What Makes Personal Computers Special?

While in the midst of cleaning out years of clippings and newspaper articles I came across a dot-matrix printout of the editorial below. I recall seeing it in one of the Whole Earth Software Catalog and Review magazines from the 80s but it turns out that was probably a reprint, it originally appeared in the August 1984 issue of Byte Magazine.

People sometimes ask me why there’s so much fuss about personal computers. Now that there are millions of them in the hands of ordinary people, personal computers are, in a sense, commonplace. Even enthusiasts may forget that personal computers are very special indeed. We would enjoy them even if they lacked practical applications and never overcame the digital indifference so often characterized as unfriendliness. To put personal computers in perspective, we should compare them with such earlier cultural watersheds as the printing press, the Industrial Revolution, and the automobile.

Because it made the production of books far more efficient, the printing press made it possible for more people to learn more than ever before. But while the printing press gave creative work a wider audience and eliminated the drudgery of scribes, Gutenberg’s technology did not directly enhance the creativity of the people who wrote books.

The Industrial Revolution made the production of goods far more efficient than ever before. The efficiencies of mass production made possible the accumulation of great wealth. Unfortunately, mass production also brought about cultural impoverishment of many workers. The assembly line deprived workers of the creativity that belonged to craftsmen— the stamp of individuality that went with good handwork. The Encyclopaedia Britannka puts it this way: “. . .the discipline of the factory (a discipline often imposed by strangers), the remorseless monotony of many of the tasks, and the physical hazard and discomfort of some of the new processes took a heavy toll.” Few would deny that the Industrial Revolution was, on balance, a good thing. But it did exact a great human price.

The automobile changed society for all time by broadening the experience of millions of people. The ability to travel quickly and widely enabled people to see more of the world and to judge it for themselves. The automobile’s influence resembled that of the printing press; while widespread book publishing extended knowledge, the mass production of automobiles extended experience. With broadened experience came wider choice in place and type of work. But the automobile did not directly enhance creativity; furthermore, the automobile was produced by the dehumanizing assembly-line methods introduced by the Industrial Revolution.

The personal computer disseminates knowledge, as the printing press did; increases productivity, as the Industrial Revolution did; and broadens experience, as the automobile did. In many applications, personal computers also reduce drudgery such as needless retyping and recalculation.

What sets personal computers apart, however, is their ability to enhance the creativity of the individual. They have justly been called “mind appliances” and “thought amplifiers.” They can help us manipulate information and ideas with remarkable freedom. Rather than forcing us all to work alike under the supervision of strangers, personal computers will let us develop our own unique ways of working. Rather than requiring personal sacrifices to achieve greater social goals, personal computers will contribute to the achievement of social goals by enriching the lives of individual persons. Programs like Bill Budge’s Pinball Construction Set, Bill Atkinson’s MacPaint, and Warren Robinett’s Rocky’s Boots offer glimpses of things to come.

Will personal computers make us all geniuses or saints? No. But they will help us make the most of ourselves. That is ample reason for regarding personal computers as far more than just another major consumer item.

—Phil Lemmons, Editor in Chief


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