I was on staff at Computerworld when it turned 25. That was in 1992; I interviewed Doug Engelbart and Andy Grove as part of the special issue we did to celebrate. Engelbart’s ideas on hyperlinking and other things were still a little out there, three years before the World Wide Web was invented (that’s why those links don’t lead to the interviews I did, since this pre-Web publication does not seem to be online). Moore’s Law was talked about but not a buzz phrase. I found Engelbart fascinating, but had trouble getting his ideas through to my editor. Grove was tough and pragmatic and driven, yet also humble.
It’s 20 years later and I just wrote this piece on Computerworld’s 45th birthday. It’s a bit amazing that there is still a print version of Computerworld; most of its rivals are no longer in print (though some remain online). In another 45 years, we should have hit the singularity, and if Ray Kurzweil is right, I’ll be able to write CW’s 90th anniversary edition (I’ll be a mere 93).
Computerworld will then be something we’ll read from nano-neural circuits we access via a process that will look much like meditation (we still won’t truly be able to multitask). But I’ll be contrarian and say that in a few years Moore’s Law will be stalled by physical limits, and our technical progress will dramatically slow. (No one will be able to find this comment in 45 years, of course.)
For now, here’s a little slice of Engelbart’s famous 1968 demo of something like personal computing:
Lots has been said about A123 since it declared bankruptcy last week. A good deal of it, like this Steve Syre Boston Globe column, Government a lousy venture capitalist, excoriated the government for making large taxpayer-funded loans and investments to A123, Evergreen Solar, Solyndra and others. It’s an easy point to make, but it might be the wrong one. After all, the government makes taxpayer-funded bets all the time on things like education, defense technologies, agriculture and basic scientific research (to name a few). And the government was not to blame for the market failing to develop as fast as expected; though politicians are good at being optimists (except for when somebody from another party is involved).
One challenge for green energy industries is that companies involved in them face government-backed competitors. In China’s case, for just one example, the government heavily subsidizes the components that go into making these products. That does not happen here.
Also, companies like A123 and Solyndra require huge amounts of capital. Private investors are unlikely to commit billions of dollars these days in something that is still unproven. In fact, investors wanted the government to help them reduce the huge risk represented by green industries, which almost universally are more expensive than traditional fossil fuels and thus face daunting competitive odds from the start. The market would say that failures happen in such industries. But the market doesn’t care about anything but short-term profit, and that causes companies to miss out on long-term opportunity, as Harvard Business School’s Willy Shih notes here.
Shih is also no fan of government loans and grants, but over the years, I’ve talked to a number of investors in green energy, and they all more or less say that green industries are quasi-commercial, not quite research project, not quite robust enough to stand on their own. They also cite the extraordinary costs of starting these businesses. Loans and stimulus money reduced the risk. Maybe a better model for the government is to serve as more a guarantor of investments dollars in some form, analagous to what it does for banks with instruments like deposit insurance.
If green industries are the industries of the future, America needs to be good at them. We have given up on some of the main industries of the present, like cellular phones and tablet computers. Look at what we are doing in semiconductors, which our business investors have all be given up on, excepting a couple of stubborn, disciplined companies like Intel. They made myriad small decisions that have led to a place where investors don’t want to fund companies that need to buy semiconductor equipment and build plants. Other governments will.
China and Germany are just two of the countries making big bets on solar and other green industries. Some of those bets will go just as sour as Solyndra. But what private investor really wants to compete with a government in a risky business? Targeted state capitalism holds real short-term power, regardless of whether it succeeds over the long run. That seems to mean we taxpayers have to hold our noses and tell the government to put some more green into green industries, despite all their red ink. Yes, we have to learn not to repeat mistakes, but the lesson does not appear to be keep the government and our taxes away from investing in the future.
Americans like youth. Driven by the unforgiving movie camera, we began to obsess about it in the 1920s, when ‘baby’ and ‘chick’ both became widespread as slang for a woman. The focus on youth pervaded novels like Tender Is the Night (1934) and Lolita (1955) [nod to Harvard’s Philip Fisher and his fabulous course The 20th Century American Novel].
It afflicts men, as well, especially over the last decade. In 2010, more than 1 million American men had some kind of plastic surgery option, quadruple the number in 2000.
So it was no surprise running into youthism while reporting a story on trends in technology. High tech prizes itself on merit but gives big bonus points for youth; some of that legitimately stems from how hard it is to keep up with exponential change (Moore’s Law puts Kuhn’s ‘normal science‘ on speed). Some of it is just plain bias; few of us can resist the culture’s preference for the young.
Since Silicon Valley prizes MIT and Stanford PhD-types between 20 and 25, I expected the executives I interviewed to say they looked to their younger staff for insights into where to go. Instead, they went way younger. Here are some sample comments:
There used to be a time when the general masses didn’t quite understand how computers work. Today a child is born and they know how to use a computer first, before they’re born. It almost seems that way. Your three-year-old kid can do things with your cellphone you can’t.
Kids demand things that are better and are first adopters, have a sense of ease in technology. That has an impact for us. We better be on that curve where kids and consumers are learning technology much faster and we need to make sure we adapt our products to reflect that.
Both that comment and the next show how much consumer expectations of technology are changing, and how quickly outmoded our tech platforms have become. Here’s a projection from that same curve:
The kids go to their computer and put their hand on the screen and try to move stuff around. That same thing is going to happen with voice. In one of the Star Trek movies Scotty is busy talking to the computer. And he says ‘why isn’t it responding?’ And they all look at him like he’s crazy. We’re at that moment.
There’s still so much potential think about how much easier technology can continue to make our lives over time. This ultra-connectedness will continue to be a challenge for people. Once people become digital natives like our kids are, you think about being overconnected. Things could be easier and our kids will definitely not go to libraries and not look up things like we did.
Another nod to tot tech:
I still remember how I had to translate in my mind what it meant to have a file that was a digital representation instead of a file that was a physical representation. Today the world is nothing but digital natives, that grew up deeply steeped in these technologies. I’ll steal Don Tapscott’s line in Growing Up Digital; he talked about how his father looked at the TV as technology and was always messing with the antenna and the clicker. We look right through the technology to the content. That’s what kids do today. Three-year-olds can swipe into a device and go to their games and play. That’s the fundamental effect of consumerization. There is no longer a different class that deals with technology.
Here’s the biggest reason why Silicon Valley shouldn’t be funding 25-year-olds:
The one that has me really, really astounded right now is my 11-year-old son has been playing Minecraft. I’ve gone down and sat in the man cave with him and listened to him online with his friends and watched the interaction of them building, because that’s all Minecraft is. Having 20 kids on at the same time working together to do that.
My oldest is 25.She started with IM. She still loves texting. She can’t understand why my son loves sitting down there and talking with his friends over Kinect. That’s just evolving so much.
This executive thinks his company might want to establish Minecraft-like collaboration group. But will non-tweens take to it?
Here is an example of Minecraft collaboration, involving my son and one of his friends:
I record people all the time, for interviews. I never much like listening to these tapes; I hear muffed questions, missed follow-ups, interruptions, and of course my own voice, unfiltered by my inner ear and jarring for it. I have found I also don’t like watching interviews I’ve done on stage. I don’t have to go watch those, since they don’t involve paid assignments.
But today I found myself looking at a Google Zeitgeist presentation as part of some research for a piece, and I thought, ‘I should go look at what I did there, even though I was awful. It’s been two years. I’m here. It must be time.’ So I did look at one of them.
It wasn’t as terrible as I thought. I didn’t look as nervous pumped as I remember feeling [the word ‘nervous’ kept popping up after I wrote this, and I thought, ‘it wasn’t nerves, I know how to deal with nerves.’ It was sheer adrenalin and it surprised me, because in years of acting in plays I was always flat before a performance, had to get myself pumped up.] Not that it was great. I needed to spend more time in front of the mirror practicing. I left out a couple of things I meant to say. I wasn’t smooth.
I sometimes throw parts of the newspaper at my kids (using the print version, not the tablet version) to see what happens. If it’s just a story, they tend not to look at it too closely. But lately the B section of the Boston Globe has featured eye-popping photographs, and once they see those, they want to read the story. Recently they were fascinated by pieces on a record-breaking pumpkin. They read the first piece, raising the possibility of a record, and then devoured the piece covering the prize itself. Today they were both fascinated by this piece about a man’s record-breaking biceps.
They read the jump page and everything. These pieces form part of their conversations for the day. They’ll bring up details from the story later in the day, or ask me what I think about them (cute that they think of me still as some kind of expert). Now I need to show them the pieces on the tablet and see if they find them as gripping. Or maybe I should set up a Billy Baker feed, since all three of these stories were his work.
Would they prefer the newspaper version of the story to seeing this on YouTube?