From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

June 23, 1999*: Post-personal computing

The personal computer (PC) earned its name by comparison. Since those big, room-sized, number crunchers were used in business and research, it sort of made sense to call the cute little status symbols that you put on your desk "personal". And since way back then there wasn't really much to do with them beyond playing games and writing documents (oh, alright, word processing, whatever that means), both of which were distinctly individual endeavors, it really was a rather personal machine. There were other names that were popular for a while: micro-computers were what we had at home, as opposed to the mini-computers which medium-sized businesses purchased (these were often also called "work-stations", which I guess brought about the use of the name "play-station" for game boxes), which in turn got their name through comparison to the real things that sent rockets to the moon and things of that sort.

Actually, I think that the name "personal" might have been better saved for palm-held computers, the sort that you can take with you wherever you go. (I also think that cellular phones would better be called "personal telephones", but I still don't want one.) Quite frankly, this line of thought can lead to quite a bit of interesting, though not necessarily productive, speculation.

Quite often more than one person will use a particular PC, whereas I doubt that anyone loans out their palm-held computer to someone else. But that really doesn't make a difference, and not because they're just names, but because essentially, the very idea of personal computing today seems to be an anachronism.

What does a person do when he or she sits in front of a computer, hands poised above the keyboard, or fist clutching the mouse? Are those activities personal? For many years I used a typewriter to write letters or prepare papers for school.Though there were typewriters that I enjoyed sitting at and others which left me indifferent or worse, beyond the question of whether or not a particular typewriter belonged to me, I can't recall ever referring to them as "personal" typewriters. With some of those typewriters I developed what might be called a personal relationship, but on the whole I could readily sit in front of any typewriter and quickly adjust to its idiosyncrasies, thus being able to type anywhere in the world. Though it might seem that this is also the case with almost any Microsoft Windows based PC, in numerous ways I tend to think that there really is something personal about each machine.

Most people probably don't "personalize" their computers. They don't change the defaults on almost anything: not the icons, not the sounds, not the designated destinations for saving files, or anything else. Most people probably don't know that they can do this. But even if all they do is save a few files in their My Documents folder, they're involved in the process of personalizing their computers. On the most basic level what they're doing is perhaps comparable to programming their remote-controls, but it's a start.

But what interests me here isn't the personal computer, but rather the concept of personal computing. It's not a question of choosing my own icons, of customizing the tool bar to fit my own particular needs, nor even a question of what files are saved in my folders. What's at issue here is a fundamental change that is taking place in our computing habits. If in the past sitting in front of the computer meant that we worked individually, today it means that we're opening ourselves to contact with others. While sitting at my computer, writing a column, a letter, a paper, I'll leave my internet connection open and perhaps accept a Random ICQ message, or visit with a friend, or run a search on a particular subject that tangents off from what I was trying to write. "Alone" at my desk will never be "alone" again.

Many games now come with the option of uploading your own high scores to a public internet site where others can see how many hours you've wasted perfecting your clicking skills. Are my high scores compatible with someone else's? Maybe I'm running a few applications while playing the game, causing the game to run a bit slower, making it easier for me to achieve a higher score. But of course that's not the issue. The issue is that even in something as individual as a computer game we play in our not too spare time, our computer is becoming less a tool for individual diversion and more a tool for communication. Though I know of very few people who do this other than to check out how it works, it's not at all difficult for two people, at separate computers, to work on the same document at the same time and to see each other's work. The technology almost requests us to collaborate rather than work alone.

At least one of the internet related tools that I use let's me know automatically whether an upgrade is available whenever I use that tool. I remember a time when people used to browse computer magazines to find out whether the latest upgrades of their favorite programs had come out. Today we can get that information, and even install the upgrade, just through logging on to the internet. Our relationship to our computers is no longer one of "just you and me". It's become a relationship of "through you to everywhere".

Of course the most stunning example of this is the Apple iMac computer. At first it's almost shocking to realize that it comes without a disk drive. The idea seems to be a throwback to the earliest days of home computing. After all, without some means of copying a file onto disk in order to work on that same file in front of another computer we get locked into our own homes and we're doomed to separation from the rest of the world. But the iMac has replaced the disk drive with an internet connection, as though it wants to tell us that even if we want to we can't lock ourselves in, that we always have to be in contact, connected. We can't stay home again. It's still easier today to save a file on disk and load it into the disk drive of another computer if we want to work on that same file somewhere else. But if the iMac metaphor is a sign of the future, it won't be long before we save our files to our web sites, and then download them from those sites for future use or reference. It won't matter if we're at home, or work, or school, or at a friend's computer. Home is where the home page can be accessed.

As the very concept of personal computing evolves into community computing we'll store our information differently. Why print out a copy of an article, or even copy it digitally to my own hard disk, when I can simply link to it. Today we're still unable to embed selected parts of a text into our own web documents, but the day that we'll be able to doesn't seem very far off.
The graphic to the right of this text, for instance, is only passing through. It's not downloaded from the Tel Aviv University server that the rest of this text comes from, but rather is called up from a totally different server. In this particular case, from my brother's web site. I simply took (borrowed? stole? choose your own verb) from his site without ever making a permanent copy of it for myself. It doesn't look any less real, or less a part of this page, for the different path it's travelled. When we'll be able to do this with selected text on a web document numerous questions about ownership and possession will become even more acute than they are today. 

It may well be that we're moving toward a stage in which "who said that" will be less important than what was said. Perhaps we'll all be contributing to a collective pool of knowledge from which we'll copy, and to which we'll paste, with the same ease with which we sit today and work on our own documents. While working on one document we'll be bombarded with announcements that another document we're connected to has been distantly changed, and we'll jump over to take a look, leaving our own comments. Perhaps requests will come in via e-mail for information related to one of the documents we're affiliated with, and we'll send off answers to those queries. Some bored high school student in Australia is sure to find us and we'll probaby exchange a few pleasantries with him or her before moving on. If we want to be alone, we'll have to turn on the television.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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