Fifty year computer: a small idea

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POSTED: September 2, 2016

Thinking out loud:

What we accept as normal usually serves to determine where we look when we notice a problem, and what we look for. If we think about the material costs of digitalisation we tend to despair. Everything seems bound up with everything else. Can we really about our computers and our phones? Do we really want to return to a good old days that, if questioned, we would deny ever really existed?

Part of the problem, maybe most of the problem, lies in what we accept as normal in the process of digitalisation. We accept, through conscious and unconscious training, that the technology we use undergoes constant change through a necessary process of “innovation”. The operating systems for our phones change rapidly, the apps our phones use quickly adapt to the new operating systems, and then soon come to demand them, and we throw our phone away and purchase a new one in order to keep our apps up to date.

The meme of constant “innovation” exists in our heads and not in our technology, and it serves the needs of manufacturers and suppliers, and not the needs of users. Bluntly it serves the needs of a capitalism that makes sense only if we regard growth as potentially infinite, which increasingly requires us to exist in a state of permanent dissatisfaction. Whatever new gadget we buy or rent exists only as a stopgap until the newer new gadget comes along – and that too, of course, exists for us only as a stopgap.

We do not have to accept this as normal so let me suggest a thought experiment.

We can throw ourselves behind another meme, and make a different kind of sense of the digital gadgets in our lives. We could aspire to the fifty year computer: an imaginary media infrastructure based upon the fact that the computers we have today – laptops, tablets and phones – are good enough. We can meet 90% of our human needs with these machines, and without waiting for or wanting anything “better”. We can write novels, read reports, take and process photographs, create artwork, design books, logos, and websites, play games, send and receive email, plan projects, play games, and many other activities right now. Perhaps virtual reality will offer us something usefully different, something genuinely new that we will want to take advantage of. The point still stands: everything that we have to do today we can already do without needing our hardware and software upgraded.

The fifty year computer would offer a different approach to digitalisation, and to open source. It would challenge designers and programmers to make empowering users their central value. We could aim to improve software so that it became easier and easier to use, clearer to navigate, simpler to understand. We could aim to make sure that we conceived and designed our data formats and APIs with non-obsolescence at their heart. Our hardware and software should enable users to customise them, and to continue using them for as long as they wish. The automobile industry provides us with a model for this. Until the 1970s owners who wished to could maintain their own vehicles and customise them themselves. I have a friend who owns several old VW beetles, one from 1960, and she continues to maintain them and customise them. She can do this because the design of the car allows her to do this. Volkswagen produced it from 1938 to 2003 and, although the car changed to meet changing standards it never underwent radical “innovation” and its design remained recognisably the same both externally and mechanically. I would wager that in 2070 nobody will do this with the retro Beetle 2 introduced in 2012, which uses sealed parts that users cannot tinker with.

The fifty year computer could follow a simple path. Its “innovation” would lie in the fact that its designers did not intend to inculcate perpetual dissatisfaction in its owners and instead allowed owners to gain expertise that, once learned, would remain relevant and current. I do not suggest that the fifty year computer would replace current computers, or that it would somehow become mandatory. I suggest that it could grow alongside current patterns of manufacture and consumption, offering a different definition of knowledge and innovation, fuelled by a desire to make money by making life easier, rather than creating profit through perpetual dissatisfaction.

This would provide the open source movement with a challenging new path to explore. Instead of shadowing commercial software we could create software that embodied a different spirit and a different model of how the world should work. This model would offer a clear congruence with the growing realisation that we need to conserve energy, that we can no longer ignore the material repercussions of digital technology, and that we would do better to enhance human needs than to confine us in cages defined by technological possibilities.

Fuck “innovation”, let’s innovate.