I was wondering the other day about who really represents the technology movement these days. Not that long ago there were multiple colorful personalities vying for the unofficial title of Chief Nerd (CN), now the office seems vacant. It’s an important question and maybe it says a lot about the technology world.
For example, I called it a movement but is there really still a movement? Was there ever a movement? I can trace the term High-Technology to the late 1970’s but Wikipedia finds the first use of the phrase “high tech” in a New York Times story from 1957 (about two years before the integrated circuit was patented) about atomic energy in Europe.
In the ensuing decade the phrase was used on average once per year in the paper. Then, in 1968 there was an article about Route 128 outside Boston that used “high technology” in what I would call its modern sense. Shortly thereafter the phrase became associated with investment, venture capital and the party was on.
Ken Olsen, founder of Digitial Equipment Corporation, was one of the first personalities to speak for or about the movement and he was eventually followed by Larry Ellison of Oracle when databases were the hot topic, then a cascade of overlapping Chief Nerds arrived on the scene. Scott McNealy at Sun talked up reduced instruction set computing, Bob Noyce at Intel and a host of others led the charge for the microcomputer. Steve Jobs became known as a visionary for the user experience and Bill Gates played Henry Ford knitting together hardware, operating system and software thus making computing affordable to the masses.
I know this summary is too brief and leaves many people out but I am not writing a history of the times. My point is that each era of what should be called the high-tech epoch had at least one personality who embodied the age, more or less spoke for it and laid out the vision. In this, the high-tech epoch was no different from the industrial revolution or the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century. In a sense, high-tech seems to be the culmination of those eras like the New Stone Age follows the Old (Neolithic and Paleolithic, respectively).
Perhaps one reason that no single person commands the stage today is that high technology itself has fragmented in so many directions. People like Marc Benioff speak for the SaaS computing movement and I suppose there are be others in security, mobility, back office, and social networking but there’s too much to know for any one person to either write about it or to be the CN.
The other possibility, and the two are not mutually exclusive but overlap, is that high-tech is over. It’s not that technology is ending and we are entering a dark age, but the movement may simply have become mainstream enough that it has been absorbed more or less into the culture. There is no high-tech movement anymore because we now live in a highly technologically dependent culture.
This recession, like many before, may mark the end of eras, some trivial and others important. On-demand computing appears to be strengthening its grip on the imagination inversely proportional to the waning attention given to conventional computing. Other ideas are still on the horizon and include electric cars, robotics, nano-technology, competitive alternative energy, carbon sequestration and much more. Some will work well and others will be dead ends or die out like the cell phone mounted in a car. They are all in some sense high technologies but they take us further and further from enterprise computing and they have not yet produced a catalyzing personality.
So the question remains, Who’s our daddy?