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.