The way we talk about computing power

Whenever I hear someone rhapsodize about how much more computer power we have now compared with what was available in the 1960s during the Apollo era, I cringe. Those comparisons usually grossly underestimate the difference.

A Quadrillion Mainframes on Your Lap, Rodney Brooks, IEEE Spectrum

And I cringe whenever I hear someone rhapsodise about computing power – however accurately – sans the context of its ubiquity. Those comparisons usually grossly miscommunicate what it means to have such power. It recently struck me that, contrary to the problem of presentism that frequently undermines what amateur historians have to say about events of the past, assessments of computing power are frequently undermined by pastism: of the tendency to quantify the computing power we have in our pockets (smartphones) or on our laps (tablets and laptops) as multiples of the computing power available to the people who launched the Apollo missions.

These are often thinly veiled exhortions to people to use the computers at their disposal more wisely, and they’re often bad advice as well.

But I wonder, are we using all that computation effectively to make as much difference as our forebears did after the leap from pencil and paper to the 7090?

Same source as above

Since the advent of the personal computer and then the internet, the ubiquity of computers – and the information that they can carry, distribute and access – has transformed the context in which information exists, and is required. Instead of talking about how our laptops have a quadrillion-times the computing power that exist in an IBM 7090 mainframe, and therefore simply inferring how much more we can do with it, I think it would be better to imagine that the 7090 had one-quadrillionth the power of a modern laptop.

More than illustrating the progress we have made to improve the speed with which some well-known computers perform calculations, looking at the past as being in possession of a small fraction of the computing power we can access today could help us remember, say, the quantities at which information can be useful (depending on the context) or how quickly innovations in information-processing technologies from the mid-20th century changed our lives. Mainframe systems operating with magnetic tapes helped some people obtain, accumulate and analyse large amounts of information and synthesise enough knowledge to get people into orbit around the planet and land them on the Moon. Half a century later, there were enough of these machines going around to make the accumulation and processing of information not the goal but often the problem, in some contexts even the problem.

And this is just one way to look at it. Another is illustrated by the following example: I use lots of power relative to, say, some calculation involving the G-force that a rocket motor might have to adjust for to update my blog and make sure as many people on the planet as possible can access it, preferably within a second of them clicking the link. This is thanks to the democratisation of computing power. In the 1960s, only large organisations could afford the machines required to host and operate computing engines. As a result, when we think about computers of the past, we have only a few examples to consider – such as NASA launching astronauts to space. But think of computers today and you get to think about a mind-boggling array of activities, each of which may not use nearly as much power but which together use a lot more than was available in the Apollo era.

I’m sure social scientists do but too many news articles and social media commentators don’t stop to think that as our relationship with information changed, the expression of computing power as multiples of that in the mainframe era became less useful. Put another way, the past still matters – but using the language of computing power to talk about it sweeps our altered relationship with information, and the kinds of economy and enterprise it has spawned, under the rug.

Featured image credit: Pixabay/Pexels.