01/01/2016

A Look Back at the Future of Personal Computing

29:27 minutes

Back in May of 1992, George Bush was president, Bill Clinton was on the campaign trail, and the space shuttle Endeavour had just launched on its first flight. The World Wide Web was in its infancy—the Mosaic web browser wouldn’t appear till 1993—and the first phone-to-phone SMS message was over a year away.

And Science Friday broadcast an interview with two computer industry observers discussing, “What is the future of personal computing?” In this interview, one of those guests, Esther Dyson, rejoins the program to look back at some of the predictions she made in 1992, and to talk about what’s changed—and what’s remained the same—in the last 23 years of computing technology.

Segment Guests

Esther Dyson

Esther Dyson is chairman of EDventure Holdings and founder of the Health Initiative Coordinating Council (HICCup). She is based in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday, I’m Ira Flatow. Way back in the foggy mists of computing time, let’s call it May of 1992, we had a conversation on this program that’s listed in our office archives as, What is the Future of Personal Computing? Guests on that hour were Robert X Cringely, then a gossip columnist for InfoWorld, and Esther Dyson, then creator and author of the monthly technology industry newsletter, Release 1.0.

I asked them to help us understand the world of personal computing, PCs, and to predict what was still to come. That was a big task, considering that the world wide web was still it’s infancy. The Mosaic web browser wouldn’t be released until 1993, and when it comes to smart phones, well, this was about a year before the first phone to phone SMS message. So we’re talking dinosaur age.

Wouldn’t it be fun now to see how well their predictions panned out? Well joining me now, here in our studio, is Esther Dyson, whose tech role has morphed from newsletter publisher, to advisor, to tech entrepreneur and investor. She’s chairman of the EDventure Holdings. Good to talk with you again, so many years later.

ESTHER DYSON: Yeah, it’s great. I’m a little scared to hear what stupid things I said way back then.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s just talk about in general. How would you say personal computing has changed since 1992, in general?

ESTHER DYSON: Well, the biggest thing is everything is connected. The notion of an unconnected computer– just like, well, what would you do with it? How would you get data in and out?

IRA FLATOW: And the original PC didn’t even have an internet card on it. It didn’t have a networking card on it.

ESTHER DYSON: Well, there was no internet.

IRA FLATOW: There was no internet. Let’s turn back the clock to yesteryear. I’m going to ask you to listen to this tape way back when. Are we ever going to get to the day when a computer will be as simple to turn it on and run it as an electric typewriter? Let me ask you, Esther Dyson, first.

ESTHER DYSON: Well, in some sense you are, because you’re going to have lots of computers all over the place doing individual things. You’ll have them in your walls, you’ll have them in your microwave oven, you’ll have little pen computers you take with you. But on the other hand, the stuff that’s really neat and leading edge will still be leading edge, and it will probably still be crashing 20 years from now. Is just what it’s going to be doing is going to be 20 times better.

IRA FLATOW: You hit that one right out of the park.

ESTHER DYSON: Yeah, that one’s pretty good.

IRA FLATOW: You predicted that computers would be in everything, which they are in now, right? What made you think that that would be true?

ESTHER DYSON: Well, I don’t remember. But it seemed pretty clear you would want them everywhere, and that they were getting smaller. You could– a lot of things were really clear. The internet wasn’t a big thing but, yeah, we were already on email. I was involved with the Electronic Frontier Foundation at that point. I’d started using email pretty much in 1989, mostly to get in touch with people in Russia because you couldn’t phone them.

IRA FLATOW: We asked both of you about what your ideal computer would be. What would be the ideal personal computer for you, Robert Cringely?

ROBERT CRINGELY: Well, I’m the sort of guy who would like to go out my door and whistle for my car. So I think the ideal personal computer for me would be a being that I spoke to, that spoke back, that was kindly and did whatever I asked. And that’s where we’re headed.

IRA FLATOW: You mean a voice actuated sort of thing?

ROBERT CRINGELY: Oh definitely, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: So you could sit down at your PC and just speak a letter, or tell it to turn your roast on in the oven, or something.

ROBERT CRINGELY: And have it understand what I mean, and what my mood is.

IRA FLATOW: And you, Esther Dyson?

ESTHER DYSON: Well what he’s really saying– and he’s right– is what you want is a secretary that doesn’t have feelings that can be hurt, and that doesn’t get sick. You want an intelligence thing. And I believe, contrary to, for example Apple’s Knowledge Navigator, you do not want something that pretends to be human, because that’s either insulting or scary. But you want something that understands you, that’s intelligent and intelligible, but not a mockup human.

IRA FLATOW: Is that Siri, what you’re talking–

ESTHER DYSON: I think we both hit it.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I mean, there’s something that we call today the uncanny valley. Are you familiar with that term? It’s where computers are almost humanoids, so they’re really spooky. And that seems to be what you were talking about in those days.

ESTHER DYSON: Yeah, I don’t want my refrigerator to have feelings. I just want it to keep the right food there, or whatever.

IRA FLATOW: Did you ever think that we might see self driving cars?

ESTHER DYSON: Yes.

IRA FLATOW: You did?

ESTHER DYSON: One reason is, I do not drive. And I did know about autonomous vehicles, and stuff like that. So for me, that’s always been something I was looking forward to.

IRA FLATOW: One of the things that stands out in the tape from this program in 1992 is that it is, more or less, pre-web. There was no internet there. And here is the closest thing that got to the idea of e-commerce back then.

ESTHER DYSON: OK. There’s going to be people doing incredibly wonderful stuff in communications. There’s a lot of software involved, again, in mediating the flow of information, where you automate filtering. You automate something like the Sabre airline system, where people get information from different airlines to plan trips. Imagine something similar that would let you get information on, for example, computer parts to assemble a large computer system.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, you hit that out of the park again.

ESTHER DYSON: It was obvious, but yeah, nice.

IRA FLATOW: I mean, we could never imagine using computers to do buying tickets, you know, airlines reservations or whatever. But that, to you, was the future. And Sabre was what, American Airlines? Did they own Sabre?

ESTHER DYSON: Yeah, Max Hopper.

IRA FLATOW: And how did that evolve into what it is today? Well, ultimately you got– Sabre was beyond just American Airlines. You got all these airlines, and now you have Kayak as a front end. The big thing was when you had– I’m not sure Kayak was the first on– but when you could actually go online and get information from multiple airlines.

IRA FLATOW: Right.

ESTHER DYSON: This is what your travel agent did, and now an individual could do that.

IRA FLATOW: That was amazing– that you could actually be your own travel agent. And you foresaw that, back 20– almost 25 years ago. 23 years ago. Even back then, there was the idea that the computer was not an end in itself, but the connections it had.

ESTHER DYSON: Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Robert Cringely, where is the hot new ground being broken in PCs these days?

ROBERT CRINGELY: Well, we’re actually at an important transition point. The processing power is about to just take off like crazy. Microprocessors are becoming increasingly more powerful. Unfortunately, the software hasn’t quite caught up with that yet. And as these two parts of the business come into sync, and most importantly, as entrepreneurs find ways of making money with it, then we’ll see things happen. Probably by the end of this decade, the computing world will be dramatically different than it is today, and it will be run by completely different players.

IRA FLATOW: Esther Dyson?

ESTHER DYSON: Areas that are really nifty right now are, number one, pen computing and other kinds of input, like voice recognition. Another really neat area is dealing not with data and numbers, but with text. So the whole notion of email communications– instead of using your computer to calculate, and having the person talk to his personal computer, what’s interesting now is using your computer as a communication device helping you to communicate with other people. And in that sense, it can be your agent helping you set up appointments, going out and looking for information for you, or whatever. But the unconnected computer is going to be about as useful as the unconnected telephone.

Wow, yeah, I almost said that earlier on the show, but it just seemed so trite.

IRA FLATOW: But did we know that the telephone would become–

ESTHER DYSON: Totally connected.

IRA FLATOW: Your computer. What about your future? Were you able to predict where you are today? Tell us about what you’re working on today.

ESTHER DYSON: The interesting problems now are not in computing. The interesting problems are in human nature. And on the one hand there’s global warming, which I know you’re doing a lot about, and on the other hand there’s global sickening. So global warming is the result of we have too many wonderful machines, and factories, and we can make all these wonderful things, but they produce noxious gases and they’re harming the environment.

In the same way, we can create wonderful, delicious foods, and alcohol, and drugs for ourselves. We can live lives of luxury and not have to run around. We can sit on our butts all day, and play with computers, and do virtual reality. And just as the industrial stuff is harming the environment, this other stuff is harming our bodies. And so we need a good environment, but we also need healthy bodies to take advantage of that. And that is a huge problem, which revolves around how we deal with their own predilections for stuff that’s bad for us.

IRA FLATOW: So how are you involved in that?

ESTHER DYSON: So I’m running a project called The Way to Wellville in five small communities around the United States. And it’s very not scientific or techie. It’s not about wearables. It’s about doing what we know we need to do to create health, which is prenatal care, healthy food, talking to children, preschool education. Sort of going in right at the beginning, where if the parents aren’t good enough parents, helping to turn them into better parents, and then producing children who are healthy.

And doing that in small places where you can do it without too much resource. As an example to, this is what we should be doing everywhere, people. And it’s collective action in these small places. It may require government interference, a la taxing sugar just the way we should be taxing carbon, to deal with the externalities cost.

IRA FLATOW: It’s interesting that you’re doing this– about world health. Another computer giant, Bill Gates, is involved in world health.

ESTHER DYSON: Yeah, I’m actually involved in local health, because that’s where you produce health. You produce it locally, in a community where kids can run outside, and eat healthy food, and their parents are talking to them. It needs to start locally and spread worldwide.

IRA FLATOW: Are you teaching communities how to be healthy? Or you don’t want to use that word, because you’re like an outsider coming in.

ESTHER DYSON: Yeah, we’re not teaching them. It’s not a nice white lady from New York telling people how to live. It’s more helping them understand how to be accountable. In other words, it’s not good enough to run a program. You have to actually have a system that’s accountable for reducing obesity by making sure there’s healthy food, by negotiating with the local vendors, by starting exercise classes for kids. Again, really having effective early childhood education so that all the children get talked to and learn how to read.

So you don’t need to be lucky to be normal. That’s what’s happened in the middle of America. It’s normal to be unlucky, because something goes wrong, then something else goes wrong, and you can’t climb out.

IRA FLATOW: Right, you have no choice in the matter. What’s the name of the organization again?

ESTHER DYSON: The Way to Wellville. The website is actually hiccup.co– H-I-C-C-U-P.co. It for health initiative coordinating council.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, that’s good.

ESTHER DYSON: Well, it was our original name, but my CEO, who’s a friend, said, that’s clever, but I’m not sure people will understand it. And The Way to Wellville– and on Twitter, @thewaytowellville is where you could find us.

IRA FLATOW: We’re going to take a short break, come back, and talk about what we thought computers would be and what computers actually turned out to be, with Esther Dyson, who is an original geek from way back. I guess, the same way I am. We’re going to take a break. We’ll be right back. Stay with us. This is Science Friday from PRI.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking this hour about personal computing and the tech industry, and we’re looking back on some of the thoughts of the industry. Well, a program we did way back in 1992. And on that program was my guest, Esther Dyson. Lots of gold in those old comments. Let’s listen to another one. One question we asked was, do I need a PC? And here’s what computer columnist Robert X Cringely had to say.

When somebody says to you, do I need a PC? How do you tell somebody whether they need one or not?

ROBERT CRINGELY: How do I?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah.

ROBERT CRINGELY: Well, I ask what they expect it to do for them. And for the most part, if it turns out that they’re doing word processing and doing a few envelopes, sometimes a typewriter is a much better choice.

IRA FLATOW: It’s my rule that if you have to ask, you really don’t need one.

ROBERT CRINGELY: Good point.

IRA FLATOW: Esther, do you have any set answers to that?

ESTHER DYSON: Well, my first reaction to the problem is two. One is, give the industry time. Of course the stuff is awful to use, and I’m frustrated every day because I know that 10 years from now I won’t be wasting my time doing a lot of these stupid little things that ought to be automatic. But the second is, I don’t know how to drive a car. And so, to me, things like carburetor and, I’m don’t know, drop shift or whatever. That stuff is jargon.

Whereas anybody who drives a car will say, what do you mean jargon? That’s intuitive. And so, in some sense, kids will grow up and they won’t think of it as jargon. They’ll think of it as normal words.

IRA FLATOW: A new generation.

ESTHER DYSON: And so, again, give it time.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and you know, it’s tough to tell somebody to work a PC if they can’t program their VCR yet.

ESTHER DYSON: Well, VCRs are as a whole other problem. Those are impossible.

IRA FLATOW: And if you still have one, they’re still impossible to program. But do you still believe? I mean, about giving it time? Just give it time.

ESTHER DYSON: Yeah, but give it time for yet another iteration. I mean, now, I still waste a lot of time with this thing. And it does amazingly much better things than it used to. But I waste time clicking on something and then waiting for an interaction. I waste time downloading stuff. It’s still– all these things have different kinds of plugs. We need wireless charging. So yeah, it keeps getting better, and it’s clear that, as I said 23 years ago, 10 years from now we’ll still be complaining. We’ll just be complaining about different problems.

IRA FLATOW: Right, but what you also talked about in that statement back then was kids. Give kids time and they’ll adapt to it. And they have taken to it like they were born with it. They have been born with it, right? Are you surprised at how easily they take to this?

ESTHER DYSON: No, I mean people think whatever they grew up with is normal. And you see that again and again, whether it’s they come from a different country, or they come from a different technology area. You think that what is normal to you is intuitive to anyone. Now, at least, most people have more experience of more parts of the world, so they’re a little more sophisticated. But what seems normal to the kids of today– the new stuff will still seem abnormal to them 20 years from now, and the kids who are minus 20 years now will think it’s normal.

IRA FLATOW: Do you do feel, looking back now, that it’s easier to make predictions about the future? Because we’ve been playing cuts here– tape from you 23 years ago– that you were right on on these things.

ESTHER DYSON: Well, it’s really not predicting the future. It’s saying what the dynamics are, what should happen. So I’ve always resisted this futurist notion. It’s simply, if you understand the present well enough you have a pretty good sense of what these things are capable of.

IRA FLATOW: 1992 was during the period that Steve Jobs was not at Apple, but he was working on Next. Is there anybody who can take on Apple and IBM? Or is that it for the foreseeable future?

ROBERT CRINGELY: Of course there are people–

IRA FLATOW: What ever happened to the Next computer?

ROBERT CRINGELY: Well, that’s an interesting question. What did happen over the Next computer? Next is Steve Jobs, who was the founder of Apple Computer, was thrown out of the company in 1985 and went off to start a venture of retribution called Next Incorporated, which was intended to do his computer. A sort of Unix workstation for the masses. And he introduced some very novel software that is very much like the stuff the fellow from Apple described– the pink stuff. I mean, it’s object-oriented and it’s very aggressive.

Unfortunately, he wrapped it around some relatively not leading edge hardware, which didn’t make it run very fast in comparison to some of the other stuff out there. So Next has been struggling. But they’re coming out with their third generation product shortly, and they have hopes for the future. And if anyone can do it, I suppose Steve Jobs can do it.

IRA FLATOW: That of course was computer columnist Robert X Cringely who, along with Esther Dyson, was on our show in 1992. Do you remember that, Esther?

ESTHER DYSON: I do indeed.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us what you remember about that.

ESTHER DYSON: Well, it was sort of too sciency, and never really caught on. And people wanted things that were simpler, not things that were more grandiose.

IRA FLATOW: Didn’t he bring Next back to Apple? He returned to Apple, and he brought that idea back with him.

ESTHER DYSON: He just came back and realized what people wanted was simplicity and ease of use. I’m sure he learned a lot at Next, including how to deal with people.

IRA FLATOW: How was Steve looked at in those days?

ESTHER DYSON: Steve was always magnetic, and something of a jerk. And so people in the industry– people didn’t really like him much. They were competing with him. He was a really tough competitor. But this particular– he came out and spoke at PC Forum, my conference, and then he had to leave to go be on Larry King. So a whole bunch of us gathered in somebody’s hotel room to watch him on Larry King, and suddenly it changed from, Steve, he’s a jerk, to, he’s telling the rest of America about out business, and our products, and how everybody’s going to love their computer.

And he was the guy who was best able to tell the broad public about us. Because most of us were terrible at talking to normal people, and he was magnetic. So there was that kind of jealousy, admiration, frustration. But he was– most of the other people in the industry, they occupied a place that, had they not been there, someone else would have occupied it. This operating system, the big email system, what have you. Steve actually did something that no one else would have done.

His was genuinely a personal company about his vision. You would not have had something akin to Apple. You might have had a more user centric or something, but he really– he was unique in that way. It was his personal vision rather than a marketplace position.

IRA FLATOW: So while his personality might have grated on you a little–

ESTHER DYSON: Me, and many others.

IRA FLATOW: You were happy he was there.

ESTHER DYSON: Yeah, and I mean, he was charming and magnetic. I went– the Next was announced at Moscone center, and I went on a date to attend that opening. It was with– like a social event was a guy.

IRA FLATOW: Is there anything more geeky than that? We geeks or nerds– still nerds back there. But people did flock to him, and as you say, he was able to tell people about what your industry was like.

ESTHER DYSON: Yeah, he reached the public in a way the rest of us couldn’t.

IRA FLATOW: Back then, one of the big topics was, how was the computer going to affect productivity?

ESTHER DYSON: Computers are going to be tremendously productivity enhancing in terms of, again, communications. Electronic mail, getting people in the know about what’s going on in their companies. And I think the most interesting impact is that they’re going to assist in the decentralization of business, and they make it possible for small businesses like mine to operate.

ROBERT CRINGELY: Esther has hit on, I think, the most important trend here that can only be reemphasized, and that’s the trend toward the computer, or the personal computer especially, becoming a communication technology much more so than a computational one. What we have now– this personal computer on our desk– is a transitional technology. It’s something that we’ve got that we’re trying to figure out what we really intend to do with it.

We’re reaching the point now where, in your brain, about 80% of your brain capacity goes into processing visual data. And that trend is being followed by the personal computer in the future. We’re moving to processing visual and audio data, attaching little sound and video clips to our e-mail documents. What we’re doing is we’re creating a kind of electronic tribal structure that can allow us to finally deal with the small groups of people at widely dispersed locations, just like we did when we were in a tribe with 200 members.

IRA FLATOW: That, of course, was a computer columnist Robert X Cringely who, along with Esther Dyson, was on our show in 1992. Didn’t really foresee the giant rise of the internet. How did that just sneak up on us?

ESTHER DYSON: I mean, I would argue he did see it. Electronic mail was not just local. And again, I was using email to stay in touch with Russia. It was that decentralization– that it didn’t matter where you were, you had access to all those resources as a small business. You had a small piece of it, but the economies of scale that helped those large businesses for so many years no longer were going to matter as much. And that was the big shift.

IRA FLATOW: And that helped you in your business.

ESTHER DYSON: It helps me, and it helped– I mean, all the startups now– same thing. They outsource everything except the one thing that they do.

IRA FLATOW: Of course, I guess I was referring to the worldwide web, which–

ESTHER DYSON: Oh yeah, that was later.

IRA FLATOW: That was a game changer.

ESTHER DYSON: Yeah, because at that point it was just downloading text files from somewhere.

IRA FLATOW: One of the big things that’s changed in the use of computers as media devices– what about the latest rush to multimedia? I mean, is this something that you welcome, Esther Dyson?

ESTHER DYSON: I think it’s great stuff, but I think it’s way oversold.

IRA FLATOW: It’s hyped too much, you thing?

ESTHER DYSON: It’s so easy to like. It’s very easy for journalists to write about it. It’s got more immediate appeal than text.

IRA FLATOW: Now, this is where you can run movies on your PC at the same time as you’re in the middle of a program. So if you wanted to know something, let’s say, about Abraham Lincoln, you could click on that, and a little film of Abraham Lincoln would come on.

ESTHER DYSON: Right, and in theory you can do all these great presentations to sell your new wonder widget broom sweeper. But the problem is, people are going to be creating an awful lot of junk, and there’s not going to be anybody with the time to look at it.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that’s all about multimedia today. You were giving me a big thumbs up when you were listening to that.

ESTHER DYSON: Yeah, that was the part about people will be creating too much junk, and there will be no one around to listen to it or watch it.

IRA FLATOW: They didn’t think of cats. But he also said that people will not have enough time, he thought, to look at it. Which they do. They make the time now, don’t you think?

ESTHER DYSON: They don’t have enough time to look at all the stuff I produce. No, what I mean is, jokingly, everybody’s producing stuff, but most of it never gets seen by anyone other than their immediate family.

IRA FLATOW: I remember when we did we a show back in 1993– a year after this, because we wanted to continue the trend– and we did a show called, What is This Thing Called the Internet? And we had people on talking about the worldwide web, which is almost impossible to visualize if someone tries to describe it to you. But the most interesting thing is, we asked the public, what would you do if you had access to do anything on the internet?

And we got some phone calls coming in. And one guy said, you know, wouldn’t it be great if I could down– he used the phrase, I could download my CDs on the internet. In other words, I could say music. I could download my music online. And of course, that is huge industry.

ESTHER DYSON: And Granny could share her photo albums.

IRA FLATOW: No, that’s going to never happen. I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Revisiting the old days with Esther Dyson. OK, I’m going to ask you to get your crystal ball out. Esther, you hit so many home runs in this look 23 years ago. Can you look– would you dare look forward to the next two decades or so?

ESTHER DYSON: It depends what you ask about. I’m going to ask– I’m giving you an open book. You can comment on where you think computing, gadgetry, wherever is going to be 23 years from now.

ESTHER DYSON: So, the biggest challenges is, in a sense, too much choice. And people will want to automate choosing. They’ll want to have assistants that find the optimum for them. But it’s a– this really is this fundamental global warming, global sickening, global optimization. I’m not demonizing the internet, but it’s– people keep thinking, well, this can’t really be the best, and I can keep looking for the best. Whether it’s the best mattress, or the best husband, or the best food.

We become so powerful we stop being satisfied with where we are, and that’s a social, mental issue. Technically, we will have drone delivering stuff. We’ll have– almost every object will have an identity. It will be addressable. It will tell you about itself. The challenge is, you won’t want to know about most of the objects, just the way you don’t want to know everybody you run into in the street. But it’s going to be possible to. So the biggest challenge is going to be filtering and selecting rather than finding.

IRA FLATOW: Do you have a fear that some of the other technologists have about robots getting too smart and taking over?

ESTHER DYSON: No, it’s much more complicated than that. I think what I have a fear about is humans not understanding, and not valuing enough, the human element. Not paying for children’s teachers for early childhood education. I have this joke cartoon in The New Yorker, where you have The Four Seasons and it has a sign that says, “Human room service.” Only the elite will get human room service. But actually, everyone should get human service.

And it’s not half the world serving the other half of the world, as that would be the dystopia. What’s the utopia is 90% of the world serving 90% of the world. Some people serve on Tuesdays and other people serve on Wednesdays, but everybody has a job that has meaning and has human connection. And everybody has people, in some form or other, serving them. So you have an economy where the machines do all the hard physical labor, but the human labor of teaching, and paying attention, and things like that is still needed. Now, will we have the wisdom to get there? I don’t know.

IRA FLATOW: Well, we’ll have you back. We’ll meet back here 23 years from now.

ESTHER DYSON: OK, it’s a deal.

IRA FLATOW: OK. My guest has been Esther Dyson, a computing guru from another lifetime. We were talking about our show 23 years ago. Also on that show was Robert X Cringely. Thank you, Esther, for taking time to be with us today.

ESTHER DYSON: Thank you, it was great.

IRA FLATOW: And if you want to know more about Esther, you can go to our website. The Way to Wellville, that’s what she’s involved in now. And the website is–

ESTHER DYSON: Hiccup– H-I-C-C-U-P.co.

IRA FLATOW: There you go.

ESTHER DYSON: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: We’re going to take a break, and when we come back, a classic interview from our vaults. A conversation with Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. It’s a gem. You don’t want to miss that. Stay with us.

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