The writer and futurist Arthur C. Clarke said, “The Information Age offers much to mankind, and I would like to think that we will rise to the challenges it presents. But it is vital to remember that information — in the sense of raw data — is not knowledge, that knowledge is not wisdom, and that wisdom is not foresight. But information is the first essential step to all of these.” I believe the Museum is at its best when it takes not only the first essential step of delivering information, but when we also take the essential next steps of developing information into knowledge and—if we’re both good and lucky—into wisdom.
As we explore computing and its ongoing impact on society, I’ve found that some of our most rewarding work involves making the unseen visible, tangible and understandable. Much of computing—and, therefore, much of computing’s history—is as invisible as it is transformational. Some of the most interesting challenges arise in the field of software. Today software is everywhere—in the marvelously advanced devices we used to call cell phones, in the giant systems that run our government, energy, defense, financial and transportation services, and in the heart of medical advances that increasingly improve—and save—our lives. Yet making software tangible, and its history understandable and relevant, requires great creativity and skill. We see it as vitally important to tell the story of software and its ongoing (if invisible) effect on society as part of our institutional mission.
The lynchpin of our software strategy is a new multi-platform exhibition, “Make Software, Change the World!” MSCW will launch in early 2014 with the unveiling of a new gallery on the west wing of our physical museum and a large digital presence on computerhistory.org. A significant part of our exhibition, curatorial and archival team is devoting its time and energy over the next 14 months to the effort.
Why undertake to tell the history of software? Because software is eating the world.
“Why Software is Eating the World” is the provocative title of an essay by Netscape co-founder and venture investor Marc Andreessen. He wrote it for The Wall Street Journal in 2011 and quickly found he had created a meme that swept—and continues to sweep—the Internet. Andreessen’s thesis is simple, straightforward and, in the eyes of some, unassailable: the world is in the middle of a dramatic and broad technological and economic shift in which software will take over large territories of the global economy.
In fact, much of that territory has already been taken. A JP Morgan Chase executive in 2012 described her company as an information technology business that happened to hold a banking license. At the height of its success Kodak processed an estimated 150 million photographs a year; a recent MIT study estimated that 1.2 trillion digital photographs were taken by smartphones alone in 2011. GPS systems guide tractors sowing corn in the farms of the U.S. Midwest, and algorithms operate the implements dispensing the seeds and fertilizer according to instant analysis of soil content. As Andreessen explains, an entrepreneur today can set up her business online in one day by leasing systems and storage in the Amazon cloud, setting up a payment account through PayPal and marketing to a billion potential customers through Facebook.
As the world speeds through this transition, we believe it’s important to take stock of where society has come in the software-driven world and the implications for all of us in the future. “Make Software, Change the World!” will explain the impact of software for visitors of all ages and geekiness levels, both here and around the world via www.computerhistory.org. MSCW will focus on major stories of breakthrough software applications that touch almost every facet of modern life.
You’ll read about MSCW frequently on this blog and in other areas of computerhistory.org. If you’re a Museum member, you’ll see that our annual magazine, CORE, is largely devoted to MSCW for our January 2013 issue. Both here and in print, you’ll also learn how much the Museum is doing to preserve the rich and complicated history of software in our archival and curatorial work. You’ll discover the story of our new digital repository, which now holds more than 2 terabytes of vintage code and much of its related documentation—and so much more. And you’ll sample a fascinating oral history of Ward Cunningham, who developed the wiki as a simple, ubiquitous publishing tool.
Ideally, all of this will give your mind something to chew on as software continues to eat—and change—the world.