Personal Computing

We keep using the acronym “PC”, which, I’ll remind the crowd, stands for “Personal Computer”.

It recently dawned on me that the thing we so glibly call a PC is not, for the most part, “Personal”, and is scarcely a “Computer” in the sense of Turing-machine/Universal computing device.

Allow me to unpack that:

Personal” is the pair of shoes I wear every day, though they’re years past their use-by date, are ugly, smell funny and the soles are worn. They’re warm, and they fit me feet like hand-tooled leather gloves. For you it might be the jumper knitted for you by your Nan. It’s the objects we use that, over the years, mould themselves to our personal idiosyncrasies, habits, preferences and style. Our computers scarcely have that quality, and hardly live long enough to acquire personalisation/personality. Not neglecting that personalising a computer is quite hard to do. Example: my (Linux, KDE) box is pretty happy for me to define custom hot-keys for all sorts of things, from firing up frequently-used apps (I scarcely ever use the desktop menu these days) to typing my email address (because: frequency). But could my (tech-clueless) brother do that? Extremely unlikely. And, even for me and despite having a hotkey to get me to the right bit of system-config, it takes several non-intuitive steps to make a new hotkey…

Loading the phone numbers of our friends, family and the local plumber into our Contacts List does not make the device “personal”, Google and Facebook’s fervid imaginings to the contrary. “Personal” is when the device learns us, adapts to us, without much effort on our part.

Computer”: How programmable is my phone? (I’ve done Android dev work. I don’t ever wish to do it again.) How scriptable? How malleable in casual ways? Not at all. It’s Google’s device much more than it’s mine. It’s a sort of locked-down surveillance television, not a general-purpose computer programmable-by-me (except in a highly specialist and narrow sense, and programming it is a very expensive undertaking by any measure.)

Much of the blame I must place at the doorstep of Visual Basic which reduced the scope, utility and promise of direct-manipulation interfaces into a terribly narrow, constrained version of interaction with our computers: a sort of pathetic “paper forms on an electronic screen” that seems to me an appalling squandering of the potential of the medium. It put the vision back by at least a decade. Maybe several.

Finally, though, I have hope we might emerge from that. There’s a bunch of us working on it. I hope like mad that someone succeeds. Soon. I really, really want a Personal Computer.