Information Age: History Repeating

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Some people read my last article on the future of information, and ideas about infinite data or infinite network, and they credited me with some big insight (it was going sort of pre-viral). The truth is less glamorous; I just observed the past.

In1968 a researcher named Alan Kay, did a thesis and a cardboard mockup of a computer of the future -- this was called the DynaBook.

The idea was a portable computer that could access information in many different ways (including wireless) and was far more powerful than most people could imagine at the time. 20 - 25 years later, when Alan Kay was working for Apple, they were making laptops that in many ways were rivaling his science fiction predictions of a generation before.

Alan Kay didn't create his concepts from nowhere; there are many papers and ideas floating around that had parts of what he was saying (computers were going to get faster, better, easier) -- it was just that he was able to bring these ideas together in a compelling vision that inspired people to do what was going to be done anyway. He didn't predict the future as much as he just clearly stated the obvious, and his vision was so clear and compelling that people raced to the goal (without realizing how far away they were). Before we new it, we were doing much of what he predicted -- at least partly because he predicted it. But mostly, if he hadn't, someone else would have.

We all build on what came before. In technology we call this standing on the shoulders of giants (or our ancestors) -- though I believe Alan Kay was quoted as saying that we just, "stand on the toes of our peers". But technology happens, and society evolves. Whether the Wright brothers got the aeroplane to work first, or someone else did, it was going to happen because it could.

The predictions I made about infinitely fast networks or infinite sized data were just observations at what has been happening in the present, and how that has changed things already.

Many years ago, I encoded my entire music library from CD's to MP3 format. Later, I moved that collection from my large desktop computer, onto a small portable hard drive. This last year, Apple (and others) made smaller physical hard drives, with more storage space, and better playback abilities (iPod) since I don't need the drive even connected to a computer (it has a computer built in). And the Internet allows me to connect to local radio stations, or read local newspapers from anywhere in the world, far out of range of the mail or radio waves with which they would normally be distributed.

Hardware costs and performance have had amazing growth during my career. Computers that were thousands of dollars a few years ago can be bought surplus for a few dollars today. My laptop computer has the computing power of a super computer (Cray) that was so expensive 25 years ago, that my father used to run a large businesses (Boeing), just leasing time on that computer. I personally own a few computers that powerful. My home network, and connection to the Internet, surpasses what most businesses had 10 or 15 years ago. Ten years ago, a friend and I were tinkering, making our computer control VCR's, TV's, and stereo devices. Now days a computer can replace every one of those devices. And the rate of progress is increasing.


It is not hard to predict that technology will change the world; if you look around, you can see that it already has. I remember going to libraries to do research on book reports, and the weeks of effort a term paper could take, and that most of my research was on books that were years old.

Now days, kids can do it from home, with more research material and up to the minute research data, and they can email the authors of those papers and get their personal views on the subject, and they can get reviews of their paper from others, before ever turning the assignment in.

These small tales are just the beginning because society is standing on the shoulders of giants. Imagine what next generation will be able to do, while standing on our shoulders, without the limits of our puny little imaginations, and our rediculously primitive hardware and network restrictions?

Written: 2002.04.10