Issue #32: Modernism

Plus Ça Change…

Writing a draft for this post was as easy on an HP OmniGo 100 from 1995 as on any modern computer. Arguably easier, because I was not distracted by social media, notifications, or the possibility of a quick dip into another task. There is just me, an LCD screen, two AA batteries, and a really bad keyboard.

Publishing this post needed more. Internet access using modern Wi-Fi protocols and the latest TLS algorithms, and space for the massive photos we use as hero images. Getting my draft from the pocket PC to the computer with those things was easy: plug a PCMCIA card into the OmniGo, transfer my draft, and sneaker net it onto the other computer.

Being scrupulously fair, the modern computer does have other advantages. I could have kept my De Programmatica Ipsum drafts private with AES encryption; something the 8086 in my OmniGo would struggle to do quickly.

Clearly if I take this line of thought further I will run into contradiction. Yes, there is much you can do with 1980s-era tech. Yes, part of the reason we no longer use that technology is planned obsolescence. Of course we could do more to keep old computers “on the road”, as it were: a little thinking shows that anything with a serial port could be convinced to transfer my draft blog posts to a FAT filesystem with USB mass storage or even directly to the web, maybe with a little Arduino helper.

But also there is plenty you could not do with these old devices, no matter how much you tried. My HP OmniGo 100 is never going to do a good job of real-time displaying a Twitch stream, or even letting me watch the catch-up replays on YouTube. But as a disconnected drafting machine (which is a weird way to say an electronic typewriter), it is very effective. Do I advocate then disaggregating the various things we use high-distraction smart devices for, and carrying around a suite of separate tools? A little LCD or eInk display and 64kB RAM for text notes, and some multi-gigabyte, hiDPI monster for watching “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix?

That is a position taken by some. There are various “distraction-free” devices that look like modern variants of the Pocket PC or other 1980-1990s electronic devices. Take a look at the Remarkable, the Freewrite, or John’s Phone. Or if you want to go even more disconnected, how about a smart pen?

I think the real point to bear in mind is that convergence, like so many other things in computing, looks like progress on a short timescale but a fad over the eons. We had one computer (if we were lucky) in the 1980s, then we had digital watches, digital cameras, handheld GPS, satellite navigation…and then convergence. Convergence looked like progress. But it was a fad, and the new fad is single-purpose “distraction-free” devices. Which look so much like what came before, that I can write my article on a 1995 pocket PC in the same way that someone with one of the fancy new things would.

The same holds for other trends. Agile software development looked like an advance over the heavyweight, management-led methods that preceded it, but now people complain that Scrum is weighed down by bureaucracy. Now DevOps promises to deliver us from the doldrums by creating self-organising teams who value working toward a shared goal over satisfying a preconceived plan.

Once there were computers. Then there was batch processing, and renting out computer time. Then there was timesharing, with billing-on-demand. Then there were personal computers. Then there was the cloud. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

The lesson in this is that while you can get ahead as a developer by jumping on the latest bandwagon, that is not how to succeed as an architect, or as a cybernetician. Step back from the fads, work out what your customer needs, and give that to them. It will be better, and some time soon it will be trendy again too.

Cover photo by the author.

Graham is a senior Research Software Engineer at Oxford University. He got hooked on making quality software in front of a NeXT TurboStation Color, and still has a lot to learn.