Silicon Insider: Tech Revolutions at Hand

I was 12 when I first imagined a personal computer, 22 before I saw one, and 30 when I saw Jobs unveil the Macintosh. By then, the modern personal computer had taken nearly two-thirds of my life to be realized.

Yet, in retrospect, the whole PC revolution seems to have happened incredibly fast. Though we had a half-generation warning, we still weren't prepared for the arrival of the Personal Computer Age. In fact, even though this year's college freshmen were born the year of the Mac introduction, we are still struggling to deal with all of the implications of its arrival.

Finally, there was the Internet. I first watched somebody access the DARPAnet, at Xerox PARC if I remember right, sometime in the early 1980s. Once again, I thought it would be amazing to have such a research tool in my own house. But that was impossible: the Net was the province of giant institutions, and run on giant mainframe computers using dumb terminals. It cost survivors thousands — millions if you included the hardware — to subscribe. And the access coding was a nightmare. Besides, there didn't seem to be much on the Net that would be useful over time to us everyday folks.

I don't need to tell you what happened a dozen years later. The Internet, now armed with the right infrastructure and search tools, became an overnight sensation. Putting the average person on the Net had taken 20 years. Does anyone doubt that it will take 20 more for us to spin out and cope with all of its implications?

A New Digital Age

So, why this little exercise in nostalgia? Because of two little news items that appeared in the last couple of weeks.

With everything else going on in the world, you may not have noticed them. Yet they are vivid reminders that this law of technology revolutions still holds

The first of these stories had to do with digital cameras. Remember when consumer digital photography was first announced? I think it was sometime in the late 1980s. Digital photography was going to be the next big thing. Then the first cameras started showing up on store shelves in the mid-1990s, and they were expensive and not very good.

Still, a few people bought them. Then, digital cameras got cheaper and better. And then, sometime in the last three years, we all bought one, though the purchase seemed less adventurous than inevitable; more anecdotal than part of a mass movement.

Now, consider the recent announcement by the Camera and Imaging Products Association: In 2002, the unit sales of digital cameras exceeded those of traditional cameras for the first time.

In other words, while we busy elsewhere, the age of film photography just ended. Moreover, two traditional consumer boundaries — between data and imagery, and between still and moving pictures — have also just been erased.

We now live in the age of digital photography. Are we prepared for the implications of ubiquitous image gathering? Spy cameras on every corner? A world in which any image can be easily modified — and thus unbelievable? Of a return to a pre-literate world in which pictures have primacy in communications over words?

Of course we aren't. Digital photography took forever to get here. And now that it has, it seems as if all these new problems have been suddenly sprung upon us.

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