Making Homer Happy

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Got this letter (leaving the name and identifying details out) and wrote a response.

Putting this up for a few reasons:

While we’re not going to turn into the Journal of Cybersociological Research; I think what people do with their computers is as least as important
as what they’re made of. You may or may not agree with this, tell me, what you think.

There’s a core of folks out there who believe computers are “serious” tools meant for “serious” purposes, and look down upon activities (like Quake 3 fragging) that
they deem trivial or frivolous. I don’t know if this particular individual believes all that, but he seems inclined to that view. I completely disagree, and you’ll see why.

I’ve been reading your site for a while and have been pleased with the content up until recently. It seems you are stuck on the same ‘shtick’. It’s gotten to a point where you talk about the same thing, day after day, gives me nothing new to read. There are some great reviews, etc. out today but you post some silly geek gang thing, who cares. . . .

The computer industry was built on new ideas, new innovations and new ways of seeing things. I would think that your site, being computer focused, would have known this fact.

{I’ve worked in the computer industry for thirty years}… The future moves rapidly in this industry, it’s best to keep up, look at the sites with new ideas and new ways of doing things. They are the ones looking at the future.

First, you can’t write about innovations that have significant impact upon the audience when little is happening. Hasn’t helped that Intel is pretty much sitting on its hands until next summer. The next three months or so will have a ton of new developments.

However, computer news is not just which processor does what, it’s what people do with them. You said, “the computer industry was built on new ideas, new innovations and new ways of seeing things.” I agree. I just have a broader view of what that is and where those new concepts can originate, and you should, too.

A geek gang (and by gang, I mean a social grouping, not a criminal organization) is a new kind of social structure brought about by cheap universal computers and instant global communications. That’s an indicator of a very important development: people no longer have most of their relationships heavily circumscribed by geography. That is going to have huge impact on the world over the next few decades; I would argue that it will be one of the biggest, perhaps the biggest development of the twenty-first century.

I find that a vastly more important and influential development than any single piece of hardware news we carry. We’re not going to turn into sociologists, (and there’s only been two articles on this) but it would be tunnel-visioned to just look at the technology or what some computer engineers plan to do with the technology rather than what average people actually do with it.

Auto engineers didn’t make the car industry into what it is today, it was people using cars to satisfy their needs and desires in unenvisioned ways that had all kinds of unintentioned consequences (suburbs, for one). The same is beginning to happen and is going to continue to happen with computers, and it will again be masses of people satisfying their needs with these new tools in all sorts of new and different ways, and demanding those products which best meet those needs.

Your career has been spent at least mostly with a very different mindset. For just about all of this period, computers have been a tool of an elite; expensive and difficult enough to use and operate to restrict their use and keep them to “serious” purposes.

Those days are ending, and that mindset is doomed. We are now entering into the Model T era of computing: the cars are a pain, the highways are rickety, but it’s cheap enough and good enough for most purposes, even trivial ones.

So guess what’s happening? The Homer Simpsons of the world are piling into computers just like the Homers of eighty years ago piled into that Model T. And guess what? He wants to do “trivial” stuff with it.

He wants to write (or better yet talk to or see) Grandma for effectively nothing. He wants to make home videos. He wants sports news. He wants porn and chat rooms. He wants to talk and bs with people about computers or the Yankees or God knows what else. He wants to buy a pair of jeans if it costs him less money and hassle than getting off his butt and driving to the mall. And when he gets tired of getting these things, Marge is right behind him, with her own, equally “trivial” list, and never mind the kids.

In time, this will turn into an international Simpsons convention, and not just a Swedish or German or Japanese Homer, but a Mexican and Malaysian and you-name-it Homer and spouse and kids. Just imagine what happens when you throw them all in together and they start talking to each other.

The future of mainstream computing will not be determined by someone like Stephen Jobs or Bill Gates, but by a lot of Homer Simpsons. En masse, they’re going to tell the computer industry what to do, and they’re going to do it, ’cause there’s a lot more Homers out there with a lot more money than anybody else out there.

Business users? Please. If Homer wants an easy-to-use computer, businesses are going to oppose that? “Take this back, it’s too easy to use!” ???

The current powers had better make Homer happy. The Homers of eighty years ago liked the Model T, but soon wanted something better, and Henry Ford ignored them. After all, he was Henry Ford, he knew better than a bunch of Homers. So the Homers took their money and Ford’s dominance of the automotive industry away to some car-making sluts who would give Homer what he wanted. It happened then, it will probably happen again here. (Are you listening, Intel, MS, just to name two?)

Any technology has two points of social impact; a relatively minor one when it becomes feasible for some purposes, and the major one when it becomes cheap enough for mass use. The computer industry is now shifting to point two, and that changes the whole computer world.

Email Ed


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