My oldest brother was born at just the right time to participate in the groundbreaking new world of home computing. My dad bought the family a Commodore 64 and I invested huge swathes of time playing games, occasionally learning very basic computer programming from my brother. A 386 (one of the first modern PCs) and later a Pentium processor found their way into our home. Soon after that, the internet was born. My brother stayed with the developing technology and is now a programmer at Google.
His kids, on the other hand, have never known a world without the internet, PSPs, streaming video and Bluetooth. Technology has insinuated itself into the fabric of their lives, and they may never experience such a severe paradigm shift as home computing or the internet made when I was a kid. (To give you a sense of my age, I remember the world without the internet, and I remember being frustrated when this new thing called Windows triumphed over my familiar text-based DOS. I also remember the command prompt: LOAD”$”,8,1)
For kids today, computers are second nature. They cannot fathom the complexity of these devices because it is masked by the ease of use. A child has no need to consider the circuitry, the silicon, the programming language or the million increments in technical achievement that accumulated to this incredible moment in history, where we can summon seas of information with the click of a button.
But just because they can’t understand the million steps leading to such ease of use, they will suffer no handicap when it comes to understanding future computers. Indeed, they are already experts, of a sort, and the evolutionary history of computing hardly matters; the outmoded technologies both mechanical and programmatic are not useful any more except to historians or theoreticians. When was the last time LOAD”$”,8,1 did anything useful for me or the people at Google? (Playing Dig Dug on an emulator doesn’t count.)
We might think that kids today are spoiled, reaping rewards accumulated by generations of brilliant minds without fully appreciating it. But this has been the case with all technologies since the wheel. And this time binding faculty of humankind extends to more than just “technology”.
We are all guilty of this ignorance, for example, with our own bodies. We don’t consider the incredibly complex specialization of our eyes, how perfectly the lens focuses light onto the retina, how the rods and cones react, and how our brains parse information about shape, colour, shade, edges, depth, context and so forth. We just see a red curtain and go about our day.
Everything in our bodies is in fact the end result of innumerable biological adjustments, mutations that have been use-tested and refined through the ages by our ancestors’ survival and procreation. And not one of us needs to know these millions of stages of evolution in order to use our own biocomputer at least decently.
There will always be those who have a passion for the specifics, the evolutionary biologists, art historians and so forth, and we need them to impart their knowledge on the next generation of hungry minds. But you can’t blame someone for being born too late to really get it. It’s all we can do to work with what we’re given, do research when necessary, and move forward. Even my brother, currently on the cutting edge, was born about 150 years after Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer.