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The PC Turns 25

By Project Syndicate
Created 08/08/2006 - 08:28

Harold  JamesHarold James is Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University, and author of The Roman Predicament.

by Harold James

In August 1981, IBM introduced the 5150 personal computer. It was not really the first personal computer, but it turned out to be "The Personal Computer," and it revolutionized not just business life, but also the way people thought about the world.

The 1981 PC was a break with IBM’s previous business model, according to which it did not sell computers, but leased them. With the 5150, IBM moved into mass production of a standardized commodity using components produced by other companies. "Big Blue" (as IBM is known) allowed other companies (notably the infant Microsoft) to develop its software.

No good deed goes unpunished: by making the PC, IBM practically destroyed itself as a company. Its innovation gave rise to a huge number of new and dynamic companies, forcing IBM to reinvent itself completely in order to compete with them – just one example of the socially transformative effects of the PC.

Before 1981, visionaries who thought about the impact of technology on society believed that the computer would allow a centralization of knowledge and power. This was the world of George Orwell’s Big Brother, the extrapolation of the twentieth century’s experience of totalitarianism. Powerful computers led to potent states and powerful and centrally directed business corporations.

The PC seemed at first to promise a restoration of the balance in favor of the individual. Computing became decentralized, and the new flexibility produced a sense that control was moving away from big agglomerations of power – whether governments or companies. It is not surprising that the triumph of the PC seemed to be accompanied by a revival of the nineteenth-century vision of classical liberalism and individualism.

The idea was that an individual could buy a computer and the software needed for a specific (and increasingly complicated) purpose, and immediately generate a productive result. Indeed, within a few years, individuals would possess in a small machine as much computing power as the mainframe IBM 360’s that had revolutionized centralized computing in the 1960’s.

But this initial triumph of the PC (and very substantial sales in the 1980’s) did not immediately fulfill all the initial hopes for individual empowerment and social transformation. It did not seem to produce many efficiency gains, despite enormous investments in information technology. Immense amounts of time were wasted in enterprises by informal requests for assistance, forcing knowledgeable workers to become computer gurus in order to aid their colleagues.

The initial disappointment about electronic productivity was thus a vivid demonstration of the limits of classical individualism. Only with inter-connection in the 1990’s, above all through the Internet, did the PC realize its potential. Suddenly, economists (especially in the United States) began to measure substantial productivity gains.

New forms of activity – Internet auctions, Internet encyclopedias, Internet chat rooms –reproduced over a much wider area the interactions of individuals. Interlinked PC’s really created a sense of a vibrant social market. Individuals could realize themselves, as in the old nineteenth-century model, but only to the extent that they interacted with as many other people as possible. It was these interactions, rather than the individual on his or her own, that created value and set in motion a dynamic process.

The potential was alluring, but also terrifying. The linking of PC’s produced scares about the potential dangers of the new world. People were afraid of malevolent computer viruses that would sweep the world and destroy information and programs in the space of a few hours. There was widespread fear that dependence on computers would produce a millennial catastrophe, as hospitals, airplanes, power grids, and communications would all grind to a halt when 1999 became 2000.

These traumas required responses very different from previous technological changes. Government regulation was incapable of dealing with the issues involved, although it was certainly helpful to devise ways of making destructive hackers criminally responsible. Nor would innovation by one company help. A solution required generally collaborative efforts – of a sort that corresponded to an ancient vision of civic republicanism rather than the modern ideas of centralized power or isolated and autonomous individuals.

Some observers believe that this interconnectivity has now, after a quarter-century, made the PC obsolete. There are more specialized applications of computing and information technology in smart machines and mobile telephones, whose defining characteristic is that they communicate with each other.

But the alleged obsolescence of the PC is actually a sign of how basic it has become to a new vision of society. We need to celebrate, advertise, and propagandize new innovations only when their success is questionable, before they have become widely accepted.

In the eighteenth century, cheap and washable cotton undergarments produced a revolution in hygiene, but soon this had become so commonplace that the cotton revolution no longer generated any excitement. The PC has become the modern equivalent of cotton: so basic has it become to our lives that, despite the fact that around 200 million PC’s are sold each year, it now simply generates an electronic yawn. But, like the cotton revolution, the true measure of the social and political transformations wrought by the PC will become clear only after a much longer time.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2006.

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