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You think that you understand technology but when you arrive at The Known World, you discover a land where software pirates sail the seven seas, Derek the Rocket Scientist holds a communal barn raising to install his solar roof, and the future of technology policy is perpetually debated by the Society for the Promotion of Goodness and its rival, the Association for the Prevention of Bad Things.  These are some of the people and institutions that populate The Known World and help explain the nature of society and technology.

This blog contains the essays of David Alan Grier, which appear each month to discuss the ideas, the culture and the stories of the digital age. These blog postings and podcasts come from the column of the same name in Computer.

This podcast is brought to you by Computer magazine, the flagship publication of the IEEE Computer Society.

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We Wanted to be like him

 Much has been said this morning and much will be said in the next few days about the late Steve Jobs.  Some will be true, some will be overblown, some will be grossly irrelevant.    All I can add is that he was the type, the model that we all aspired to be.  Confident.  Creative.  Authoritative.  Not positioning himself for a larger stage because the one he occupied was large enough.


The Habit of Change

We know about change.  We have Moore's Law for hardware or at least we are used to the idea that chips improve on an 18 month regime.  The plans for software are not as well defined but we do know that vendors regularly release new systems that will ultimately require us to reorganize our lives on regular schedules.  What do we do for data?  Increasingly, our work is not only data drive but data controlled.  We work with systems that learn our needs from a stream of data.  The problems of how we consider data updates is considered in this month's essay, the Habit of Change.


It is not about the technology is it?

The question "It's not about the technology is it?" dropped into a discussion of the U. S. Government's approach to information technology.  We were taking our time, building a set of concepts to help us understand how the American government and other governments approach this topic.  Inlike certain other topics in technology, Informaiton Technology does not have a single common body of information.  Space technology, for example, has a single library of policies at NASA and a relative compact set of legal concepts. By contrast,  IT policy is a disjointed field that offers few paths for going from one point to another.

We had been talking about markets, always a good starting point for plolicy work, and had begun to undstand of the issues found in them when the question appeared.  It came with a slight air of wistfullness, as if this technology was special and deserved a special set of concepts.  

However, one of the fundamental concepts in our field is that the computer represents the universal machine and as the universal machine, fits into almost every segment of life.  Hence to make sense of it, you don't begin with a special set of ideas that derive from the hardware or software, but look at the general properties of IT technology and ask how they might influence any aspect of common life.


Theme Parks

Several commentators have noted that the growth of theme parks has an interesting parallel in the current growth of video games.  As I noted in Leisure Science, the first amusment parks were activities of electric ultilities or electric trolly lines as means of expanding their business.   (There is a less capital intense precursor to this movement, called Sanitary Cemetary or Memorial Park movement that occured in the late 19th century.  It was an effort to turn cemetaries into places where would engage in recreation - walking the area admiring memorial art.  It is, however, not really an industrial effort.)

Many American cities have an old amusement park that was built by a trolley or utility.  In Washinton DC, it is Glen Echo Park on the west side of the city.  As business opportunities changed, these parks tended to slip into oblivion.  A few like Glen Echo remain as community centers.  As video games remain highly popular, it is hard to project their demise, but the world spins on its access and every product has its day.  They will likely evolve into new forms for entertainment.  However, we are already seeing groups that are attempting to preseve old video games and keep them accessible to the public.  Keeping Pong alive may not be the same thing as offering folk dancing classes at Glen Echo, but it does suggest one of the arcs of this technology. 


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Blogs of Note

Out Of Print: Notes from the IEEE-CS Director of Publications and Services

IT History: A blog by Paul Ceruzzi of the Smithsonian

David Alan Grier

David Alan Grier is a computer scientist, an established observer of the technology industry and a writer on issues of science and society.  In addition to producing The Known World, he has written two books,  When Computers Were Human, (Princeton University Press, 2005), which is the story of the workers who did scientific calculation before we had electronic computers.  In addition he has published Too Soon to Tell: Essays for the End of the Computer Revolution, (John Wiley/IEEE Computer Society, 2009).  A video of When Computers Were Human can be found here while a brief talk about Too Soon to Tell is found here. 

He is currently an associate professor at the Center for International Science and Technology Policy at the George Washington University.  

Despite sharing a common hometown and a common birth year with David Alan Grier the actor, he is an entirely different person.


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