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Years of transformation–the prehistory of how we got to here and where we go next

Nearly 25 years ago now I published A Dao of Web Design. It was before social media, even before blogging had really gained any sort of traction. But it somehow found amn audience, and folks from all over the world emailed me in the weeks and months after.

One I will never forget was from Ronni Bennett (a truly inspiring woman who sadly passed away a few years back.)

a midjourney imagined 2023 computer based on technology from Texas Instruments and CP/M
midjourney prompt: an alternative 2023 where texas instruments and CP/M had become the dominant players in computing not wintel

I had the great good fortune to meet Ronni in person in New York a few months later. She had had an extraordinary career, which began in radio as a producer for her then husband’s popular and ground breaking AM and FM programs in New York in the 1960s and 1970s, and later in Television, where she was a producer for the legendary Barbara Walters, and over quite a few drinks on a sweltering late summer day down in Greenwich Village where she lived we talked about how despite all that success she’d always wished she’d had the chance to be there at the start of these media, to help shape them in their infancy.

And then the web arrived, and Ronni got her chance. I can’t find online exactly how, and my memory is a little hazy (those Heinekens had their impact) but Ronni was heavily involved in one of the very first high impact news websites, one NBC developed for the 1996 US Presidential election (which of course no longer exists online nor even in the wayback machine).

Ronni helped me appreciate the real privilege it was to be there as the web emerged as its own thing–part medium, part technology, part platform.

And in one lifetime it’s a rare privilege to get even that one front row seat.

But I’ve been a little more privileged than that. In my early teens I saw the rise of, and was privileged to have an early version of, what became the personal computer (we called them ‘microcomputers’ until the IBM PC). As I started university, to get the chance to learn on and program early Macintoshes, and be involve with desktop publishing with student newspapers.

In the early 90s to have the chance to be an early user of and developer for the Web.

These transformations in technology–the PC, the Mac, desktop publishing, the Web, are all intertwined, and collectively transformed and shaped the modern world, for better and for worse.

Since then, while we’ve seen orders of magnitude of improvement in computational power and network speed, extraordinary innovations in form factor, and UI, I don’t think we’ve seen the sort of transformation that this decade or so, from roughly 1980 to 1990, saw, a decade that shaped computing, and the world ever since. These events established the foundations we’re still building on today.

Until now.

I genuinely feel what we are seeing with generative AI will have a similarly transformative impact on what we imagine computing can be. How we interact with computation, and how computation shapes the nature of property, work, indeed our entire political economy.

So, to help me think a bit more systematically about what these changes might look like, I am going back to those transformative moments of the decade from 1980 to 1990. In a series of articles I hope to give some context to what happened and why I feel their impact has been so lasting.

The first year is 1981, the year of the IBM PC, the year that created Microsoft and Intel (yes I know they were founded years before). And we’ll see instead of wintel, we may have had a CP/BM, or TI/PM future, with Microsoft and Intel mere footnotes to computing.

Can you remember a milestone year, or moment in your career? Or in the broader landscape of technology? I’ve lived through a few, and perhaps we are living through such a moment right now (I believe so).

And that’s prompted me to look back on milestone years on the path to today’s computing.

Years of Transformation, the series

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this was a masterfully curated event … a brilliant day that educated, entertained, and rekindled some old connections

Ash Donaldson Service & Behaviour Design Director, Tobias
Portrait of Ash Donaldson