Computers… in Hiiiiiistory

A visit to the Computer History Museum has left me with an excellent brain buzz. Of the cognitive cogs that it set in motion, here is a first round of highlights:

It is so easy to think of history as a series of large nodes, connected by lines through a vacuum between them.  However, when you zoom in, you can see that that history, be it in the realm of technology or politics, is actually a continuous story built layer by tiny layer. The history of computers makes this historical outlook especially obvious because you can quantitatively see it in the change in the number of transistors on the same sized piece of silicon.

While it is harder to see, the same process is true farther back in time and outside the realm of easily quantified technology. In a common misconception, many people see the 1000+ year period between ~500 and 1500 AD as Roman Empire * boom * Middle Ages * boom * Renaissance, with each step being a clean break from the last.  You probably already knew that wasn’t the case, but do a little self-examination on your mental heuristics for the parts of history unfamiliar to you – I bet it’s a series of discrete nodes.

The term ‘history is written by the victors’ is associated with warfare, but is possibly even more true for technology. More accurately, history is written * about * the winners.  Again so easy to forget, but for every Google, there are scores of search engines that didn’t make it: Dogpile, Altavista, AskJeeves, etc. In retrospect, the dominance of Google might seem inevitable but at the time, they were all viable.  They just tried something slightly different (or even the same thing but in the wrong place or at the wrong time.)

Both the intermediate steps and the failures become less obvious the farther they are – either in time or from your area of expertise.  It’s important to remember is that they exist for everything, be it in the distant past or an area you know nothing about. You don’t need to know the specific examples to realize that there is always far more going on than the cliff note bullet points. 

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