What I did not know in 1968, when I started using digital computing in the service of communications and some other people started to fund an infant Internet, was that some computer scientists held a quite different understanding of the tools they were developing; these scientists considered computers as tools for communications as well as for computations. Some time in the mid-1960s, before my baptism by punch card, Douglas Engelbart, the visionary who first conceived of human-computer interaction as communication, began to build the first system to employ windows, icons, and mouse pointers, what was known as the WIMP interface. His work, begun at Stanford and completed at Xerox's research division, laid the groundwork for the graphic user interface and the direct manipulation interface so popular now for personal computers.
Some 15 years after my first experience with digital technologies, computers underwent a staggering metamorphosis. A few thousand cumbersome giants somehow spawned millions of sleek, fast, widely distributed productivity and connectivity devices. The history of this transformation is only now being written. Most people who use computers as productivity tools and as literacy tools -- for writing and reading, for example -- use a desktop or personal computer rather than a communal shared machine, a mainframe. The transformation from centralized to personalized computing and from there to global networking has felt so swift and so complete that it has also seemed in some sense predestined, determined by laws of nature, perhaps, rather than by human agency.
I think it would be helpful, though, to look at the relation of tools or technologies to social systems in a different way.
This page is part of the article, "E-literacies: Politexts, Hypertexts and Other Cultural Formations in the Late Age of Print."