Everything Old Isn’t New Again (Yet)
August 12, 2018
August 12, 2018
I’m pretty sure I was born a geek. I’ve always been interested in the latest technology, forever holding out hope that tomorrow’s inventions would make the world better than it is today. At the very least, maybe technology could one day make using technology itself easier. Alas, that has not been the case.
Not long ago, I did a brief stint as a part time employee at my local Sprint store. That will need to be its own blog post. Perhaps if I’m feeling ambitious I could aim for something akin to Nickel and Dimed by fellow Key West author Barbara Ehrenreich. Anyway, I digress. While working at the Sprint store I got to see on a daily basis how Apple’s most advanced and consumer-friendly software (in the form of iOS) was interpreted by real people in the real world. It’s surely different than what Apple imagines.
It’s crazy to think that Apple is the world’s first trillion dollar company. It was started in Steve Jobs’s garage and the original Apple I was designed and hand built by his buddy Steve Wozniak. The other Steve left the company in the early 80’s. Though never giving it as his reason for leaving, Wozniak did say that after having a child he realized that technology wasn’t going to be the thing that saved mankind.
In those early days of personal computing, regular people could not only program their computers, it was expected of them! It was assumed that the computer owner would be in complete control of his machine. Of course, this would entail a learning curve, but the rewards were huge. Any college student could write whatever software he wished, save it on a disk, and sell it. An enterprising young man named Bill Gates got his start doing just that. It was as easy as putting a disk in the mail.
One of the most important programs for early computers was Hypercard by Bill Atkinson. It was revolutionary for two reasons. First, it let normal people design software with a modern graphical user interface based on stacks of cards. Secondly, it shipped free with every Macintosh at the insistence of its inventor who gave the product to Apple only if they agreed to that condition. Hypercard was dreamed up during an LSD trip and was clearly something designed around the idea of a “user-centered computer.” Apple had to make it go away, and they did. Hypercard would have hurt their applications software business too much, so the company thought. The company never really had an applications software business to worry about and in screwing-up Hypercard they missed out on the chance to define the web browser, which is what it would have become.
The people like Steve Jobs who made those decisions put an end to the ecosystem that made them rich. They took away the structure that they used to gain their power, transferring all of the creative and financial output of the old systems to themselves. Today, any app that you can think of will require the approval of one or more of the four big tech players: Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon. You will have to write your software using tools and languages they approve of. You may not discover or extend any device or platform features. In fact, quite the opposite. You’ll be constrained by your tech “partner” in the set of tools and features you can use. In this world, not only do you not own your software (or device), neither does the end user. Apple or Google will decide what code you can write and how it might interact with your device.
On one hand, this sounds terrific. In a nerdy fever dream, we could be done with “bad” software and security problems. We’d never have to worry about updates or compatibility. Our software stuff would just work because somebody big was taking care of it. Well, guess what? All of this totalitarian control over your software and devices didn’t deliver on any of those promises. It actually made them worse. We spend more time today on updates, security, compatibility, and learning to use our tools than people did when they were running WordStar on a CP/M machine in 1982.
And not only are your software and devices controlled by the big guys, your content is, too. Even content you create. How is it possible that Google or Amazon should decide what files you can own and where you put them? Yet every day, millions of people lose access to their own work because of these platforms and systems. They made the mistake of writing something under the “wrong” account. Or they saved their contacts in a different “app.” It’s as though buying a Joni Mitchell 8-track gave her record company the right to open your front door and rifle through your music collection, taking what they please. And you better not forget your Joni Mitchell password or we might not ever let you hear her again!
I’m just old school enough to still subscribe to the idea that you own your stuff. I also cling to the fantasy that every company should try to make something better than the next guy. In the old days, we sold software because it was good. It did something people wanted and were willing to pay for. The first spreadsheet, Dan Bricklin’s Visicalc, was so great that people bought computers just get their hands on it. It was the world’s first “killer app.” Are there any killer apps today? No. No one gives a shit about animoji. Today, you are the product and software and devices are forced on you piecemeal in order to sell you to advertisers, politicians, and governments.
The foxes are running the hen house. Some will say it was always this way. The new book Surveillance Valley by Jasha Levine posits that the entire internet was nothing more than a psyops and surveillance tool from the start. While doing research for the Mimix whitepaper, I read several of the manuals and papers for Douglas Engelbart’s NLS, an important and early precursor to almost all of today’s modern computing concepts. Every document acknowledges its Army or Defense Department funding, dutifully quoting the contract numbers. NLS was also an early use for ARPANET, the DoD project which became the internet.
Before that, IBM got its start in helping the government compute ballistics trajectories and using their new punch card machines to count Nazi concentration camp prisoners. Much later, while I was there, the company defended its support of the South African government with its intentionally racist apartheid policies that resulted in incalculable human suffering. The whole history of computing, really, is traceable to military and government atrocities. Maybe they just needed it more than “The Rest of Us.”
These and countless other examples aside, I’m still a believer in digital democracy. Software is like castles in the sky. Really, we can build anything in software — including things its inventors didn’t want. This is at the core of hacking, maximizing what can be done with software and hardware. Pioneers will always find a way to push the tools and tech in a new direction in order to work around the established order. I do think that Jobs and Wozniak had that in mind, at least at the start. Many other people have done serious and important work in making computers positive tools for society. A personal favorite of mine is Seymour Papert, an educator and inventor of the LOGO programming language. He believed that learning to program could help children to think better, giving society real hope for the future. Papert’s work and writing provided a computer epiphany for me in my own explorations with LOGO. It was he who made me realize that software was “castles in the sky” without limits. Papert was South African.
Microsoft, a company which grew up in an open and competitive environment with thousands of small players, came to dominate the business computer landscape and leave only a handful. But you can only drink so much of your own medicine. Today, no one seriously thinks of Microsoft as a long term factor in the computer industry. They’ve stopped innovating. Today, Microsoft aligns itself with Linux, with open source software, and even with gaming platforms like Unity that they didn’t invent. If they hadn’t, the company would be half its size already. People outside the Microsoft philosophy created other ways of doing things and those ways might win.
Can software return to some of its former values of user-centered control and openness? We’ve seen the world’s biggest companies exploit open source software to make billions without having to pay anyone for it, yet it’s the paid products of those companies that most people buy rather than the open source tools themselves. It’s an “embrace and extinguish” approach. But if techno monstrosities can use open source software to create upheaval, so can anyone else.
One area of tech where companies have embraced their retro values is in electronic music. My favorite synth company, Roland, has a full line of vintage synths based on modern technology, complete with their knobs and buttons and noticeably lacking screens or “software.” You can even go back to plug-out synths with real cables if you’d like and still use your modern DAW. Roland has also begun partnering with other companies on circuit design and re-creation. You see, unlike Apple, Roland can’t lock you into an ecosystem. Moving to another synth is as easy as putting your hands on the keys. Music instruments have to earn the player’s business because they have to be loved.
Does anyone love software anymore? I love retrocomputing, the use of old systems for entertainment. Of course, nostalgia has a lot to do with it. But I play with emulators for many machines I never used in real life. They’re so blissfully free of updates, internet connections, and other modern computer baggage that you can actually do something entertaining with them. You can program them. And, of course, you can add all that modern stuff to them if you want to. In 2018, you can program a Wang 700 calculator by loading software from a web address.
You know what? In Lisp, you still can, though you’d write ‘(HELLO WORLD.) in that language. I think that if we’re going to go back to our retrocomputing values we need to start there, with a self-contained machine that’s immediately responsive to simple commands. It should be insulated from the outside world (not dependent on it), yet able to draw resources from there when the user chooses.
One thing early computing pioneers didn’t address was encryption, an interesting oversight since it is literally the foundation of all modern computing in the form of Alan Turing’s work and inventions. Could it be they didn’t want the plebiscite to have privacy? In any case, a modern computing system focused on the user would need to have end-to-end encryption. In other words, only “garbage data” would be stored on the system itself, requiring a key to unscramble it into something that could be read or changed.
The use of encryption to protect data from unwanted spying or changes is part of the blockchain technology that powers Bitcoin. Bitcoin also relies on a network of peers to provide a big set of backups, a quality that could be useful to anyone for saving his own work. Today’s systems don’t have enough speed or storage to shard everyone’s files and replicate them in a distributed way. But the demands of software always exceed the capacity of hardware and those systems will be developed.
I can’t bring up “future computing” without mentioning Magic Leap, who this week released the Creator Edition of its augmented reality headset. The system projects 3D digital objects and characters into your eyes in a way that makes them appear to be in real space. Sort of. Magic Leap founder Rony Abovitz is convinced that his system is how we’ll want to interact with computers in the future. And Samsung thinks you want to talk to your washing machine. I’m not so sure.
It seems to me that people might prefer that a future computer act more like one from the past while retaining some important great inventions from today. The internet has to be there, along with encryption. We need modern devices and user interfaces. But underneath that we need privacy, reliability, simplicity, and control. We need comprehension and systems tailored to our needs, not those of platform providers.
Thanks in advance,