Skip main navigation

Making IS/ICT

In this video Viktor Dörfler talks about the history, the present and the future of computers.
This time I want to tell you history. I usually don’t necessarily like to talk history. So for example, if I can explain how the email works without telling you about the postal pigeon then I’m not going to tell you about the postal pigeon. However, I think that in terms of understanding the picture we have about computers, it is very useful to talk about history. So I will divide this history into four stages. The day before yesterday which is the ancient history of computers, yesterday which is something that is just about finishing, today it is something that we are doing, and tomorrow which already kind of started today, OK?
So when it all starts for us about computers, it is in the mid-20th century when they started to build these huge, huge, huge machines. And one event that heavily influences our picture about computers was that, in 1953, there were presidential elections in the United States. And as it always happens, there are various agencies trying to predict who the winner will be. And all the agencies agreed on this occasion that Eisenhower will lose the elections. And just the day before the elections actually started to take place, a small TV studio called CBS, they rented the best computer of the time. It was called UNIVAC.
Now when they rented this computer, they went, on the day of the elections, to ask those people who already voted who they voted for. They put this data into the computer and around noon, when they had about 7-8% of the votes in, they calculated the odds and UNIVAC said that Eisenhower will win. Now this is a tricky situation. It was a very, very different time than today. At the time, the elected power was greater than the non-elected power of the media. This means, if these guys decided to come up with the news that Eisenhower will win and he loses, they are out of business. They will now be able to appear on TV again. They offended the next president.
However, if they are the only ones who say that Eisenhower will win and he really wins, then they will be the favourites. Everyone else said that he will lose. So they tried to do this in a little bit softer way, but actually to say what UNIVAC came up with. So they did not really say that we think that Eisenhower will win. They said that UNIVAC says that Eisenhower will win. Now what happened is that Eisenhower actually won the elections. Of course, all the other agencies were then devastated because they all said that he would lose.
So they tried to soften this kind of effect and they start to say, yeah, OK, we really said this, but you see it was humanly impossible to predict that Eisenhower will win. It was only this smart computer, only the UNIVAC, was able to tell that Eisenhower will win. And that is where we can find the beginnings of this kind of nimbus of the smart machines. It is also very much in harmony with the– about how the sociologists talk about history because previously in the Industrial Revolution, they created machines that were replacing the manual work and they called them the strong machines. And obviously, this should have something to do with the knowledge work. Therefore, it would be the smart machines.
Now when they started, those who were making it, they were making something completely new, something that did not exist before. So that’s the day before yesterday. And the users, they were also doing something that was not possible before. Imagine that there were only a few universities that could afford to get one single of these brilliant machines and people were queuing day and night to get a few minutes with the smart machine to try to do something on it. And of course, those, the programmers, who were actually able to tell the computer what to do, they were becoming like wizards would be in the previous eras. So this was the beginning. And then, it started to shift.
Obviously, making the computers became cheaper, they wanted to sell more and more of them, wanted to have computers everywhere. However, if the computers are so incredibly smart, then it is not just anyone who can deal with them. So what to do about this? And then they started to talk about that the machine is still as smart as it was. It actually it’s even smarter. But it’s also so nice that it will allow even the not so smart users to use it. That is where we are getting the user friendly machine term from.
And of course, we all like user friendly interfaces because we don’t want to click too long around and so on, but this is the origin of the term. That it is the great machine that is getting down to us earthlings to allow us to use it. What happened to the user in this period? It is the era of the databases ERP systems and so on. They were able to do things faster. So the same things that they were doing before, but it all became faster and faster, and that was obviously very useful for organisations.
Now what happens today is that, obviously, the making of the computers continued and it is now so many of them, well, most people I know have at least two three computers per person. If you look at the household and original event, they talked about computers, it was supposed to be something for work. When they started to talk about the PCs, IBM did not want to believe that they could sell any PCs because why on earth would anyone want to have a computer at home? Now, you almost, in every household, have more computers than how many people live there. So it is some significant change again. And what, from the user side, I would say that it is becoming more convenient.
It is different, OK? So it is– we do things differently. One phenomenon, for example, the double screening. So if you are watching your TV, and you are doing something on your tablet computer at the same time, or on your laptop, this is one of the very well accepted phenomena. So we’ve started to do things in very different ways than how we were doing them before. Now what happened on the side of making the computers? Well, it did not change from the early beginnings how they are doing it. It was– what is really changing is what they are selling. First they were selling the smart machines, then the user friendly machines, and now, finally, they started to sell tools.
And it is a very, very useful thing. Theodore Roszak, who is, in my view, the best people– best person about computer science. He’s a sociologist, but he learned enough about computers to talk about them very sensibly. He says that the computer is a brilliant solution still in search of a problem. So he still did not quite get what the computers are for, but we are using them quite a lot anyway. But the first time, the computers are sold as tools. Of course, it is not one single tool, it is a huge toolkit because we can use it for many different things as we can run many different applications on the same computer. However, it also started to change.
It started with the internet, with the social media, and so on, that also the making of the computers starts to change. And you can see the first signs of it. So now I am starting to talk about what will happen tomorrow. You know, there is a rule about making predictions. You should always make a prediction about something that will happen after you died so that no one can tell you that you were wrong. Now I’m going to tell you a prediction about something that is going to happen in the next few years so you can actually tell me that I was wrong, if I am. Of course, the reason is that I don’t believe that I am possibly wrong.
So in terms of making the computers, it also started to become computer-aided. You can today, without any computer knowledge whatsoever, build a smartphone app. You just go on the internet. You try to find something that provides you with an environment. And I did this, on numerous occasions, with first-year undergraduate business school students. They came up with a nice idea and they just figured out how to build an app. Not a single one of them having any background in programming or computer science. So this is also changing how we are making the computers.
But what I would really like to see, it is probably a kind of wishful thinking a little bit, but it is that the users will have more freedom. And you can see that we are shifting towards that. So we have incredible amount of choices of what kind of applications you want to use, what sort of phones or computers you want to buy, and so on. But also what we use it for. Whether we use it for. But, of course, sometimes it is also very useful to close down your laptop, switch off your tablet and your phone, and just start thinking.
Computers are often described by sociologists as the second industrial revolution: the first being the strong machines, the second the smart machines and also as the third information revolution: the first being the invention of writing, the second the invention of printing, and the third the invention of computers. We could even make a case that either the third or the fourth information revolution was the internet.
What is very important to understand from this video is that since we have adopted the picture of the smart machines, the making of computers did not really change. By making computers, here I mean both the hardware and the software. It does not make a great difference conceptually whether the computer is room-size or can fit in my pocket or even my glasses, albeit that it makes a huge difference in using it. Those who make the computers continuously make it faster, smaller, and increase its capacity. It can also do more and more, but most of the time we use our computers as a typewriter, fax and phone. But perhaps something is changing now…
This article is from the free online

Understanding Information and Technology Today

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education