The Corner

Obsolete Social Technology

For some reason, this 1985 New York Times column on why laptop computers will never catch on has been bumping around the Internet, and I’ve had a load of fun with it on Twitter. Excerpt:

The limitations come from what people actually do with computers, as opposed to what the marketers expect them to do. On the whole, people don’t want to lug a computer with them to the beach or on a train to while away hours they would rather spend reading the sports or business section of the newspaper. Somehow, the microcomputer industry has assumed that everyone would love to have a keyboard grafted on as an extension of their fingers. It just is not so.

The proponents of portables stoutly maintain that the stumbling block to a computer in every attache case is price. Right now, a laptop computer costs considerably more than the equivalent desktop version.

Yes, there are a lot of people who would like to be able to work on a computer at home. But would they really want to carry one back from the office with them? It would be much simpler to take home a few floppy disks tucked into an attache case. For the majority of consumers, a second computer for the home office is usually an inexpensive clone of the one at work. Not only is such an alternative more convenient, but it is more cost effective as well. In fact, one ends up with better technology.

Exploring the greatest hits of the Times technology columnist in question, Erik Sandberg-Diment, has become something of a hobby for some people. As Christopher Mims of the Wall Street Journal wrote: “Everything Erik Sandberg-Diment ever published about tech is amazing. It’s like he invented the contrarian hot take.”

It’s amusing stuff, but there is a more serious point to be made than “this clown is a clownier clown than the average clown at the Clown Times.” (And never mind the tech, this newspaper guy was about as wrong as it was possible to be about newspapers.) As a number of people have suggested to me, what Sandberg-Diment wrote was perfectly defensible, given the features, weight, and price of laptops at the time.

And that is worth considering.

No one in 1985 knew, or really could have known, what computers would be like ten years down the road, or twenty. Nobody really knew what the Internet was going to do to the way we use technology or to our appetite for portable devices. Practically no one appreciated the role mass global narcissism would play in minting 21st century billionaires such as Zuckerberg et al.

By the same token, Alexander Graham Bell himself could not have foreseen the way in which the telephone would develop. The inner workings of a 2015 Mustang would befuddle Henry Ford. I myself have a sentimental taste for retrofuturism—the past’s sci-fi visions of a future that is now our history or our present—and it is both amusing and instructive to see the ways in which the dreamers of 50 or 75 years ago got it wrong and sometimes right. And there was a certain attractive optimism about the future, which deepens the bitterness of the disappointment when one compares, e.g., the dream of a liberated and soaring mankind embodied in the architecture of John F. Kennedy Airport with the actual experience of moving through John F. Kennedy Airport. It’s Flash Gordon meets Kafka.

The future is, and will always be, unknowable. The future isn’t a foreign country, but an alien planet. Sandberg-Diment in 1985 did no worse predicting the future of technology than any of us would do today.

The genius of the free market is that is replicates the most powerful earthly force—evolution—in the realm of material development. We try new stuff all the time, some variations thrive, and some variations die. Things adapt to their environment—an environment composed of human desire—through millions of tiny, iterative changes. As with the case of biological evolution, those changes are inherently unpredictable.

Yes, Sandberg-Diment’s argument made sense in the context of 1985 technology; but in 1985, we already knew—or should have known—better, that technology was changing rapidly and would continue to do so. I have no idea what a mobile phone will look like in 20 years, or if mobile phones will continue to exist, even as a concept. But I’d bet everything I own that it won’t be very much like the iPhone on my desk. We don’t expect permanence, or need it, or want it: We assume that technology is going to change. We want it to.

On the other hand . . . 

Social Security made sense in the context of 1935 demographics. It’s as obsolete as those suitcase-sized portables that Sandberg-Diment was scoffing at 50 years later. But we’re stuck with it, because there’s not much evolution in political programs. Government programs don’t die.

Those of us who favor market-based solutions to social problems don’t do so simply because we don’t like government or the sort of people who go into government, or don’t like to pay taxes, or because we want to create profit opportunities, or because we are on some sort of Taylorist quest for efficiency, whatever “efficiency” means in the current context. What really matters is that in the free market things get better: Where there is capitalism, ordinary people are with each passing year better fed, better clothed, better housed, better doctored, better entertained, and better employed. Better and cheaper and cheaper and better — except where politics inserts its big ugly snout.

We laugh at that 1980s technology. But we use a 1930s model for public pensions and a 19th century model of public education. Those things are important, but we organize them through economic processes inferior to the ones we use for pornography and bar trivia. 

If you are clinging to the belief that the New Deal is the best thing ever to happen to American government, don’t laugh too hard at Erik Sandberg-Diment.

 

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