The Computer Society: Pushbutton Power (Feb, 1978)

Here are some articles from a 1979 Time magazine special issue focusing on computers called “The Computer Society”

The Age of Miracle Chips
– Explores possible the possible effect of computers upon society including possible economic and social upheaval.
Science: The Numbers Game – Covers the history of computers as well as the science and technology behind designing and producing them.
Business: Thinking Small – Discusses the computer industry, markets and the potential effects of computers the upon business world.
Living: Pushbutton Power – Explores computer uses in the home, school and hospital.
Time Magazine Gets a PDP-11 – Short piece by the editor of Time about the features of their new PDP-11 including it’s spell-checker, hyphenator, fonts and graphics capability.

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Living: Pushbutton Power

The computer revolution may make us wiser, healthier and even happier

It is 7:30 a.m. As the alarm clock burrs, the bedroom curtains swing silently apart, the Venetian blinds snap up and the thermostat boosts the heat to a cozy 70. The percolator in the kitchen starts burbling; the back door opens to let out the dog. The TV set blinks on with the day’s first newscast: not your Today show humph-humph, but a selective rundown (ordered up the night before) of all the latest worldwide events affecting the economy—legislative, political, monetary. After the news on TV comes the morning mail, from correspondents who have dictated their messages into the computer network. The latter-day Aladdin, still snugly abed, then presses a button on a bedside box and issues a string of business and personal memos, which appear instantly on the genie screen. After his shower, which has turned itself on at exactly the right temperature at the right minute, Mr. A. is alerted by a buzzer and a blue light on the screen. His boss, the company president, is on his way to the office. A. dresses and saunters out to the car. The engine, of course, is running…

After her husband has kissed her goodbye, Alice A. concentrates on the screen for a read-out of comparative prices at the local merchants’ and markets. Following eyeball-to-eyeball consultations with the butcher and the baker and the grocer on the tube, she hits a button to commandeer supplies for tonight’s dinner party. Pressing a couple of keys on the kitchen terminal, she orders from the memory bank her favorite recipes for oysters Rockefeller, boeuf a la bourguignonne and chocolate souffle, tells the machine to compute the ingredients for six servings, and directs the ovens to reach the correct temperature for each dish according to the recipe, starting at 7:15 p.m. Alice then joins a televised discussion of Byzantine art (which she has studied by computer). Later she wanders into the computer room where Al (“Laddy”) Jr. has just learned from his headset that his drill in Latin verb conjugation was “groovy.”

Wellsian fantasy? Verne-Vonnegut put-on? Maybe. But while this matutinal scenario may still be years away, the basic technology is in existence. Such painless, productive awakenings will in time be as familiar as Dagwood Bum-stead’s pajamaed panics. And, barring headaches, tummy aches and heartaches, the American day should proceed as smoothly as it begins. All thanks to the miracle of the microcomputer, the supercheap chip that can electronically shoulder a vast array of boring, time-consuming tasks.

The microelectronic revolution promises to ease, enhance and simplify life in ways undreamed of even by the Utopians. At home or office, routine chores will be performed with astonishing efficiency and speed. Leisure time, greatly increased, will be greatly enriched. Public education, so often a dreary and capricious process in the U.S., may be invested with the inspiriting quality of an Oxford tutorial—from preschool on. Medical care will be delivered with greater precision.

Letters will not so easily go astray. It will be safer to walk the streets because people will not need to carry large amounts of cash; virtually all financial transactions will be conducted by computer. In the microelectronic global village, the home will again be the center of society, as it was before the Industrial Revolution.

Mass production of the miracle chip has already made possible home computer systems that sell for less than $800—and prices will continue to fall. Many domestic devices that use electric power may be computerized. Eventually, the household computer will be as much a part of the home as the kitchen sink; it will program washing machines, burglar and fire alarms, sewing machines, a robot vacuum cleaner and a machine that will rinse and stack dirty dishes. When something goes wrong with an appliance, a question to the computer will elicit repair instructions —in future generations, repairs will be made automatically. Energy costs will be cut by a computerized device that will direct heat to living areas where it is needed, and turn it down where it is not; the device’s ubiquitous eye, sensing where people are at all times, will similarly turn the lights on and off as needed.

Paper clutter will disappear as home information management systems take over from memo pads, notebooks, files, bills and the kitchen bulletin board. Michael Dertouzos, director of M.I.T.’s computer-science laboratory, keeps in his home computer all financial data, income tax records, things-to-do lists, appointments, phone numbers and the equivalent of a desk calendar. His children even compose their Christmas cards with the help of the ever obliging minicomputer.

If an M.I.T, professor has seen the future and is making it work, so, appropriately, is the city of Columbus, Ohio. This New Atlantis since last December has become the prototype electronic village. The Columbian connection is called QUBE (pronounced cube). Described by its developers, Manhattan-based Warner Cable Corp., as the first large-scale use of “participatory TV,” QUBE provides paying subscribers with 30 television channels (Columbus has only four regular TV stations) that include all-day, nonviolent programs for preschool children, educational films, first-run movies, live sports events, college credit courses and soft-core porn, all without censorship or commercial breaks.

For a base charge of $10.95 a month, the QUBE subscriber can voice his opinions in local political debates, conduct garage sales and bid for objets d’art in a charity auction. QUBE is the first major system in which the viewer can talk back to the tube. By pressing a button, Joe or Jane Columbus can quiz a politician, or turn electronic thumbs down or up on a local amateur talent program, a la Gong Show. QUBE supplies specialized programs for doctors and lawyers; the local newspaper asks viewers to evaluate its features; advertisers pretest commercials for audience reaction. Columbus’ multifaceted QUBE also comparison-shops the local supermarkets and makes it possible to book a table at an Oriental restaurant and order the meal in advance. Oh, Brave New World! Hail, Columbus!

While it may be a number of years before the average housewife can do her shopping by computer TV, the basic instrumentation is already in place in an ever growing number of supermarkets.

The computer might appear to be a dehumanizing factor, but the opposite is in fact true. It is already leading the consumer society away from the mass-produced homogeneity of the assembly line. The chip will make it possible some day to have shoes and clothes made to order—the production commanded and directed by computer —within minutes. The custom-made object, now restricted to the rich, will be within everyone’s reach.

In no area of American life is personal service so precious as in medical care. Here, too, the computer has become a humanizing factor; the patient tends to give a more candid account of his symptoms, regimen and medical history to a machine programmed to ask the proper preliminary questions than to a harassed and possibly intimidating doctor.

At Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital, for example, some patients sit down at a computer terminal before meeting a physician to provide their medical histories and receive information about the hospital. The computer interviews can be done in French and Spanish, as well as English, with a physician receiving an instantaneous translation. At Beth Israel and other hospitals, much of the literature on some major ailments, such as stroke and blood disease, has been computerized for doctors’ consultation. Computers are already capable of detecting and monitoring ocular and cerebral ailments such as glaucoma and brain tumors.

At a few hospitals, computers are programmed not only to remind the pharmacy department to prepare prescriptions but also to alert nurses to give the proper dosage at the right time. After a physician examines a patient at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital, a report, including lab test results, is logged into a data bank. One of the hospital’s more than 100 terminals will then handle the patient’s history in an intelligible language infelicitously named MUMPS (an acronym for Massachusetts General Hospital Utility Multi-Programming System).

More broadly, computers enable the patient to receive a health profile at far lower cost than previously possible; analyze vast amounts of blood; and, by systematizing information about the patient, cut down his hospital stay and pare both institutional and patient costs.

Next to health, heart and home, happiness for mobile Americans depends upon the well-tempered automobile. Computer technology may make the car, as we know it, a Smithsonian antique. In addition to the microprocessors under the hood that will help the auto operate more efficiently, tiny computers will ease tensions and make life simpler for the driver and passengers too. Ford Motor Co. now offers buyers of its Continental Mark Vs an option called “miles to empty.” At the push of a button, the driver can get a read-out on the amount of fuel in the tank, and the number of miles he can expect to go (at current speed) before a refill is necessary. Drivers of General Motors’ 1978 Cadillac Seville will also be able to punch a button and find out the miles yet to go to a preset destination and the estimated arrival time. The ultimate auto will make the solid gold Cadillac look leaden. It will accommodate a pencil-size portable phone capable of reaching any number in in seconds, automatic braking that will take over from a panicked driver, and a miniradar to avert collisions.

The widest benefits of the electronic revolution (unlike those of most revolutions) will accrue to the young. Seymour Pa-pert, professor of mathematics and education at M.I.T., estimates that there will be 5 million private computers in people’s homes and available to students within two years; by 1982, he predicts, 80% of upper-middle-class families will have computers “capable of playing important roles in the intellectual development of their children.” Says California Author Robert Al-brecht, a pioneer of electronic education: “In schools, computers will be more common than carousel slide projectors, movie projectors and tape recorders. They’ll be used from the moment school opens, through recess, through lunch period, and on as far into the day as the principal will keep the school open.”

What is happening is not only believable but inevitable. In the words of science-fiction Writer Ray Bradbury, “It’s pure sci-fi.” Across the country, “these magical beasts,” as they have been called, are assisting hassled, often incompetent teachers. They are revivifying soporific students, dangling and delivering intellectual challenges beyond the ken of most educators. Says Bradbury: “Millions of buildings’ worth of mostly outdated literature and information will be stored on tiny capsules for retrieval when needed. There’s too damn much paper around anyway.”

U.C.L.A. Professor of Computer Science Gerald Estrin, who helped to develop the computer at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in the 1940s, says: “The computers provide an intensely visual, multisensory Teaming experience that can take a youngster in a matter of a few months to a level he might never reach without it, and certainly would not reach in less than many, many years of study by conventional methods.” Notes from the classroom:

In Minnesota, 2,200 educational computer terminals, from tiny farming communities to the Twin Cities, reach 92% of all students in the state. With a more than $1 million annual state grant for long-distance telephone charges, students are hooked into a statewide network by which, among other projects, social-studies students can simulate a national election, young biologists analyze the pollution of a lake, and future farmers learn how best to manage a given number of acres.

In Sunnyvale, Calif, Robert Albrecht is using personal computers to teach “kids how to program computers so that they can teach other kids.” Sunnyvale students can also engage in such simulations as “Whale Watching,” in which they help a southward-migrating gray whale make the necessary navigational and survival decisions to reach the Baja California breeding grounds. One effect of the computer, says Albrecht, is “to create worlds of ‘If for children to explore.”

In Brookline, Mass., under the direction of Seymour Papert, a pilot study costing almost $1.5 million and financed by the National Science Foundation, is getting its first realistic testing with 48 sixth-graders who are learning to program computers for math, language, music making and, says Papert, “we like to believe, thinking skills.”

In New Hampshire, at Ivy League Dartmouth College, more than 96% of this year’s graduating class can use computers, which are as freely available as library stacks. The system was set up by Dartmouth President John Kemeny, who might be called the Mr. Chips of computerized education. Says Computer Consultant John Nevison: “Learning to write a computer program must now be considered part of becoming a liberally educated person.” Indeed, educational analysts report that high school students are increasingly choosing colleges on the basis of their computer facilities.

In Illinois, at the University of Illinois’ Champaign-Urbana campus, a system known as PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations) helps teach 150 subjects, ranging from Swahili to rocketry (but not Plato). The student sits in a booth in which he can conduct a Socratic dialogue with the computer via a typewriter keyboard. Its proteges praise PLATO for “kindness” and “personalized attention.”

The computer’s benign influence extends to the handicapped. The tremendously arduous process of turning print into Braille for the blind has become a relatively simple mechanical routine. In April, Telesensory Systems Inc., of Palo Alto, Calif., will start marketing a game center consisting of eight games for the unsighted; oscillating tones will replace the screen markings for contests like paddle ball; and synthesized speech will be used for other games such as tic-tac-toe, blackjack and skeet shoot.

The home computer has until recently been largely the province of the hobbyist. With basic kits that can be bought for less than $100 (and can easily cost $5,000 or more when sophisticated widgets and gizmos are added), “home brewers,” as they style themselves, have taught their devices a diversity of skills beyond the interests of the big computer companies.

It is these basement Edisons, part-time tinkerers and others who own computers for personal or professional reasons who will most probably realize the vast potential of the silicon chip for the consumer. They are an avid, eager-beaver breed, anxious to share technological insights and applications with other chip fanatics. Computerniks have already formed some 400 informal clubs, and these are growing rapidly. Electronic stores are proliferating like fast-(brain)food outlets. They, too, operate as semi-clubs, where employees are as interested in yakking as in selling. Even Montgomery Ward now offers, for $399, a home computer.

The chips are used to compose music, draw Op artistic pictures and write poems. They will never be Marvells or undo Donne—but they are trying. Poet-Novelist Carol Spearin Mc-Cauley notes in her book Computers and Creativity (Praeger) that the well-programmed computer is freed from “the confines of English grammar, syntax and common usage … The machine’s lack of shame, so to speak, frees it to express many things that a writer, by habit used to excluding or censoring the ungrammatical, awkward or ambiguous, would not consider.” Marie Boroff, an English professor at Yale, acted as muse to a computer that produced these near-erotic lines:

O poet,
Dream like an enormous flood;
Let the work of your bed
Be stilled

The night
Comes and shines.

The earthworms are multiplying. The river
And I am ravished

O poet,
The body of your blessing reaches me . . .

For the mighty army of consumers, the ultimate applications of the computer revolution are still around the bend of a silicon circuit. It is estimated that there are at least 25,000 applications of the computer awaiting discovery. Notes The Economist: “To ask what the applications are is like asking what are the applications of electricity.” Certainly, the miracle chip will affect American life in ways both benign and productive. Far from George Orwell’s gloomy vision of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the computer revolution is stimulating intellects, liberating limbs and propelling mankind to a higher order of existence.

  1. […] the computer industry, markets and the potential effects of computers the upon business world. Living: Pushbutton Power – Explores computer uses in the home, school and hospital. Time Magazine Gets a PDP-11 – Short […]

  2. Caya says: May 9, 20075:36 am

    Now that’s what I’d like, is an indicator in my car that will tell me when I will run out of gas, based on current driving rate & pattern. One would think that by the time that a person could afford this type of fancy gizmo, they wouldn’t have to count pennies for the gas- but with gas prices these days, who knows.

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