The Computers and Internet of Yesteryear

1/14/2012 5:35:12 PM

The Computers and Internet of Yesteryear

The underlying experiences that we obtain from using computers and the Internet may not be as alien to prior generations as we may think. Things are faster and smaller, but not fundamentally different.

Many complex systems have been with us around for millennia albeit in somewhat different forms: the rule of law, sophisticated government systems, commerce and engineering. A complex system of check processing was possible from distances of 500 miles during the Middle Ages. Our forebears were just as smart as us. For instance, the ancient Latin language is more advanced and refined than modern English in its grammar and sophistication.

We know Charles Babbage at the “father of the computer” for having attempted to build a mechanical computer called the difference engine during the Victorian Era in England, but, some time ago, another ancient mechanical computer was discovered from a Roman shipwreck off of the Greek island of Antikythera dating around 100-150 BC. Scientists who studied using x-ray tomography and other techniques were amazed of its flawless manufacturing and high level of miniaturization and sophistication. One of the scientists speculated that these kinds of devices may have been quite common, because a whole chain of inventions would have been needed to precede them.

Early archaeologists were probably did not recognize such past technological advances earlier because the knowledge was lost through time and of high sophistication requiring the eyes and tools of a trained scientists in other disciplines. In the same way, future generations may not understand, much less reconstruct, modern-day computer chips due to the expertise and billion dollar expenses involved, were the technology lost due to world war or natural disaster.

In another working instance, the book Group Theory in the Bedroom describes the 160-year old astronomical clock of Strasbourg Cathedral, which is essence a mechanical computer and one that has not succumbed to the Y2K problems of modern computers at the turn of the century. The clock includes an vast eclectic set of features, among them,  for instance….

Wait! There’s even more! The clock is inhabited by enough animated figures to open a small theme park. The day of the week is marked by a slow progression of seven Greco-Roman gods in chariots. At noon each day, the twelve apostles appear saluting a figure of Christ, who blesses each in turn and at the end offers benedictions to all present. Every half hour a putto overturns a sandglass, and on the quarter hours another strikes a chime. Still more chimes are sounded by figures representing the four ages of mankind, followed by a skeletal Death, who rings the hours. And a mechanical cock crows on cue, flapping its metal winds….

With regard to the Internet, there were many analogous social practices in prior times. Card catalogs in libraries served the same function as search engines. Penny universities in 18th-century London mirrored the online communities of the day. Long before the era of email, the U.S. Postal Service delivered mail seven days a week multiple times a day. The high frequency of the postal deliveries compensated for the general slowness of technology. The book Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers details the revolutionary impact of the electric telegraph in nullifying distance and shrinking the world during the nineteenth century much as the Internet has done today.

In his argument against Internet Software Patents, Philip Greenspun invoked the argument that the important technologies of today were envisioned by the early thinkers well before it was even practical to develop. I think that this hints at the commonalities of our experiences across time.

The old timers wrote that we would have tens of millions of computers connected to the Internet, that we would be using those computers to support collaborative work, that we would be able to search for information that would have been digitized on a vast scale, that we would be exchanging digital multimedia information such as pictures or video streams, that there would be a glut of information and that advertisers would pay to get users' attention. The old timers predicted that hardware engineers would figure out how to make silicon-based integrated circuits ever more dense with transistors and powerful, that we would have vast memories, and that there would be computers in every home. The old timers wrote that most business would be conducted via computer network, that electronic mail would surpass hardcopy letters for person-to-person correspondence, that unwanted email would be annoying.

A commenter cites specific examples.

Regarding UI: In As We May Think (1945), Vannevar Bush described an interface that is stunningly recognizable as web browsing. Doug Engelbart's work in the '60s (from which sprang the GUI, as Phil mentioned) was single-mindedly focused on providing the best user interface for what he called "knowledge workers". Some of his UI features, such as those for condensing text passages for quick skimming, are still unmatched. Direct manipulation showed up in Ivan Sutherland's Sketchpad (1963), whose constrained drawing features are also still unmatched. Windowed UI and WYSIWYG editing came with the Xerox Alto (1973). Even today, Photoshop and its clones still use the UI invented by Bill Atkinson for MacPaint (1983). And many believe that Atkinson's HyperCard (1987) is what the web should have been.

The two decades between Englebart's 1962 opus and the release of the Macintosh in 1984 were far and away the most fertile period of UI innovation. Most progress since then has been simply the wide-scale adoption of those ideas.

Regarding Moore's law: Look at the section "A Simple Vision of the Future" in Alan Kay's Early History Of Smalltalk. You will see a man who intimately understood Moore's Law, even in the late '70s.

Old-timers were able to conceive much of the digital experiences of today. Modern digital experiences are another reflection through more advanced technologies of fundamental human interactions that have always existed in some form.

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