25 years of interacting with a computer


I’m still surprised that I’m the closing speaker at the 25th anniversary of the computer human interaction society’s conference in San Jose this year on May 3rd 2007. Personally, I don’t have a clue about how one goes about all this technical stuff, I’m just a user and probably classify as an internet addict. Though that’s an odd thing to say about those of us whose work day begins in front the screen and includes coordinating with and connecting to people all around the world who may just be waking up. Are you an iPod addict?

I entered the 12th grade in the Fall semester of 1982 and my choice of classes included Computer 1 and later in the Spring, Computer 2. Twenty five years ago, I first sat down in front of a computer monitor, a cpu and a keyboard. There were two 5 and a quarter inch disk drives – one to load DOS 1.0 with and the other to hold our homework. Oh yes, remember those vivid fuschia Verbatim floppy covers? Remember when leaving floppies in the back seat of the car was guaranteed to give you a gooey mess? I just bought a Pentium 4 a couple of years ago and paid extra for a 3.5" drive. I was mocked and laughed at but at least I can access all my old data, sometimes.

On my 26th birthday, I asked for and received an incomparable birthday gift from my father [who complained to my mom about the price and mom said "well who asked you to say yes to her?"]. It was an IPC laptop – black & white, 486 DSX [that meant it didn’t need a math co-processor], 120 MB HDD and 20MB Ram. Wow! And it still WORKS! I have it at home right now, it runs Windows 3.1 and file manager and I don’t need to turn on Windows to run Pagemaker on it. My how times have changed!

At 29, I bought a grey market built to order 486 loaded games machine, I’d recently launched the Multimedia Kit from Creative Labs in India as their local distributor was my client at Result:McCann and through that hard work was able to purchase a kit at cost price for my machine. I bought it with my savings and paid cash Rupees 80,000 [my monthly salary at that time was Rs 6,000 and then doubled by McCann to Rs 12000 a month] for this machine – it was purely to play games on. I am to this day an inverterate gamer. After all, once you’ve played Galaxian, Frogger, Space Invaders, PacMan or even Prince of Persia, Doom, Castle Wolfenstien, graduating along with the evolution of the games themselves upto Age of Empires and Civilization, you can see the history of the games industry flash right before your eyes. Any one remember Chip? the 64 levels of chip picking torture using the four arrow keys driving you to distraction?

At 30, I was introduced to the internet – almost simultaneously dad got a Pine internet account – the entry level offered by VSNL with only text based browsing and I joined Hewlett Packard India where we had our own satellite broadband bandwidth to surf the tcp/ip universe. Talk about experiencing the evolution and growth of the internet. I still remind Stu Constantine at Core77 that I first stumbled onto Core77 in 1996 or 1997 from India. Core77 was launched in 1995. Stu and I recently came reluctantly to the conclusion that we may not be wholly in tune with was current in popular culture online amongst undergraduate students. Very reluctantly.

Next saturday I will be 41 – ideally while sampling suitable single malt scotch in Scotland – nice alliteration that! ;p and what is my experience as a human interacting with the computer?

And more importantly, when I look up from my screen, and my eyes lose focus and soften into that dreamy look that accompanies deep pondering thoughts, what do I see when I look ahead to the next 25 years?

Human interaction, I recently read on a blog somewhere. I wish I could find it. The concept was important, it said, it isn’t human computer interaction or computer human interaction. It was human interaction. Do we have phone human interaction? No, we assume the phone is tool to facilitate communication between two or more human beings. Yes?

So is not this blog post but one minute example of a tool that facilitates communication between two or more humans? Is not flickr? What about gmail and chat? Skype – phone, video, chat or files? What about all of them – then we begin to see the limitations. Perhaps that is why we yearn for the iPhone or Jeff Han’s intuitive powerful full handed movements that allow him to feel as though he is truly delving the depths of cybermedia and cyberspace?

I was saying to someone just yesterday that it won’t be any one single computer that will be the most powerful computer in the world but in fact this was already there – the cyberbrain. Here’s an example, call it a back cpu or massively parallel processing or whatever – but the combination of human beings interacting with each other using the tools of the connectivity that broadband gives us gave rise to the social web. the rise of the missing sense of community that we as social beings, as human animals need. And the more we connect and see and share the more we realize that people all over the world have the same hopes and dreams and aspirations as we do, they just look a bit funny. But so what, don’t we, in our own mirrors, each day?

Now I must reach beyond and see what lies yonder…

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3 Responses to 25 years of interacting with a computer

  1. Hi Niti,
    I really appreciate your post–the last couple of paragraphs particularly resonate with me. I too think that this rise of the social web is humans wanting (needing) to interact with each other. This is why your blog exists and why I write this comment.
    As technology changes and we seemingly shrink distances between us, we return to the primal instinct of reaching within by reaching out. I see in your words reflections of my truth as I’m sure you see the reflection of your truths in the words of others.
    Isn’t this just the affirmation that we are all of the same essence and long to revel in this joyous dance of reflections?
    Peace, Matthew

  2. niti bhan says:

    Yes and there’s more besides… it also signals the realization, of the shift. What shift? the shift away from seeing the computer as an entity in and of itself, rather than another tool – like the fax, the phone, the telegraph or the radio – that humans use to communicate and connect with each other.
    And taking this thought one step further – what has been the impact of the sudden growth in the sales of mobile handphones in emerging markets and the bottom of the pyramid segments of society? For those of us for whom technology was only something to be seen from afar in newsreels or the cinema, we are finally able to hold a piece of it in our hands, and aspire to connecting with and learning about the larger world around us.
    The interesting thing would be to see the rise of this awareness and compare and contrast it to the contextual worldview of those who grew up immersed in ‘net culture’ or ‘the social web’ like any 25 year old today.
    Just rambling… ;p

  3. What would be nice would be if the network allowed us to live closer together, rather than further apart. When I look at the current batch of social networking software, I see software that is designed to address the social ills of the ex-urbia.
    As one who must reconcile himself to having missed every last ship in the perpetual boom of the last 12 years, I can only hope that there is something to be gained, besides stock options for all this churn.
    Last year, I wrote a post called, Influence Scales. The notion being that the Machievllian nonsense about power doesn’t apply, might take you to middle management, but not beyond. Actually, I just got a book called The No Asshole Rule, which I’m sure is going to do an excellent job of dissecting the disfucntion of power in the workplace.
    Influence, however, is something that scales, and the software that we need is the software that will help us manage our influence, keep our promises.

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