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Volume Number:11
Issue Number:1
Column Tag:Inside Info

It Wasn’t Supposed To Be Like This

The people lost. The priesthood won.

By Chris Espinosa, Apple Computer, MacTech Magazine Regular Contributor

My introduction to computers was back in the days of timesharing, when the closest I got to an actual computer was a Teletype® terminal at the other end of a 110-baud modem from an HP 2000-series minicomputer running BASIC. When I saw my first Altair, IMSAI, and Apple I computers, and saw that I could have a whole computer to myself, it seemed like the best possible way to do computing: take away the wires, connections, logins, system builds, IPLs, and layers of software isolating me from the thing that did the computing.

One of the most important books I read in those days was called Computer Lib, written by the hypertext visionary Ted Nelson. The topic (if a book composed of clippings, hand drawings, old photos, illustrations copied from Wizard of Oz books, and other flotsam could have a topic) was that computing was a democratic force; that smaller, cheaper computers could have an effect on technological society like the Colt .45 had on the society of the West; and that it was possible - and necessary - for non-technologists to understand computers now.

The combination of Nelson’s subversive ideas and the power of the personal computer were a volatile combination. A lot of people in the early days of personal computing had strong anti-government, libertarian, individualist ethics. The early hacker movement was motivated by the same sentiments. And of course, a lot of these people were entrepreneurs too. Some were corporate refugees, some classic go-getter small businessmen, and others (like Steve Wozniak) just people with good ideas told by others that they should build a few of their boxes and sell them.

If there was an enemy working against the democratic force, it was The Computer Priesthood. This ringing phrase from Computer Lib encompassed all the bureaucrats, technocrats, stuffed shirts, corporate types, and gatekeepers who Kept People Away From Computers. Nelson printed urban folk legends about high schoolers tweaking them. Crackers broke into their systems and annoyed them. And the entrepreneurs of the personal computer movement built an industry with the specific purpose to take the power away from them and distribute it to the people.

Well, the people lost. The priesthood won.

They won in that the personal computer industry is controlled by and dominated by the influence of people who value complexity. The culture of problem-solvers, who revel in complexity that makes them needed, won out over the culture of simplifiers, who try to eliminate complexity and move on to other things.

The problem-solvers were institutionalized in the mainframe and minicomputer installations, and originally rejected personal computers because they were “toys.” The damning trait of toys is not that they’re not useful, but that toys don’t require system administrators, and help desks, and technical support, and training, and repair, and reviews, and seminars, and the rest of the multi-billion-dollar decision making infrastructure that was already in place in the mainframe and mini markets. Because Altairs, IMSAIs, and Apple IIs didn’t need any of these, they were not worth paying attention to.

Then came DOS, VisiCalc, and Novell. When individual personal computers streamed into business, education, and government in enough quantities to really be useful, the infrastructure latched onto the place where it found it could add the most value. And that was the incomprehensibility of the operating system to the mere mortal. Ordinary people could understand spreadsheets and word processors, and could make a purchase decision, learn to use one, and get work done. But OSs, system configuration, IRQs, DIP switches, CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT files got beyond the ken of the ordinary computer user. Users didn’t need the OS or understand why it was there - but they were convinced that they needed someone to manage it for them, and the priesthood could live.

If you’re in the Silicon Valley you have a chance to see the priesthood up close. It’s bigger now than it ever was in the ‘70s, and it proudly coexists with the techno-laity. Metropolitan daily newspapers carry ads for IDE drives, math co-processors, and local bus adapters as if they were potatoes or toilet paper. Weekly business newspapers carry articles that give step-by-step OS tuning instructions.

This is madness! There are a lot of other contemporary, high-tech systems that have popped up in the last 50 years without this happening. Do you need to have your cellular phone reconfigured every time you want to talk to a new person? Have you seen any ads in your daily paper touting the best selection of distributor rotors, fuel pumps, and timing belts? Do you know of companies who have a 30-person help desk to help employees use the copiers and elevators?

The real tragedy of all this is that all this serves to reinforce, not defeat, the priesthood. Because we need them to help us make our current systems work, we entrust them to make decisions about the next generation of systems - and it is extremely unlikely that they will choose simple, useful, uncomplicated systems that will make them powerless and unnecessary. So they drive manufacturers to continue to develop systems in the vernacular of the priesthood. This is not out of greed or guile - it’s all they know.

Unfortunately, this spills over into areas even the priesthood doesn’t control. The current pathetic state of home computers is due to design decisions made on the business side of the house. In reality, Apple II ProDOS or the Amiga’s OS were both much more appropriate operating systems for the home than Mac or Windows. But Apple, Microsoft, Compaq, and IBM had to serve the emerging home market with a product derived from the business line - and the pundits, columnists, and IS managers dictated that those systems have support for features that home users never use. So Packard Bell bundles Windows for Workgroups with every home computer, and Apple ships a Wide Carriage LaserWriter driver on every Performa.

I’m afraid that the current generation of personal computers, and all their spawn, are hopelessly corrupted by the needs of the priesthood to perpetuate complexity. I had hope for the PDA generation, but from what I have seen of Magic Cap and Newton, they’re both ripe for layers of Corporate Purchase Requirements. The only platforms I see that are so far untouched by the pundits and IS managers are Sega and Nintendo - and I wish them well.


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