How Far We’ve Come (and How Far We May Go)


At the start of a new year, Michele Sliger looks back across the recent decades of information technology advancement—from the dawn of the personal computer to the abundance of social networking websites—and (with some pointers from Ron Jeffries and Linda Rising) ponders how those advances have impacted our view of change, software, and ourselves.

It’s that time of year again, when we look back on the past and reminisce. Being that I’ve crossed the midpoint of the age scale, I marvel at how far we’ve come in our technology and communications. I find the thread that connects the years is that of faster and more individualized access to information. And, it reminds me that IT—information technology—really is about the speed of access to information and not just how we refer to the computer operations department.

Information Technology from 1977 to 2000
The information access wave started in 1977 with the invention of personal computers. The TRS-80 and the Apple II were released in 1977, followed by the IBM PC in 1981 and the Commodore 64 in 1982. Everyone suddenly had computing power on their desks, rather than having to schlep down to the computer room and schedule time on the mainframe.

With the advent of PCs, there naturally followed ways to connect them within a workplace. SMTP was established in 1982, and networks exploded in the business world in 1983. This was also the start of the instant communications wave, as the first cell phone, the Motorola DynaTAC, was released in 1983 followed by POP and cc:Mail in 1984. Email and cell phones were the technologies that made each of us available for communication 24/7.

And, let’s not forget that in 1980 CNN went on the air. It took a few years before all the satellite and cable providers picked it up (and a few years before people decided they wanted to pay to watch TV), but when it took off in the mid-1980s, it made its own contribution to instant information access by being the first channel to provide news coverage twenty-four hours a day. No longer did the masses have to wait for the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. broadcasts.

By the late 1980s, most of us had access to PCs, networks, email, cell phones, and satellite or cable TV. But, the biggest wave, the Internet, didn’t start to build until the early 1990s. The World Wide Web project was established in 1990, but browser Mosaic 1.0 didn’t come out until 1993—at which time there were a total of about fifty websites available.

By the late 1990s, most of us owned a PC or laptop, a mobile digital 2G phone with SMS texting, an Internet-provided email address (,,, and we had more than one hundred channels on TV. Pop culture absorbed and reflected these life-changing adoptions by giving us electronic music, cyberpunk science fiction novels, and movies reflecting first our fears (Terminator in 1984) and then our loving embrace of technology (You’ve Got Mail in 1999). Our access to information became pretty darn speedy.

The Turn of the Century
In the past decade, we’ve refined our creations. You can surf the Internet using a half-dozen different browsers. You can do your surfing using your own 4G smartphone, tablet, or lightweight electronic notebook. Google, the company that became a verb indicating an information search, leads the way in providing near-instant information access. Heck, thanks to the Internet, you don’t even need a TV to watch “TV” anymore.

Today, you probably have more than one email address, more than one phone number, more than one personal content offering (Facebook, Twitter, your own website or blog), and one or more software tools to manage them all. Some people feel overwhelmed at all they have to keep up with, some haven’t even bothered trying, and some have known nothing else.

Linda Rising, the coauthor of Fearless Change who is also well known for her pattern work, says:

Most information “out there” is less than fifteen years old, and in fast moving scientific fields, information doubles every three years. No one can keep up. The youngsters nowadays may seem to know a lot more than us old farts, but most of them don’t know their history. I have sat through many technical presentations on the latest and greatest and thought to myself, "We had this discussion years ago. It was a different programming language and a different development environment, but the issues were the same. Why haven't we learned this once and for all?"

While the technology continues to change, the problems we face continue to be the same, decade after decade.

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