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Pssst. Want to buy a timeshare in the clouds?

The Google dilemma — controller or spreader of knowledge?

Comment Three questions: is baby turning into a monster? Are we desktop/notebook/tablet/smartphone users becoming the near-as-dammit slaves of social media and retail monopolists? Are these monopolists destroying jobs and impoverishing people faster than networked smart device and software technologies are creating jobs and enriching their users' lives?

In the early 1970s, John McCarthy of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL) thought time-sharing was the computing future; dumb terminals connected to (and sharing time on) a remote computer (a mainframe) and on this they could look up information from books, airline schedules, magazines, as well as a great proliferation of new information sources. Sound familiar?

Allen Kay — who worked at SAIL for a couple of years before joining Xerox PARC — disagreed with this. He wanted the future to be small, friendly personal computers, with their own processor and memory, that would enhance personal creativity. Yes, they would be networked, but the emphasis was on personal computing power at the end of the network link.

And he defined his book-sized DynaBook concept to illustrate it: a 1972 sketch of it showed two children using tablet computers with built-in keyboards... sound familiar?


Allan Kay and his astonishingly prescient creation, the Dynabook.

Now, some 40-plus years later we have the world wide web, Google and its ilk, PCs and notebook computers, smart mobiles, tablets and phones. And we can see how the differing visions of McCarthy and Kay have come together.

Google, Facebook, Wikipedia, Techmeme, etc represent the evolution of centralised mainframe-like computing. All of us who access these central resources effectively share time on them, even though they don't run time-sharing-based operating systems.

The PC and notebook are the direct descendants of Kay's DynaBook, while, it could be argued, tablets and smartphones fulfil the role McCarthy envisaged for (relatively) dumb terminals — devices focussed more on consumption than content creation. We have the best (or worst) of both worlds.

But we have to agree that tablets have the child-like, manual-free simplicity that Kay envisaged as part of his DynaBook concept. And they can also be used for content creation; this article is being tapped out on an iPad.

It's clear that there is a need for both types of device, namely PCs and notebooks on the one hand and tablets and smartphones on the other, with different form factors and operating systems (with the exception of Google's Android).

Where is this taking us?

Centralised computing with dumb end points is pretty much the Google idea, with your word-processed docs stored in Google data centres. Google is no longer a way for libertarians to enhance liberty. Instead it has becoming a monitoring, controlling entity, constantly wanting to know what you are doing, and where, so it can feed you ads and sell you stuff.

Tablets and mobile phones tend to support centralisation and control, especially with the security apparatus of governments monitoring large chunks of our digital communications. Without trusted, secure and private communications, free speech (as it used to be called), and net neutrality (the content creating, liberty-enhancing potential of PCs and notebooks) will be, and is being, constrained.

Unix Timesharing

Unix time-sharing session, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1978. So what, really, has changed if we run a Google search instead of a Unix-mediated lookup of a mainframe library?

Google, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft via Azure, are arguably each in their own way becoming oppressive monsters, with the awfully effective security-based monitoring carried out by state bodies such as the NSA and the UK's GCHQ making things worse.

The 1970s libertarians who founded the Home Brew computer club and kicked off the PC revolution would be appalled by the distortion of their ideals into today's connected devices and internet/mobile networks, devices corrupted by centralised abuse from monopolies – the kind of organisation that they, in principle, opposed.

Some of the movement's descendent have become accidental monopolists, running the kind of organisation from which Allan Kay and others wished to free us. They form a new social/industrial complex, in a conflicted relationship with the government because of the latter's security concern and information gathering needs.

What was meant to make us freer, more independent, productive and wealthier is instead impoverishing us, destroying jobs, invading and killing our privacy, and strengthening government control over us, essentially a form of digital Kool-Aid that’s making society sick, one which we should stop drinking.

But how can we do this? How can we escape without giving up the benefits that the massive tech companies give us? That's a question for which nobody yet has an answer and which many would deny even needs asking. ®

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