Computers before the Web

My brother-in-law sent me the above tweet this morning, knowing I’ve been ensconced in computer history the last few months. The “Kids React to Old Computers” video he pointed me to is going viral, and it provides an interesting premise the think about computer history. Namely, just how unintuitive computing thrity five years ago seems to us today. The role of personal computing in defining current moment is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and no one frames that evolution better than Alan Kay in this 1987 video.

It’s also interesting how folks like Wes Clark, back in 1967, saw personal computing and the nascent internet as somewhat antithetical movements. In fact, I’ve been reading Stephen Levy’s 1984 book Hackers about the emergence of a whole movment of computer hackers who were best know for breakthroughs in hardware and software for personal computing. That said, there is only tangential discussion of the internet as the force we understand it as now. That seems odd primarily because so much of our current understanding of computing history is defined through the lens of the world wide web. It seems to me the mid-1990s was the moment when these realted, but seemingly distinct, histories of the internet and personal computing became less and less distinguishable. The mid-1990s, thanks to this brave new protocol for sharing resources, marks a moment when personal computers and the internet became more and more synonymous.

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8 Responses to Computers before the Web

  1. Alan Levine says:

    That’s funny I saw that video today while searching for something quite different. Their expressions are priceless, though am not sure if any of them said “It’s so Beige!”

    You might enjoy some of the Ted Nelson videos on his channel- I started watching the Computer Cynic series- he says be invented the “back” button! http://youtube.com/user/TheTedNelson

  2. There was a certain kind of independence that the personal computer epitomized – the idea that you owned and managed your own resource. As soon as you take that computer and connect it to the network it becomes part of something much bigger, which gives it incredible power but you also give up something in the process.

    • Reverend says:

      Yeah, that tension between personal computing and the internet, as much as there even is one, is something I am starting to think I see. Not sure if it is fueld by the Wes Clark anecdote, but I was just struck that Levy’s book is pretty much independent of the idea of the internet in the grandiose terms we think of it today.

  3. Oh, and did you watch this one – https://archive.org/details/episode_1134 – an artifact from right at the moment when the tipping point from PCs to networked computing was occurring. Mosaic is mentioned as a new application, but “the web” is not yet part of the popular lexicon. A year later the whole game had changed.

    • Reverend says:

      Man, that is awesome, between Alan’s crazy Ted Nelson videos and an early Howard Rheingold circa 1993 I am blow away, blog post coming. I can feel it.

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