Living computers

I’ve seen the Living Computer Museum‘s neon green sign fly past for five years now, and only this weekend did we stop in. And thank god we did. What a trip.

It seems modest enough at first, though as delightful as you might expect – all neon and big displays and the bright colors you’d expect of an exhibit on modern technological superpowers, like self-driving cars, virtual reality, and big data. There was a display on Barbie’s influence on women in tech, a digital studio section, and an old Cray unit. All very cool.

But then we went upstairs, to the living computers.

We all pulled out our smartphones in awe, to take some 20+ megapixel photos we could instantly share with people we felt like sharing them to.

And I immediately thought, How quickly we take it all for granted.

The sounds! The recent past was a constant tapestry of high-pitched whines, whirring fans and hard drives, clattering keyboards and ka-chunking switches. Somehow we lived and worked beside that sound, day after day of it singing through our brains.

The time it took to complete simple tasks now seems staggering. Back then it was the latest, the quickest, the newest. Something to compare to what your friends’ families had.

I walked from thrumming machine to stuttering screen, in awe of human ingenuity. And so much of what I saw at the museum was predicted in some form by speculative authors. The imaginations that play with the future shape the future.

How far and how fast we’ve come, how accelerated our acceptance of change. How young and unprepared so many of the icons were: Bill and Paul and the Steves, especially. I saw photos of Bill Gates in high school, looking 13, his hands on a keyboard. (Where else?)

Yet with every decade of silicon I wandered past, I wondered, how many times now have we faced the same questions and assumed the answers would be different, because “the world is so different now”?

It’s really not. The world is never different. Nature goes on, with or without us. The tools we’ve got to contend with the dull parts, those change a lot. But the things about a life that make stories timeless, the struggles and the triumphs and the quiet happiness, those don’t go away.

If we keep thinking our tools will change the world, we’ll keep making the same mistakes.