The Revolution Has Not Yet Succeeded

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Take a look at this quote, from my very good friend & mentor Mitch Kapor:

The great and rapid success of the personal computer industry over the past decade is not without its unexpected ironies. What began as a revolution of individual empowerment has ended with the personal computer industry not only joining the computing mainstream, but in fact defining it.

Despite the enormous outward success of personal computers, the daily experience of using computers far too often is still fraught with difficulty, pain, and barriers for most people, which means that the revolution, measured by its original goals, has not as yet succeeded.

I look at this and think about these words and ideas a lot.

Here’s the kicker: he wrote this in 1991, nearly 25 years ago.

He wrote it as part of an essay for a nerd magazine that only a few of you will remember called Dr. Dobb’s Journal — here’s the whole essay, as repurposed for Terry Winograd’s book Bringing Design to Software.

I can’t overstate how much Mitch’s essay changed my life. I was an undergrad at Stanford, mostly focused on computer architectures and how to make more & more electrons do things for us faster & faster.

But then I read this and everything changed. I stopped caring so much about the things we were making, and started caring a lot more about the things that we wanted to do with them, or really more broadly, with, in & around them.

Mitch had, in 1991 — before the advent of the web & the browser — three profound insights.

First, along the lines of McLuhan and many others before him, it was clear to him, even in a pre-Netscape world, that technology wasn’t just riding alongside of or on top of culture, but was becoming mainstream culture. Even today I’m not sure everyone internalizes that, although it’s becoming harder and harder not to see.

Second, he articulated that like buildings need architects — for taking into account the human needs of a building, rather than purely engineering concerns—software would also need them, not just in the sense of technical architects, but really in the sense of design thinkers. On a personal note, once I read that, and thought about it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. For me, it just changed everything in my perspective.

But mostly, and crucially, he pointed out that our software and systems were mostly not delivering on the promise. (It’s an aside, but for those of you who are interested in the real origins of the movement towards personal empowerment from personal computers, I highly recommend John Markoff’s What the Dormouse Said.)

So I think about this evolution a lot. And as I write today, it’s so clear that we’ve made so much progress since Mitch wrote this in 1991. People (generally) know what design can do and how important it can be (although we have a long way to go on this front, still.) Individuals are so empowered from their phones and tablets, wherever they are, all the time: from a cafe or from Ferguson, from a tiny startup crammed into a loft to while you’re walking down the street. We’ve delivered on so much of the promise.

And yet: when we get a little outside of our Silicon Valley/SF/NYC/Berlin/etc bubble, it’s just so obvious that there’s so much left to do, so much coming.

Along these lines, I love Kevin Kelly’s essay You Are Not Late. Go read it.

We have entered a time of permanent, frenetic, technology-led but human-centered revolution. There’s never, ever been a better time to go make the world you want.

(Photo by James Pond)

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