Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Nine miles in the snow!

As technology and society advance, it seems to be the perennial habit of old-timers to tell young whipper-snappers that they just don't know how tough it was in the old days.

I will not be able to completely avoid such remarks in this blog. In many important respects, computing technology has advanced by at least nine (decimal) orders of magnitude during the period I have been involved with it. This phenomenon is often lumped under the heading of "Moore's Law," but is actually more widespread, including, for example, advances in magnetic disk capacity that have outpaced Moore's Law for the past decade (even though the imminent demise of that technology was widely predicted in the 1970s).

Large quantitative changes in almost anything are accompanied by significant qualitative changes in what is conceivable, possible, reasonable, and usual. Think of all the differences in transportation that resulted from the change from traveling on foot to riding a horse to driving a car to flying in a jet plane. And remember that an airplane outperforms a bicycle or a covered wagon by somewhat less than three orders of magnitude (i.e., less than 15 years of Moore's Law). I will be discussing changes that have been dramatically greater than that.

Truth be told: In many ways it was fun, rather than a hardship, to work with systems small enough that one person could thoroughly understand both the hardware and all the software running on it. One of my recurrent themes will be that we have gone from a situation where we mastered the machines to one where they too often master us.

(For the record, I started school in Honolulu, and never trudged through any snow to school, unless you count my days as a professor at the University of Toronto, where the bulk of my commuting involved the estimable Toronto Transit Commission.)