A Geek’s Thanksgiving
by Charlie Martin
Every year, Americans take a Thursday in November to give thanks for the benefits bestowed upon us by … well, okay, I’m a Boulder Buddhist, so I’m not quite clear Who we’re thanking — but like everyone else I’m pleased to have an opportunity to take a day off, eat myself into a coma, watch college football on a weekday afternoon, and start the Great Christmas Shopping Marathon well-fed and emotionally prepared for the mall.
On such an occasion, it is also meet to consider what we in the technology world have to be thankful for — besides the chance to use an archaism like “meet”, as in “fit, proper”. You couldn’t get away with that if it’s weren’t the holidays.
And there is a lot in tech to be thankful for. We are using technology today that we couldn’t even imagine ten or twenty years ago; much of it having crept into common use with barely a notice. Back in the Sixties, my grandfather insisted I learn to be a butcher, because he thought computers were just a fad. He couldn’t have imagined the way we depend on them today.
So, let’s just take a minute say thanks for a few of the technological wonders we forget really are wonderful.
First on my list is what makes it possible for you to be reading this: the World Wide Web. Imagine life without it. Go ahead, try. It was only about fifteen years ago, after all. No blogs. No online newspapers, magazines, libraries; twenty years ago, I was working on my dissertation and had to consult the Reader’s Guide to Periodicals, find the journals I wanted in a research library (and sometimes had to drive an hour to use one in Raleigh, or even go to Washington DC to the Library of Congress, to find obscure sources), then pay 10 cents a page to copy the articles I wanted to work with. To me, the most amazing thing about it is how simple the idea was: from Vannevar Bush to Ted Nelson to the Plato system, the idea of hypertext had been around a good while; who knew it was as simple as a little lightweight text-based protocol and a simple tag in a markup language?
Along with the Web, I’m thankful for web search, and particularly Google web search. Without web search, having a trillion web pages would be useless. With it, if you want to know how to spatchcock a chicken, the hardest part is not even finding the information – but knowing that the word for removing the back of a bird to make it easier to grill is “spatchcock.”
I’m also thankful for web commerce. Imagine life without Amazon. When I was a child, our little town in Colorado had a bookstore with perhaps a thousand different books in it. Web commerce means that I my home bookshop – i.e., my computer screen – offers me millions of books for sale, and I can even read what other people think of them. The only downside that I can see to this change is that Amazon’s one-click ordering is so easy that it has cost me a fortune in bookshelves.
More to the point, though, web commerce is changing everyone’s life. I collect slide rules – made obsolete by yet another technological innovation – and instead of haunting antique markets for years, I can find them all over the world right from my living room, through eBay. My friend Bathsheba Grossman, who makes mathematical sculptures, enjoys a healthy income selling her works on-line to many times as many potential customers than would have once wandered into an art gallery. For that matter, her art entirely depends on technology that wasn’t available twenty years ago: from computational geometry to define her mathematical entities, to stereolithography to “print” her final sculptures, to web search and internet commerce so her fans can find and buy her work, Sheba is living a professional life that was unimaginable during the Carter Administration.
I’m infinitely thankful for Moore’s Law: a $10 million supercomputer in 1976 has become a $500 Mac Mini on my desk. Except the comparison isn’t fair — the Cray 1 was about 160 megaflops, my Mac Mini is about twice that. And the best part of Moore’s Law is that its biggest payoffs are yet to come.
Finally, honestly, I’m thankful that I got to grow up when computers had just arrived; instead of being just a fad. Computing and technology have become the core of my professional life. From pleasant hours spent today using all these technologies, all the way back to that Thanksgiving in 1969 when my Dad and I spent the day programming our newly-arrived IBM System/3, technology has given me intellectual challenges, creative opportunities, and frankly, pure joy for almost forty years.