Personal Computing

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

It has recently dawned on me that the thing is not (for most people, ordinary, ’non-techie’ people) “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, even though they’re years past their use-by date, are ugly, smell funny and the soles are worn. 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 (particularly in the Apple and MS worlds of Personal Computing!) and hardly live long enough to acquire personalisation/personality. Not to mention, too, it’s 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. But could my (tech-clueless) brother do that? Extremely unlikely. And it takes several non-intuitive steps to make a new hotkey…

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.)

Much of the blame I put 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 waste 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.