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Computers “merely wires and lights in a box.”

July 10th, 2006

[The computer] can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. - Edward R. Murrow

The dwindling interest in computer related professions and the growing demand for these professionals are continually in the news. Governments, teacher associations, and corporations are all taking initiatives, but the problem – as many have pointed out – is much larger lying in a deeper social and cultural context.

In the 50s Edward R. Murrow gave a speech where he criticized television and radio for becoming a form of entertainment akin to show business. Like other intellectuals of the time, Murrow was concerned that the informative, and educational qualities of TV and Radio were being lost. He suggested that the shift from information to entertainment would deeply affect our future, our society, “our culture, and our heritage” (Edward R. Murrow). Now, today TV and Radio is show business (Hollywood), and computers are an entertainment medium rivaling the TV. Today the computer is facing a paradigm shift similar to the shift TV and Radio underwent in the 50s.

Computers are a form of entertainment for most of the younger generation. This younger generation (coined Generation Y, the Google Generation, etc…), have been weaned on robust operating systems, complex (mostly mature) software, the internet, and a popular consciousness (pop culture) that discourages intellectual careers. Not to mention; they’ve grown up in an era of overly complex entertainment and Hollywood. Many of today’s adolescents spend hours listening to music, loading mp3 players, playing games, surfing through web logs, chatting on Instant Messengers, and so on. The underlying technologies facilitating their entertainment are often perceived as magic, like “wires and lights in a box” (Edward R. Murrow). Michael Bishop put it well: “With the same passion that young people enjoy the music players and computer games which the industry develops, they need to realize that their own future lies in creating the software and the applications that enable those experiences.” As Michael points out, we need passion for computers and technology, but in order to inspire passion we need to spark an interest, work against the popular consciousness, and so on.

Sparking an interest; what we’ve been striving for in the software industry is now coming back to haunt us, we’ve successfully insulated the user from many of the complexities surrounding software. We’ve been so successful in abstracted and layered our systems that no one really sees what goes on beneath and as a result most people don’t care. Perhaps the passion for computing and technology could be rekindled if every adolescent were required to use applications like mIRC rather than programs like MSN. mIRC (as many know) is a simple chat application that gently exposes the complexities of the internet, and the world of programming¬† / scripting.

It’s encouraging to see initiative being taken by corporations, teachers, and governments. I think the most successful initiatives will be at the grassroots level; professionals talking with adolescents, parents (computer professionals) inspiring their children and extended family.

Anyhow; these thoughts are somewhat incomplete and were initially inspired by the movie “Good Night, And Good Luck” – a film depicting Edward R. Murrow.
It’s an excellent movie.

Author: Adam Kahtava Categories: Musings, Software Tags:
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