2.12: Five Generations of Computers

We are currently shifting from an industrial society, based on energy, to a post-industrial society, based on information. This shift is powered by technological innovations and their economic repercussions. Let us look first at computer technology. No matter how complex it may appear, computer technology is basically as easy as 1, 2, 3. Indeed, it is easier. It is 0, 1. Thus, computer technology is based on some physical analog of 0 to 1 - that is, various devices, which can be in two stable states. First, vacuum tubes, then transistors, then integrated circuits, then, microprocessors (very large scale integrated circuits on a single chip) and, on the horizon, whatever wonderful device will be used in the fifth generation of computers.

Over the last several years, the cost of such a device (in whatever physical form) has roughly halved every two years. Enter economics Different applications become economically viable as this steep curve continues its plunge. First, the electronic calculator, then the digital watch, and then a flood of products and processes flow over this lowering threshold.

Thus, the cost of artificial memory comes tumbling down one steep slope and the penetration of electronic machines goes zooming up a mirror slope. Those penetration curves are likely to continue until they level off at 90-odd per cent, as did the telephone and the television in a previous wave of penetration of information machines. The shift is, therefore, a result of the same techno-economic forces which have been powering industrial society since the beginning.

Social scientists, like myself, can merely follow in the turbulent wake of the revolution in a frantic and largely futile attempt to assess its human impact. However, this could finally be the Frankenstein technology which gets out of control of people who develop it as means of oppression and be used as a means of liberation. The average person may be able to seize control of the means of production. Just as the printing-press democratized the distribution of information, so the personal computer may democratize the production of information.1

1   Abelson, Harold & Andrea DiSessa, Turtle Geometry: Computation as a Medium for Exploring Mathematics. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1982.