Conclusion: extolling or fretting over the radical changes

Conclusion:The Real Computer RevolutionWecan take this example a step farther. From various perspectives, people havebeen drawntocompare the computer to the automobile.One has to wonder about an article onsoftware engineering that envisions progress on an industrial model and usesphotographs taken from the Great Depression. Apple, Atari, and others haveboasted of creating the Model T of microcomputers, clearly intending to conveythe image of a car in every garage, an automobile that everyone could drive, amachine that reshaped American life. The software engineers who solicit theimage of mass production have it inseparably linked in their minds to theautomobile and its interchangeable variations on a standard theme.

The twoanalogies serve different aims within the computer industry, the first lookingto the microcomputer as an object of mass consumption, the second to softwaresystems as objects of mass production. But they share the vision of a society absolutelyaltered by a new technology. Beneath the comparison lies the conviction thatthe computer is bringing about a revolution as profound as that triggered bythe automobile.

The comparison between the machines is fascinating in itself.Just how does one weigh the PC against the PT. Question is deeper than that.What would it mean for a microcomputer to play the role of the Model T indetermining new social, economic, and political patterns? The historical termin that comparison is not the Model T, but Middletown (Lynd and Lynd 1929),where in less than forty years “high-speed steel and Ford cars” hadradically changed the nature of work and the lives of the workers.

Where is theMiddletown of today, similarly transformed by the presence of themicrocomputer? Where would one look? How would one identify the changes? What patternsof social and intellectual behavior mark such transformation? In short, howdoes one compare technological societies? That is one of the “bigquestions” for historians of technology, and it is only in the context ofthe history of technology that it will be answered for the computer. From thevery beginning, the computer has borne the label “revolutionary”.Even as the first commercial machines were being delivered, commentators wereextolling or fretting over the radical changes the widespread use of computerswould entail, and few doubted their use would be widespread. The computerdirected people’s eyes toward the future, and a few thousand bytes of memoryseemed space enough for the solution of almost any problem. On that bothenthusiasts and critics could agree. Computing meant unprecedented power forscience, industry, and business, and with the power came difficulties anddangers that seemed equally unprecedented.

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By its nature as well as by itsyouth, the computer appeared to have no history. Yet, “revolution” isan essentially historical concept . Even when turning things on their head, onecan only define what is new by what is old, and innovation, howeverimaginative, can only proceed from what exists. The computer had a history outof which it transpire as a new device, and computing took shape from other,continuing activities, each with its own historical momentum.

As the world ofthe computer acquired its own form, it remained submerged in the worlds of science,technology, industry, and business which structured computing even as theychanged in response to it. In doing so they linked the history of computing totheir own histories, which in turn demonstrate the presence of a fundamentallynew resource.