History 427: History of the Information Age

HIST 427: The Future is Now – (As Imagined Yesterday)

This week in the History of the Information Age, we have been discussing the rise of early computers in the 1950s, the role of human creativity and imagination in scientific advancement, as well as our own personal experiences with early computing.

The Future Is Now! (As Imagined Yesterday)

To begin our Week 9 discussion, we read two articles – one regarding technological predictions for the future in 1945, and the other on the rise of IBM and computing, and watched a video demonstration of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine.

Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think”

The most interesting work that we discussed was a 1945 piece by Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development Dr. Vannevar Bush’s predictions for technologies of the future, as part of his post-World War Two hopes for scientific advancement.

In his work, Bush discusses themes of technological progression, the integration of technology into daily, civilian life, fewer technological limitations in terms of speed and maintenance, and the constant need for and presence of human creativity and ingenuity.

Bush discusses his predictions for music consumption, photography, television, and modes of communication in a language that is mixed with the limitations of the 1940s and the unknown but flourishing hopes for the future.

“Certainly progress in photography is not going to stop. Faster material and lenses, more automatic cameras, finer-grained sensitive compounds to allow an extension of the minicamera idea, are all imminent. Let us project this trend ahead to a logical, if not inevitable, outcome. The camera hound of the future wears on his forehead a lump a little larger than a walnut. It takes pictures 3 millimeters square, later to be projected or enlarged, which after all involves only a factor of 10 beyond present practice. The lens is of universal focus, down to any distance accommodated by the unaided eye, simply because it is of short focal length. There is a built-in photocell on the walnut such as we now have on at least one camera, which automatically adjusts exposure for a wide range of illumination. There is film in the walnut for a hundred exposures, and the spring for operating its shutter and shifting its film is wound once for all when the film clip is inserted. It produces its result in full color. It may well be stereoscopic, and record with two spaced glass eyes, for striking improvements in stereoscopic technique are just around the corner.” Bush, Vannevar. “As We May Think,” Atlantic Monthly 176. July 1945. 101-108.

Bush’s description of a walnut-sized camera atop one’s forehead, a clicker situated in one’s palm, and the capacity for “a hundred exposures,” is simultaneously humorously antiquated and eerily spot-on. While contemporary cameras, such as smartphones and DSLRs are not nearly as analogue as that which Bush is describing, today’s cameras possess that exact bodily integration as described in “As We May Think.”

Even before the era of smartphones, disposable cameras and small digital cameras, or even polaroid cameras, enabled individuals to take snapshots at any given moment. Nowadays, this personalization is even further exacerbated. It is estimated that as of 2017, 4 billion people had access to a camera-enabled mobile device, a tool that for many, is so connected to their daily life, that it may be viewed as an extension of ones self.

The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow

I quite enjoyed reading “As We May Think,” and in many ways, the article reminded me of Walt Disney World’s EPCOT, or “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.” EPCOT, once known as EPCOT Center, is one of the themed lands at Disney World, and one of Walt Disney’s last major projects. EPCOT’s aim was to “highlight the best of urban planning and new technologies” by providing guests with interactive access to these new technologies, where they might be inspired to purchase these goods for themselves. In its early design stages, many hoped that a living, breathing neighborhood would be created that individuals could live in.

While EPCOT has underwent changes in rides, attractions, restaurants, and shopping – and is in many ways still “experimental” and evolving, the fundamental, architecture of the park remains the same. “Future World,” in all its retro glory, is the future of the 1980s, imagined in the 1960s, existing in the present-day, whatever year that may be. While its outer husk may appear may appear outdated, just as the vernacular used by Vannevar Bush, the core ideas of invention and the inevitability of human progress remain the same, undated, and unchanged.

The Shelf Life of Ideas

When discussing Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, questions were raised regarding the extent to which Babbage’s difference engine could have become a working model at the time of its first inception, and if so, why the model was likely to fail at the time.

At its core, the difference engine was a powerful calculator, specifically for “the computation of astronomical and mathematical tables.” The purpose for such a calculator was limited, as human labor could perform the same calculations. For a piece of technology to be successful, it must meet a need. That need can be a need of efficiency – to complete a task at a rate quicker than before, or a need of accuracy – to complete a task through the elimination of human error.

Arguably, the difference engine met neither of these simple needs. The difference engine, while ahead of its time, was expensive to produce, (by 1842, at the time of the project’s abandonment, the British government had spent over £17,000) required a great deal of moving parts, and had the risk of breaking, therefore eliminating its use as a substitute for human labor. However,

The significance of the difference engine is found not in its success at the time in the early nineteenth-century, but rather, its power to inspire future innovators, whether it be in terms of concrete math and science, or even an outlet as creative as science fiction.

Concepts – ideas – and hopes for new technology are fluid. They may enter the world in one way or another at any given point in time, and at their core, may be copied and altered indefinitely to fit the needs of their times. They are only as bound to their vernacular, architectural, or social shells and casings as we allow.

The Success of IBM

Finally, we discussed Robert Garner’s article “Stars: Early Popular Computes, 1950-70,” and touched on IBM’s success as a computer rental company in the 1950s. The end of World War Two released a number of skilled computer programmers into the civilian job market, however, computers remained clunky, costly, and garage-sized. What then, caused big companies to seek obtaining computers from IBM, despite the constraints?

The secret to IBM’s success, as they were already a well-regarded company, may be found in their business model. In renting – not selling computers to businesses, and charging for all-inclusive service, maintenance, and upgrading fees, IBM eased some of the stress business faced in other computer procurement and use situations. This model would remain successful for a few decades, until the concept of the “home computer” was popularized.

Citations

Bricker, Tom. “The History of EPCOT Center.” Disney Tourist Blog. https://www.disneytouristblog.com/epcot-center-history/

Bush, Vannevar. “As We May Think,” Atlantic Monthly 176. July 1945. 101-108. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1945/07/as-we-may-think/303881/

Garner, Robert. “Stars: Early Popular Computers, 1950-70 (Scanning Out Past).” Proceedings of the IEEE, Vol. 101, Issue 9 (Sept. 2013): 2134-2140. https://ieeexplore-ieee-org.umw.idm.oclc.org/document/6582591

Infinite Retina. “The Demonstration of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine.” YouTube Video, 24:09. June 17, 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BlbQsKpq3Ak&feature=youtu.be

O’Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F. (1998). “Charles Babbage”MacTutor History of Mathematics archive. School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St Andrews, Scotland.

Tech Today. “Here’s How Many Digital Photos Will Be Taken in 2017.” Mylio. October 26, 2017. https://mylio.com/true-stories/tech-today/heres-how-many-digital-photos-will-be-taken-in-2017-repost-oct

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