The changing role of computers
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    The changing role of computers

Section:
    The changing role of computers

The popular conception of how computers are used can be misleading. We still tend to think of computers as powerful calculators, skilled at mathematical processes. Indeed, the earliest computers were used almost exclusively for mathematical computation. The term computer, as defined before world war two, referred to a person who undertook complex mathematical calculations. The early computing machines were immediately pressed into such mathematically intensive roles as calculating artillery firing tables and code breaking. Even now, computing is often taught as part of a math curriculum in early grades, and we think of computers as large machines with flashing lights and cryptic output. Computers are still being used for calculation. They are better than ever at doing this type of work, but those computers that do this work are principally employed at universities and large corporations. Most computers today sit on the desks or in the homes of individuals. Although 'regular people' have some calculating needs, most of us rarely have to generate an artillery firing table. The main use of computers has shifted from calculation to communication. Most of the applications we run on computers are designed to help us communicate more clearly with other humans. Even those programs which still have a heavy calculating ability (such as spreadsheets) are frequently used to turn the results of the calculations into charts or graphs that are more easily understood by humans. Even when we use a computer to calculate, our real goal is frequently communication.

Since the advent of written language, tools have been used to enhance and control human communication. The invention of the printing press made communication via the written word on paper documents practical. The telephone, television and radio have had the same kinds of effects on visual and auditory communication. Modern office tools such as voice mail, pagers, and fax machines have done much to change communication, but the bulk of business communication has still been paper documents. As you may be aware, the advent of the Internet has the potential to change the way we communicate in some fundamental ways. We cannot watch the news without hearing a story about the Internet. In one story we hear evangelical praise of the technology that will change everything for the better, and in the next story we hear about the abundance of smut, filth, crime, and other dangers it forces upon us. We need to understand what the Internet is and what it isn't. It is a very real part of our present and future. It will not go away any time soon. The effects it may have on us are profound. Our level understanding of this phenomenon will be the difference between whether it controls our actions or we use it as a powerful tool to advance our personal ideals.

Section: The changing role of computers
Contents
    The changing role of computers

Andy Harris, aharris@klingon.cs.iupui.edu