% fortune -ae paul murphy

A thought from long ago

Mark Twain once apologised for writing a long letter by saying he didn't have time to write a short one. I have that problem with these blogs: in review, almost everything appears too long, at the time of writing I never have enough space to say what I want to.

In my case it's a discipline problem but for others its true that the complexity of their thought simply demands more room. Today's quotation is like that, it's from a paper by E. E. David, Jr. and R. M. Fano then of Bell labs and MIT respectively, called: "Some Thoughts About the Social Implications of Accessible Computing." Here's a bit of the introduction:

Prominent among the products of technology that have shaped our society are automobiles, electric power, and telephones. They provide us with personal transportation, with aids in our physical labor, and with convenient communication. They have radically altered the pattern of our business and private lives. Nobody will deny that these products of technology have substantially increased our mobility, have eliminated a great deal of tedious physical labor, and have contributed vital threads to the fabric of society and commerce.

Yet, they have also brought to our society ills, frustrations, and problems, few of which seem on the wane. The flight to suburbia in search of more elbow room and greenery has left a disproportionate fraction of economically and culturally underprivileged families in the cities. The same technology which has given us new dimensions in communication has been used to implement eavesdropping equipment. The same power tools and machines that are at the foundation of our industrial society caused great grief to people whose obsolete skills were their only source of livelihood and pride as working members of society. Finally, automobiles and power tools are causing us to lose our physical stamina, thereby making us easier prey for disease.

The full influence of these products of technology was felt only some years after the underlying technical advances had come to pass; namely, at about the time each of them became accessible to a large segment of the population. We are now at that stage with computers. Technical means are now available for bringing computing and information service within easy reach of every individual in a community. What will be the effect on our society?

Such service will provide to the individual "thinking tools," somewhat analogous to power tools, to aid him in his daily intellectual labor. These thinking tools will increase the power, skill, and precision of his mind, just as power tools today increase the power, precision, and skill of his muscles. As a matter of fact, there is some question whether our increasingly complex society can survive much longer without falling apart from its own weight, unless individual thinking aids become available. At the same time, the benefits they may bring to society will unquestionably be mixed with a dose of new problems and frustrations.

The paper, which is worth reading carefully, was first presented at the 1965 Fall Joint Computer Conference.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specialising in Unix and Unix-related management issues.