Do you remember when computers were fun to explore? Perhaps you've always thought computers were fun to explore, but there was a time before the Internet at the dawn of personal computing when people were excited at the potential of computers. Surely, they've probably exceeded most of our expectations today, but at the same time ... it's different. Did we get what we hoped for? Do we still get hope from computers now?
Today, we think we know computing. We've seen it, we've used it. It's all around us, right? One difference today is we don't think about what computers can do for us as much as we think about what companies can sell us. Commercialization of computing has brought us near ubiquitous computing, but at the same time it has, on the whole, slowly eroded and obscured that true generative potential of computing as a tool for people, collectively and individually, to advance.
I should say that I'm mostly talking about software. Software is what's eating the world. We've got the hardware down. We have more computing power in our pockets than what was needed to get us to the moon. What have we been doing with that power?
Even as software developers, when was the last time you were able to program this tool-that-can-become-any-tool to improve your life? Perhaps even just your work life! If you have a modicum of creativity, you've probably imagined either fun projects or perhaps an ideal workflow or tool for work. Did you try building it? Was it easy? Or maybe you haven't even thought of such an improvement ... why not? One strong possibility: you've not been given the building blocks that would inspire the idea that you could build something like that easily enough.
Remember that saying "there's an app for that?" It's often true, but not always, and when it is, was it really what you wanted? Did it really solve your specific problem? If it did, what else did it do that you didn't need? Not surprisingly the most popular apps and tools we use are social. I have nothing against social software, but I'd argue that social software uses social as a crutch. Software that lets you connect and interact with people will always have value. You don't even have to try very hard, remember MySpace?
But I'm not talking about technical achievement or how beautiful the code is or some shit. I'm talking about tools that improve your life. Tools that help you do more. Help you be more by what you accomplish with them. Does Twitter really improve your life?
Doug Engelbart is known for inventing the mouse, but he actually pioneered most of modern computing. His work was quite deep, and although some have joked about what Silicon Valley will do when they run out of his ideas, from my perspective they haven't even scratched the surface.
From 1960 until he passed a few years back, Doug has been saying, "The complexity of the problems facing mankind is growing faster than our ability to solve them. To improve our collective ability to solve the world’s problems, we must harness the immense promise and power of technology."
He believed computing was the means for this promise. My point is that we think we know computing, but we don’t, really. We know a version of it that has mostly been packaged up and sold to us. I believe we can get more out of what we have if we can just imagine it. A tool that can become any tool is nothing less than an imagination compiler.