­cies.” It is indeed so; in the co-evolution of computing and humanity, both are in transition. It is no surprise, therefore, that we now turn to re-create computing in our own image, and in that journey we are equally transformed.

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