As IBM blows out the birthday candles on behalf of its 20-year-old PC business, there are still plenty of people eager to stomp all over the cake.
There have been several stories already — we published one of them a few weeks ago — featuring interviews with the original engineers who helped design the 5150 when it launched on Aug. 12, 2001. A few of them include timelines, most include “then and now” product shots, and almost all of them feature some commentary on how the machine has changed our lives. This feels like the right time to do so, given the current market slump in which PCs appear to have reached a saturation point, and with the dot-com implosion safely behind us.
Many of the stories I’ve read, however, take a less than celebratory tone for such an occasion. The PC is blamed for creating cubicle culture and shutting us off from each other. PCs have turned us into workaholics, they say, or have reduced us to frustrated lunatics who scream at inanimate objects (though it did not create the first PC, IBM is credited with securing mass-market acceptance for the machines).
I was tempted to do the same thing, but I can’t. It’s just too easy, and far too short-sighted when you look beyond the 20-year time span. I’m fortunate to be young enough to have experienced the first wave of PC culture and old enough to have been around just before it spread its tentacles all over the world. As a young child I saw offices lined with IBM typewriters, with secretaries or (in the case of newsrooms) reporters fussing with white-out and faded ribbons. I also, co-incidentally, saw the rise and fall of video cassette recorders (VCRs) and can assure the naysayers that it did not take the PC for everyday people to yell at machines.
The deeper cultural transformation, I suspect, comes largely from the expectations the industry creates in consumers’ minds, rather than the machines themselves. PCs seemed to indicate that the science-fiction dreams of Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury were finally going to come to life. The PC makers, naturally, have counted upon our hopes, continually promising better speech recognition, more artificial intelligence and connectivity to other points in the home or office. PCs have proven so good at word processing and transmitting data that it seems illogical that they couldn’t fulfill the rest of our wish list.
Like the Internet itself, PCs seemed to promise limitless possibilities. Of course, the death of so many dot-com businesses shows us that there are practical limits to what the Web can accomplish. It only took us a brief stock market roller-coaster ride to realize it, but the PC, as a modern appliance, may need another 20 years.
I also don’t think you can really peg society’s alienation on the desktop. I think of Les Nesman, the quirky newscaster from the sitcom WKRP, who used masking tape to create invisible walls around his desk, on which a PC was nowhere to be seen. Most people, if they wish to cut themselves off, can do so just as easily by pushing paper around as a mouse. Just wait until the handheld turns 20: we’ll no doubt hear the same complaints, but judging by the growing divide between Palm fetishists or cell phone fanatics and those of us who do without them, people are learning to pass judgement on the user, rather than the device. This is how it should be.
I congratulate the PC for making it easier for me to revise my work, for ridding me of the click-clack of an electric typewriter’s keys. I salute the PC for giving me a place to store many documents that would otherwise clutter up filing cabinets. Like all knowledge workers who know when to quit, I tip my hat to the PC for giving me something to shut down at the end of a long day. But most of all, I thank the PC for simply being there when I need it.