Computing Futures

When I was young I tinkered with radios, record players and just about anything I cold take apart. I even started an electronics club at school, persuading a teacher to campaign with the faculty to buy some basic components and soldering irons. Our school had a single BBC computer between 1000 pupils which I managed to view from a distance. When I first went to technical college after school, we spent a year theorising, flowcharting & programming computers without actually using one. The net effect of this was I became disillusioned with computing, my school boy dream of becoming a robotisist was more or less scuppered by lack of hands on experience, in short I lost my way.

Later I revived my interest at a second college in London, it was very hands on affair with electronics. We built stuff like bistable and astables from scratch and programmed a microprocessor (6502) motherboard using a hex keypad and 7 segment LED displays. After this I attended university, focusing on Electronics Systems Engineering which was electronics with computing (analog and digital). We did things like analog control systems using analog computing blocks to create PID based control systems. One example I remember fondly machine having a dial that controlled via a motor another replica dial, the object was to get the replica dial to follow the movements you initiated on the control dial. This kind of problem sounds simple until you actually try to do it – Thats when you learn about dynamics, thats when engineering control and real world reveal themselves via experimentation. You take those tools that you learnt in Maths class and actually apply them to physically controlling something, its a real eye opener. Once you have been there its difficult to get the same satisfaction from an theory or algorithm. Doing stuff that has physical results is deeply satisfying and incredibly rewarding. Fast forward to today with the rise of making and hacking, I think this is why folks like to tinker and to hack, its simultaneously a creative, physical and educational exercise using 3 crucial parts of the brain. Adding opensource to the hardware equation engages a 4th part of the brain – social and community interaction, these in turn feedback,amplify and reinforce those creative juices.

In the earlier days of computing we tinkered and hacked a great deal both with the software and the hardware innards of computers. Eventually Apple and motorola, Intel and Microsoft came along and began their long journey of unification of computing singularity. As these companies pushed forward in their singular directions the other ideas and tinkering of computing fell away replaced instead by prescribed de-facto standardisation and convenient monoculture. I think we lost a great deal on that journey, the train was moving so fast that alternative concepts were simply passed like passenger-less stations on an express line. so keen were the drivers of these corporations to increase their revenue, that little thought was given to the question of whether it was the right direction or not, we were launched headlong into obscurity, conform or be dammed.

I think now however we are coming to the pinnacle of that ignorance, the train is slowing and the wheels are starting to rattle loose, the energy providing the locomotion is no longer sufficient to provide acceleration, rather we are now experiencing deceleration. But this isn’t a train wreck its more a darwinian, a fork in computing evolution that leads to a thousand dead ends, some of which will take years maybe decades to fizzle out. The latest greatest example of this is the iPad a minor fork of a struggling branch, one of the latter attempts to reinvent this evolutionary cul-de-sac.

At the same time the iPad reveals how this once firm evolutionary trunk is beginning to bifurcate, take at look at its innards to reveal ARM based processing from what was an embedded microprocessor IP company, very different from the end to end design and manufacture of Intel and motorola. yet the iPad is the ultimate in this same trunk of evolution, an inevitable device hatched to be used as an instrument of consumption. This is not a computer with which you hack or tinker, it is not a device for which you are expected to create, this it a consumption gateway to its vendor, the pinnacle of our computing evolution. This is what our best minds can come up with, its a hands off, design for single purpose, its actually a just very pretty cash register for its manufacturer Apple. Pretty soon the rest of the herd will follow in their footsteps placing the final nails in the coffin of this popular computing evolution.

Obviously I am little sad to see it decay in this manner, but I am not surprised, it was inevitable, driven by a selfish 20th century industrial strategy, the result of a economic foundation whose days are numbered. But surely I hear you say “it has been huge success, look a the proliferation of personal computers, look at how little they cost, look at the bang for buck you get from these prolific PCs.” It is true, if population is a measure of success, then they are very successful. However throughout its assent I have often wondered about those ideas that have fallen by the wayside, all of those missed opportunities, the many diverse possibilities that could have taken us down different roads. Maybe just maybe things may have turned out much more different even more successful and much more diverse. For example if we had taken a more concurrent approach to computing from both a hardware and software perspective rather than being blindly led by Intel’s clock race we might have ended up with a more evolutionary successful class of computing. Something much more robust than the current crop of high end PCs and servers, something more creative and enabling than the iPad.

But these are just whimsical what ifs, we cannot change the past, what is done is done. But we can invent our own future. This is a good time to reinvent a better more flexible computing, one not tied to clock races, corporate profits and monocultures, rather something more radical, computing that can effectively reinvent, reconfigure and replicate itself on the fly. Computing that is designed with real world concurrency, responsive,reactive and parallel like the real world, something not hampered by 20th century sequential thinking, a new computing of real and the physical rather than a virtual one. More importantly I want computing I can tinker and experiment with, something not confined to repetitive recipes, but one with infinitely combinational components with which I can assemble new ideas. Computing that connects to physical as well as virtual, computing which enables the internet of things, computing that enables me to make new things. Most of all I want creative, intelligent computing not stupid consumptive computing, I want 21st century computing for everybody and everything and all the things I cannot even envisage yet and I want it open completely open from the bottom up this time.

Who is with me..

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