The Computer Chronicles

Brian S Hall / March 31st, 2014

Why are you here? Why are you even reading this?

Me? I know why and am grateful for the odd, stirring, mostly unplanned path that brought me here.

My father spent over 30 years working inside an auto factory, the first 20 “on the line”. When he heard “computers were the future”, he saved up, found one at a garage sale and proudly brought it home. It was a Commodore 64I loved it from the start.

Confession: I have never cared much for coding, programming or building my own computer. I was however — and still am — acutely interested in what I could do with a computer. In the case of my 64, I was a kid, so mostly gaming. Lucky for me, dad’s garage sale booty included a “floppy drive”, several games and various “educational” programs.  

In short time, I became reasonably expert at H.E.R.O., Fort Apocalypse, and Summer Games. There was a time when I engaged in far more virtual Raid(s) over Moscow than any of today’s most capable generals.

Commodore_64_Box

The Commodore 64 cost far more than my parents could reasonably afford. So from the start they made it plain it was very important, not at all a toy (despite how I used it), and repeated this to me like grace before dinner. Computers, they insisted, are the future. Be a part of that.

That’s why I’m here.

Intel Inside. And Maybe Hopes & Dreams.

Of course my native Detroit was far away from Silicon Valley, the fast beating heart of the computing revolution. It didn’t matter. The 64 carried me here. For all the machines that followed, the used Mac, the shiny new Mac LC, the Toshiba laptops and many more, it was that first 64 which shed a light on my future, a future where people and data and machines and ideas and random musings are all connected.

The Commodore 64 lured me down the rabbit hole that was online bulletin boards, which led me to Prodigy, Dialog, Compuserve and others. From there, I discovered Mosaic, then Netscape. By then I had a career in computer tech, almost without planning it; my parents’ intentions realized.

I can’t stop now. I don’t want to stop. It’s not just there’s more to come. More is coming faster, and it’s even more amazing.

Consider the scary-exciting merger of healthcare and computing. Acknowledge the rapid rise of Facebook and global messaging, from nothing to vital in a few short years. Reflect upon the astounding functionality of the iPhone, the utter pervasiveness of Google, how giant Microsoft is morphing before our eyes. We have new media, mobile payments, crypto currencies and experimental forms of retail. Global connectivity has dethroned the sovereigns of time and distance. Yet, both real time and precise location are now more critical to more of what we do and say (and even think, see and feel) than ever before. I did not see that coming.

I am here as well because the visions, proclamations and inspired work of the early computing pioneers really did come true. Their words, their mad tinkerings quickly spread far beyond Silicon Valley, where the shrouded potential of their creations seeped into our computer-less consciousness, found their way into the local news and duly informed my parents who went straight out and acquired for me everything they were told I would need to become a part of the future.

I am pleased to still be part of this long running serial.

Yes, our industry failed at much. The endemic spread of pornography, the utter devaluation of personal privacy, our rather casual silence at how the latest waves of computing technology are displacing good, smart, hardworking people by the millions, leaving them with little to do but hope self-employment, freelancing and the sharing of labor and tools can somehow enable them to get by. There is much to fix.

Random Access

The arrival of that Commodore 64 led to another serendipitous find. We could afford only one television in those days, no cable, and when home, my father religiously watched the local news and all sports. Big-ticket purchases like the 64, however, demanded he work on Saturdays — time and a half made those 8 extra hours of work equal 12 hours of pay, which mattered dearly. Which led to him being gone one particular Saturday. Which led me to gleefully run through all 9 channels. Which is when I stumbled upon The Computer Chronicles.

“the amazing palmtop computer”

The Computer Chronicles documented, almost from the very beginning, the rise, the spread, the incredible innovation of personal computing. It proved to me — because it was on television — a career in computers was viable, no matter where I lived.

I am more excited, more convinced of the transformative power of computing tech and its ability to achieve net good than ever before. This is one reason why I never play favorites. It’s why I can’t suggest you buy Bitcoin, no matter how hyped it has become, or why I cannot recommend the iPhone 5c, no matter how greatly I admire Apple. It’s why my posts cause numerous CEOs and VCs (and several editors) to immediately block me from their Twitter feeds, and limit my access.

All worth it. This stuff matters to me and I fully appreciate how it impacts you.

bits-commodore-custom2

We are the screen. The screen is the world.

Whatever the reasons you are here, I am glad you are. Now hang on tight.

As Google and Facebook appear to buy up everything that was only yesterday considered cutting edge, as venture capital becomes, somehow, even more of an insider’s game, with not even scraps available to the rest of us, I nonetheless stay positive. I know money, computing power, networking, software, the creeping of technology into all aspects of our life and into every personal and business endeavor, and the random, very human mutations that takes hold inside this swirling glorious mix will continue to create still more and larger revolutions, more big and bigger bangs, more insanely great.

We are rapidly transitioning from the era of personal computing to an era where each person is a computer — with eyewear, wristbands and clothing all capturing who we are, what we do, and how, when and where. Then sending this data floating off, joining up with 7 billion similar nodes.

We are the screen. The screen is the world.

I say this all not because I have a product to sell you or because the larger, more pumped the market, the greater the return on my quickie investments. I say this because it’s true: The computer chronicles have only just started.

Brian S Hall

Brian S Hall writes about mobile devices, crowdsourced entertainment, and the integration of cars and computers. His work has been published with Macworld, CNBC, Wall Street Journal, ReadWrite and numerous others. Multiple columns have been cited as "must reads" by AllThingsD and Re/Code and he has been blacklisted by some of the top editors in the industry. Brian has been a guest on several radio programs and podcasts.
  • Bruno Deserto

    Really good article, a very realistic and passionate tell of a man who truly loves what he does. That is why I keep coming here and this is why I always will.

  • klahanas

    In many ways that Commodore 64 was more “personal” than the paradigms to which we are heading. Desktops, for now, are the exception. This is not to be confused with it being easier to use, or even more powerful. In that era, you could write your own programs directly on the computer, or a friend, colleague, or software maker could. Magazines published source code of various utilities, so you could learn more, if interested. There were also no “overlords of content”.

    It was that liberating (from the mainframe) spirit that led the PC revolution. Today each person isn’t a computer as much as they are a node dangling off the cloud (mainframe). If you are not in physical possession of your processing, or data, the machine is less personal.
    This is not to say that the cloud, or mainframes, don’t have their place. They most certainly do, but we are giving up a very fundamental expectation with these approaches.

    • What computer are you using? I can write “programs” directly on my Mac, Windows or Linux computer using any of a number of computer languages. There are many MANY open source programs that you are free to download and modify and there are many free online training courses. There are NO “overlords of content”.

      • klahanas

        You clearly missed, “Desktops, for now, are the exception”.

  • Space Gorilla

    The screen is the computer.

    • The screen is the computer. Very true (and I believe I’ve written something like that previously). As I’ve said in earlier posts, we are very close to a world where screens are true computers, manipulated by our touch and voice. They can be placed anywhere/everywhere. Our data is in the cloud and we can be identified (thanks to Apple) by our fingerprint.
      Thus… every screen/every computer in the world can become our own personal computer. We can just about do this right now.

      • klahanas

        The CPU is the computer, regardless of where it resides. Unless the screen contains the CPU that actually does the computing, it’s a display. Nothing more. Even then, it’s more than a screen, it’s a computer.

      • Space Gorilla

        Your thing was the smartphone is the computer. I said the screen is the computer, many times, in comment threads, some on your old site I believe. But feel free to use it, it’s obvious anyway. I say the screen because that’s the intersection between the task and the user. You can make all sorts of arguments about the computer technically being in some other place (such as below, it’s the CPU!), but computing is mostly visual/touch and will be for a long time. The display is the intersection, hence it is the computer. By the way, screens won’t necessarily always be physical surfaces.

        • Great insight — consider it stolen;-)

          • Space Gorilla

            No problem. I was also one of the first blathering about Apple as a company with a billion users (years ago when the typical reaction to that idea was that I was nuts). Others have more recently articulated what a billion users means better than I have. Hopefully you can do the same with the screen/computer concept.

          • klahanas

            Dare ya to use it! 😉

          • http://techpinions.com/my_verse_is_the_destruction_of_everything/27065

            (don’t always remember what I wrote, but bing does)

        • klahanas

          See…the problem I have with that, is that the cover is not the book, the paper and ink isn’t the book either. They (and their digital analogues) are a component of the book, but the real thing are the thoughts presented in the book.

          • Space Gorilla

            And you put those thoughts into your brain by viewing the *page*, which is the intersection of the thoughts in the book and *you*. As I said, you can make all sorts of technical arguments that the screen is not the computer, but by doing that you are completely missing the point, which given your admitted bias, I’m not at all surprised by.

          • klahanas

            So I have a screen bias now?

            A tablet is a computer with a screen.
            A smartphone is a computer with a screen.
            An all-in-one is a computer with a screen.
            The screen hooked up to my desktop computer is NOT a computer.
            My TV is NOT a computer.
            My in dash screen is NOT a computer.

            See a pattern here?
            I suppose my refrigerator is my dinner…

          • Space Gorilla

            Your bias causes you to miss the abstraction of the computer. Indeed, the abstraction of the computer makes you angry. Again, I’m not surprised you don’t understand what I’m talking about. There’s no point in discussing this further.

          • klahanas

            What’s with this bias nonsense? Screens don’t compute! They display and aid in I/O.

  • I miss my Commodore VIC 20.

  • jfutral

    My wife contends I am here because I am half-Asian. Apparently it is genetic.

    Joe

    • I won’t argue with your wife.

      • jfutral

        Yeah, me either. Lesson learned the hard way…
        J

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