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Communications of the ACM

Look to the Past to Envision the Future

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A key distinguishing characteristic of human beings is our use of tools, including extensive use of communications technologies. From plows to mills to books and radios, we have used technology to create tools and means of communicating. Drawing upon those engineering feats, we have built extensive social and societal structures that made possible ever-increasingly healthy and interconnected lives. Major advances have come from mechanical engineering, organizational techniques, biological engineering, and more. Over time, these and other disciplines will advance in waves, with periodic improvements followed by plateaus.

The area I've had the most experience withinformation technologymoved slowly until the invention of electronics made complex and speedy systems practical. This has been followed by a crescendo of improvements that are helping us realize the potential of computation, electronic control, and electromagnetic communication.

Like spoken language, written language, construction of shelter, cultivation of food, and other human endeavors, I believe IT will eventually reach a special point where its products become part of what it means to be human and live in a human society. After that point, advances will be incremental, and more driven by specific needs, a sense of art and fashion, advances in other fields, and other factors. Instead of focusing on IT advances, the results caused by reaching that special point will be more important to us. Indeed, other new technologies will capture our interest and societal investment.

Today, we are lucky to live in a time where we can glimpse at that special point, even though it may be decades in the future. Current tools and interfaces are surely primitive compared to where we'll end up. However, I believe that in hindsight, some of what we are building today will be seen like the early wheels, windows, and written scrollsbasic tools and ideas that help define and extend what it means to be human.

It is clear we will use these technologies both to augment our abilities to create and affect the world as well as to keep us in social connection with other peopleespecially those dear to us.

The most popular IT tools have been general-purpose tools we can use to meet our personal needs and desires. I think we will see more of the same. We use IT because of what it can do for us, not for its inherent qualities. Its benefit to society is that today's people can use it to fulfill today's needs.

IT is intriguing in that it is made up of physical devices, like many other engineering fields, yet is just as much built of software, which is similar to language and social organization. Much of IT revolves around the means of interfacing between humans and devices for computation and communications. It really is a place where we can merge the world of thought and self with the physical world. Limitations due to space, memory, and speed can be overcome, but only by working with the same reality that brings those limitations.

The first years we spent just trying to get technology to work. In the last decade, society finally acknowledged the importance of IT and started depending upon it as a permanent addition to all phases of our lives.

Now a new generation is emerging that will build upon that base to fully integrate what IT can do for society. From there we will continue advancing the technologies until we reach that point when advancements have no meaningful added benefit. Then, we as information technologists, will have done our job.

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Dan Bricklin ( is the co-creator of VisiCalcthe first PC spreadsheetand is founder of Trellix, a firm specializing in Web site building services and software in Concord, MA.

Copyright held by author.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2001 ACM, Inc.


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