Still scratching the surface: on the transience of computer ‘culture’

I’m sure that we would all like to think that humans will still be around in a few hundred years time. Having survived two bouts of almost total world carnage, followed by imminent global nuclear holocaust during the Cold War, our prospects can surely only get better than those of the twentieth century. Looking at our current political leadership, I am beginning to have my doubts, though.

At the top of my (re-)reading list just now are three major books from the more distant past which reflect a little of what we mean by cultural achievements:

  • Aristotle’s Poetics, from the Greek civilisation of around 335 BCE, which laid the foundations of literary theory, and has influenced almost every writer (and many others) ever since;
  • Leon Battista Alberti’s On Painting, the most influential account of the art of painting from Renaissance Italy, written in 1435;
  • Gotthold Lessing’s Laocoön (1766), a book from the Enlightenment in Germany which laid the foundations for modern aesthetics and semiotics.

I challenge you to come up with three texts of similar importance about computing, which people will still be reading in 300-2300 years time.

I have read, and own, many very important computer books. Don Knuth, often known as the father of the analysis of programming algorithms, and the originator of TeX computer typesetting and the METAFONT font definition language, wrote a series of volumes titled The Art of Computer Programming, but even such seminal works are fading fast into the small-print of technological history. Without wishing to belittle his achievement, or that of many others, these works hardly rank alongside Aristotle, Alberti, or even the less-known Lessing.

Perhaps the first half century of proper computing is still too early to expect works of sufficient gravitas. But if all we have to show for the hundreds of billions invested, and the millions of great minds employed, in computing, are many shelves full of tracts such as MS-DOS for Dummies and the Missing Manual series, it suggests that computing may have little to offer humanity beyond its tools.

Just as works on the crafts of papermaking and printing are hardly keystones of civilisation, despite their importance in determining its course, maybe computing will never be more central than just being an important tool.

My local branch of Waterstones bookshop has a couple of sections of its displays devoted to ‘popular’ science and technology titles by important authors such as Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, and Stephen Hawking. Those about computing are few in number, and generally ephemeral in nature. I cannot even think of an author on the subject of computing who I would rank in such illustrious company – whether or not you agree with their ideas.

The next few years could be important in determining whether much of what a lot of us do is committed to the erratic juggernaut that is human civilisation, for some future Jacob Bronowski or Lord Clark to enthuse about. As those who were involved in much of the foundation work during the 1970s to ’90s reach the age when they have more time for deeper thought, we could yet see some grand and visionary works.

Or perhaps computing will turn out like the stylus and clay tablet, or Gutenberg’s printing press, as a mere enabler. That would be very disappointing given the many bright minds which have been turned to it.