Epilogue: The Lesson of History

It seems like only yesterday that we lived in a world where computers were rare and their role in our affairs quite minor. Scientists used pencil and paper, and sometimes mechanical calculators, to solve mathematical problems; the Census Bureau counted the population with punch card tabulators; bookkeepers kept track of accounts with the help of adding machines and ledgers; writers tapped away on Underwoods; factory workers produced goods on manual assembly lines; engineers designed machines, planes, and ships with T-squares and drawing boards; and everyone kept time with watches whose hands rotated around a dial. Not anymore. These and a million other tasks have been increasingly given over to computers, and the result has been a radical, fundamental change in the nature of our society.

Almost every human endeavor has benefited from the invention of the computer, a general-purpose information processor whose utility is limited only by our imagination. By manipulating vast amounts of data at high speed, the computer has enabled us to solve scientific, technical, financial, and administrative problems that used to be far beyond our practical ability. The computer is the intellectual equivalent of the steam engine, amplifying the power of our minds much as the steam engine – the great tool of the Industrial Revolution – multiplied the power of our muscles. No wonder the computer, made ever more compact and inexpensive by the continuing development of the IC, has spread so rapidly through the United States, Europe, and Japan. Forty years ago, there wasn’t a single computer in the entire world; thirty years ago, there were some 250 in the United States; twenty years ago, there were 24,000; today, there are millions; tomorrow, there will be tens of millions.

Clearly, the computer is one of the most influential inventions of the twentieth century – indeed, of all time. However, we should resist the impulse to single it out as the most important invention of our century. The author of a recent book on computers suggests that “the three most important inventions of the twentieth century are the atomic bomb, the computer, and the transistor” – a statement that conveniently ignores the airplane rocket, satellite, integrated circuit, microprocessor (the computer writ small), birth-control pill, penicillin, television, and radio. Is the computer more important than the airplane? The pill? The rocket? Has any invention exercised greater influence than television? Our world would be a distinctly different place without any of these innovations, and there is little point in debating their relative significance.

In light of the computer’s utility and pervasiveness, however, it seems as if we have entered a new age and, not surprisingly, writers are falling over each other in the rush to proclaim the dawn of what has variously been described as the Computer Revolution, the Microelectronics Age, the Electronic Revolution, the Information Society, or (god save us!) the Micro Millennium. But the proclamation of a new epoch ought to be heard with a measure of skepticism, and it is worth remembering that the advent of any major technology inspires utopian sentiments. Strictly speaking, electronic technology has undergone several enormous advances since the invention of the vacuum tube. For example, the microprocessor made it possible to install computers in the tiniest devices; programmable gadgets of every sort, including personal computers, were the result. As an expression of progress in the field of electronics, the term “Electronic Revolution” seems appropriate. But is it appropriate to hail the second half of the twentieth century – which still has a few years to run, after all- as the beginning of the Micro Millennium?

In the past, such pronouncements have turned out to be wildly off the mark. Listen to what one writer, J. A. Etzler, said about the steam engine in 1842:

Fellow men! I promise to show the means of creating a paradise within ten years, where everything desirable for human life may be had by every man in superabundance, without labor, and without pay; where the whole face of nature shall be changed into the most beautiful of forms, and man may live in the most magnificent palaces, in all imaginable refinements of luxury, and in the most delightful gardens; where he may accomplish, without labor, in one year, more than hitherto could be done in thousands of years.

Here is another writer, Joseph K. Hart, heralding the future of electricity in 1924:

Centralization has claimed everything for a century: the results are apparent on every hand. But the reign of steam approaches The Lesson of History its end: a new stage in the industrial revolution comes on. Electric power, breaking away from its servitude to steam, is becoming independent. Electricity is a decentralizing form of power: it runs over distributing lines and subdivides to all the minutiae of life and need. Working with it, men may feel the thrill of control and freedom once again.

And this is what Marshall McLuhan wrote about electronic in 1964:

The electric age of servomechanisms suddenly releases men from the mechanical and specialist servitude of the preceding machine age. As the machine and the motorcar released the horse and projected it onto the plane of entertainment, so does automation with men. We are suddenly threatened with a liberation that taxes our inner resources of self-employment and imaginative participation in society.

Only forty years old, the computer is still in its infancy. Some day in the distant future, a team of scientists and engineers, headed by a visionary as great as Babbage, might succeed in creating an intelligent computer whose reasoning and creative powers match or exceed our own. Yet, no matter how smart we manage to make it, the computer will never be a panacea. It is a tool, a fabulous tool, but nothing more, and we shouldn’t invest it with all our hopes and dreams for the future.