The Character & Ephemera From a Century of Machine Thinking
Our timeline starts at the beginning of the 19th Century, just as looms became the first programmable machines in use. They used rolls of hole-punched instructions to produce patterns of interweaved thread.
The machine could create endless variations of threaded designs. The output was an inherent expression of taste and culture. Reproducing popular patterns became trivial, and soon enough, everyone could afford to be in vogue.
Three quarters of a century after the invention of the Jacquard Loom, Herman Hollerith had the idea of applying punch cards to census administration. Machines could quickly tabulate and collate information about everyday citizens in an effort to uncover population patterns and general trends.
Hollerith’s invention matured into the 1928 IBM punch card. Each card had the potential to store 80 bits of empirical data on any person or thing in the universe. As machines became more sophisticated, they could collate stacks of cards to reveal even more subtle patterns.
The actual applications tended to involve censuses and accounting. The chaos of everyday railroad shipments and demographic shifts became sensible, digestible tables. The world’s upper management and megalomaniacs rejoiced.
Depending on the decade, a mainframe might have used punch cards, magnetic tape, or even large hard disk drives. Their hulking presence wasn’t the machine’s only intimating feature. These machines seemed to truly think. They could answer abstract questions, play video games, help physicists solve problems, and even talk to other machines to deliver messages to humans hundreds of miles away.
Mainframes were something people read about but hardly anybody used. They were hidden away, serving the masters of big business and government. Some of the more rebellious operators doing academic research wanted their own computer. In fact, they wanted everybody to have their own computer.
A revolution was brewing.
The Personal Computer
The first mass-market personal computers arrived in 1977. Their rollout was so innocuous that no established computer manufacturer was involved. These machines had no clear market and no clear application. They were pioneered by independent thinkers like Chuck Peddle, the PC visionary who created the low-cost CPU that powered tens of millions of Commodores, Apples, Ataris, and Nintendos.
These machines turned on and calmly waited for you to type in a command; the little cursor sat at the left edge of the screen, blinking on and off. They were dumb and not very powerful, but more importantly, they were obedient, and unlike mainframes, they were yours.
The Networked Personal Computer
By 1985, the low-cost personal computer was thinking in visual metaphors. Adoption exploded, and once the machines became interconnected, they really started invading our everyday lives.
Over a billion people use a computer to socialize with others. I’m one of those billion+. Software engineers have done their best to make the computer better at only showing me what I want to see, even amongst the friends I choose. The computer considers what I’ve been looking at and places “relevant” ads. It may also notice I like some friends better than others and get selective about whose posts it shows. It essentially tries to guess what I want before I have to ask. In fact, that’s what most “smart” computers seem to be attempting right now. They’re kind of like the perfect spouse… or are they?
Maybe I want my watch to read my body temperature and automatically adjust the thermostat, but I’m not sure if I want a device to look at my browsing history to control when I receive what information. Machine thinking and human thinking offer very different, and often incompatible, approaches to the world.
This diversity is an asset. As computers get to know us better, the way they mirror our mind can reveal habitual thinking, self-destructive tendencies, and other messy human-errata. Just as the machines of the last century helped us see broad strokes of human behavior, the machines of this century will help us look deeper within ourselves as individuals.