Log in ....Tribune

Dot.ComLatest in ITFree DownloadsOn hardware

August 20, 2001

Transmutation of personal computer
John Arlidge

THEY called themselves the Dirty Dozen. No one outside their secret society knew their real names. Twenty years ago, they met for the last time. What they did that day changed the lives of everyone, everywhere, forever.

The meeting took place in a stiflingly hot factory in Boca Raton, a coastal town 50 miles north of Miami. Wearing white lab coats and clutching rolls of electrical wire and insulation tape, each member of the team was anxious and exhausted. They had been working 20-hour days for a year to finish their top-secret project — ‘logging on at 6 am and quitting when we needed a beer’.


Their moment of triumph came shortly after 10 am when a technician flicked a switch on an off-white plastic box, 20 inches wide and six inches high. A milky light covered the rounded, dark green screen that sat on top of the box... and a cheer went up. One of the men, Patty McHugh, said it ‘could be heard all the way to Silicon Valley’. The first cheap, easy to use, mass-market computer had been born.

Bill Gates (R), chairman and chief software architect of Microsoft, stand with two of the oldest computers on each end and three of the newest laptop computers in the centre.
Bill Gates (R), chairman and chief software architect of Microsoft, stand with two of the oldest computers on each end and three of the newest laptop computers in the centre. The event was held to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the personal computer.

IBM called its new creation the Personal Computer — PC for short — and within two decades it has transformed the way we work, talk, write, travel, relax, sleep and think.

In what turned out to be the underestimate of the century, IBM predicted it would sell 241,683 PCs. That was all the world would need. In its first five years alone, IBM sold three million - and over the next 15 years sales exceeded 500 million. No other technology has spread that fast. The telephone took decades to become affordable, and it was a generation before most homes in Britain had a television.

Today almost every office in the world has PCs, as do millions of homes in the West. Almost half are connected to the Internet, putting their users in touch with almost one billion persons. The PC industry is worth $ 165 billion — the fourth biggest business in the world after energy, cars and illegal drugs.

But statistics alone does not convey the scale of the phenomenon. Just as the coming of steamships, trains, cars and aeroplanes changed the way we live; the PC revolution has transformed our culture. Few would disagree with Michael Dell, chairman of the giant US IT firm Dell, that PCs have become ‘as fundamental as electricity’. You might even be reading this article on a PC, via The Observer Web site.

Like all-powerful technologies, the PC has an immense capacity for both good and bad. By promoting fast, accurate communication and analysis, the PC has helped us uncover facts that would otherwise have lain undiscovered for centuries. Without the PC we would not have sent probes to Mars. A cure for cancer, HIV or Alzheimer’s disease would be unthinkable.

PCs have made everyday tasks quicker and simpler. We can do our supermarket shopping, book our holidays, and check our bank balances online. PC technology means our cars can tell us how to get where we want to go and warn us when they are about to break down. The advent of cheap computing has sparked a second industrial revolution, creating unimaginable wealth for a few and much-needed jobs in areas where the first industrial revolution is a distant memory. In Scotland more people are now employed in PC manufacturing than in steel making, shipbuilding, agriculture or the whisky industries combined. Dundeein Scotland and Bristol in England are at the centre of Britain’s (pounds sterling)934 million computer games industry — the biggest outside Japan.

So far, so positive. But the PC has had other effects that are proving to be a mixed blessing. By speeding up almost every aspect of our lives and making chores easier, the PC has created a convenience culture. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, whatever we want, we want - and expect to get - now. We even relax at speed - films, pop singles and TV shows are getting shorter.

The golden promise of this convenience society was that our lives would be simpler, calmer and easier, yet the amount of work many of us are expected to do has grown dramatically. We are spending more and more time communicating through our PCs — the average office worker sends and receives 100 electronic messages a day — and less and less time talking to colleagues face-to-face and relaxing with friends and family.

Some warn that we are slaves to our machines, and turning into socially inept loners. Our hyper-speed, double-click culture has led to a sharp rise in stress-related illness. Three in 10 employees suffer stress. And there has been a serious decline in the number of hours we sleep. In 1910, the average adult in industrialised countries slept for 10 hours a night; now the figure is below seven hours.

With a PC, many activities can be carried out anywhere, anytime. That has given some professionals the chance to downshift, working as effectively in a remote Highland croft as in a city office. But, for others, this freedom has created a new type of enslavement. Call centres in the North and Scotland may be Britain’s fastest-growing industry but, as recent reports from the Health and Safety Executive have shown, they have also become the modern equivalent of nineteenth century dark satanic mills.

In offices generally, staff that have used the freedom and communication PCs offer are finding themselves on the street when employers have snooped over their shoulders. Nearly a third of companies now store and review e-mail. In the UK, new legislation gives the Government the right to intercept any e-mail sent to or from our PCs at work or at home. Big Brother is online.

Now, at the 20th anniversary of the affordable electronic future, we are seeing signs of a backlash. Sales of PCs are falling for the first time. Firms are introducing e-mail-free Fridays to encourage staff to talk to each other again. Some experts now predict the death of the PC.

In some ways they are right. The PC as we know it will disappear — but it will return in new, more powerful, more insidious forms. The new PC handsets will also unlock our front door, start our car and play our favourite music. Twenty years after PC 1 was lifted off the production line in Boca Raton, it is still revolutionising the way we live. The future is not a case of post-PC. It is PC-plus. And you cannot log off. — ONS