Monday, November 21, 2011

Cheap Shot

Looking at a timeline for computing on Wikipedia (here), I came across this quote for the year 1977:

There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.

The person quoted is supposedly Ken Olsen, founder, president, and chairman of Digital Equipment Corporation. I stared at that for a moment. The first thing that bothered me was that revealing “their.” This is 1977, I thought. Back then people had not yet succumbed to the disease of gender-neutral PC newspeak. My next thought was that Ken Olsen was no dummy. Apple had been launched the year before—and behind it a rather sizeable cloud of amateurs building little personal computers. And Commodore had already launched its first little computer too, dubbed PET (for personal electronic transactor). So I went on a search. One thing that the Internet age has taught me is that you do not automatically believe what you read on a screen. Sure enough…

What Olsen had said, in an address to the World Future Society in Boston, was “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.” Notice that “his.” And the context was quite different. I learned from, “Rumor Has It” (link), that Olsen’s context was a computer installed to control every function of the residence, “turning lights on and off, regulating temperature, choosing entertainments, monitoring food supplies and preparing meals, etc.” Snopes quotes Olsen himself saying later was that this interpretation

…is, of course, ridiculous because the business we were in was making PCs, and almost from the start I had them at home and my wife played Scrabble with time-sharing machines, and my sixth grade son was networking the MIT computers and the DEC computers together, hopefully without doing mischief, using the computers I had at home.

Now, amusingly, Snopes itself gives no attribution for this quote beyond saying: “As Olsen later noted…” Sloppy, I would say. The truth of the matter is, the information is out there, but it’s best to trust—but verify.

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