Conclusion: extolling or fretting over the radical changes

The Real Computer RevolutionWe
can take this example a step farther. From various perspectives, people have
been drawnto
compare the computer to the automobile.One has to wonder about an article on
software engineering that envisions progress on an industrial model and uses
photographs taken from the Great Depression. Apple, Atari, and others have
boasted of creating the Model T of microcomputers, clearly intending to convey
the image of a car in every garage, an automobile that everyone could drive, a
machine that reshaped American life. The software engineers who solicit the
image of mass production have it inseparably linked in their minds to the
automobile and its interchangeable variations on a standard theme. The two
analogies serve different aims within the computer industry, the first looking
to the microcomputer as an object of mass consumption, the second to software
systems as objects of mass production. But they share the vision of a society absolutely
altered by a new technology. Beneath the comparison lies the conviction that
the computer is bringing about a revolution as profound as that triggered by
the 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 in
determining new social, economic, and political patterns? The historical term
in 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” had
radically changed the nature of work and the lives of the workers. Where is the
Middletown of today, similarly transformed by the presence of the
microcomputer? Where would one look? How would one identify the changes? What patterns
of social and intellectual behavior mark such transformation? In short, how
does one compare technological societies? That is one of the “big
questions” for historians of technology, and it is only in the context of
the history of technology that it will be answered for the computer. From the
very beginning, the computer has borne the label “revolutionary”.
Even as the first commercial machines were being delivered, commentators were
extolling or fretting over the radical changes the widespread use of computers
would entail, and few doubted their use would be widespread. The computer
directed people’s eyes toward the future, and a few thousand bytes of memory
seemed space enough for the solution of almost any problem. On that both
enthusiasts and critics could agree. Computing meant unprecedented power for
science, industry, and business, and with the power came difficulties and
dangers that seemed equally unprecedented. By its nature as well as by its
youth, the computer appeared to have no history. Yet, “revolution” is
an essentially historical concept . Even when turning things on their head, one
can only define what is new by what is old, and innovation, however
imaginative, can only proceed from what exists. The computer had a history out
of which it transpire as a new device, and computing took shape from other,
continuing activities, each with its own historical momentum. As the world of
the computer acquired its own form, it remained submerged in the worlds of science,
technology, industry, and business which structured computing even as they
changed in response to it. In doing so they linked the history of computing to
their own histories, which in turn demonstrate the presence of a fundamentally
new resource.