The word 'computerized' used to promise something. A computerized process was efficient, rigorous, unfailing, and impartial. Computerization was beige magic that could be applied to any field of inquiry from making reservations to teaching kindergardeners.
Everywhere computers went, they automated, rationalized, formalized. And from the start, it was so easy to imagine that this would lead to tremendous gains in everything. Without humans to mess things up, the world would be great!
In 1964, during the National Automation Conference luncheon of the American Bankers Association in the Belgian Village at the World's Fair, David Sarnoff, the head of RCA—perhaps the equivalent of Apple—"drew a picture of a computerized society in which people would elect presidents without ever leaving their homes to go to a polling place."
To reach such a utopia, there would be a process of computerization in which one's name was slowly replaced by a number representing him, Sarnoff said. This number would "serve as his private code for making or receiving local or global television calls, for credit information, and innumerable other purposes," he said. "The number would tend to become as important to him as his name."
Work would be transformed by computerization. Executives would no longer go to meetings, but sit at home in front of screens. The line between work and leisure would evaporate: "They will cease to be clear-cut opposites and will come to represent merely different varieties of useful, enjoyable, constructive methods," he said. (Nailed that one, sort of.)
Computers would diagnose diseases and speed up research and development, too.
Fifty years later, IBM sells Watson, that most anthropomorphized computing platform, using these same use cases. But the magic of computerization is gone. The term "computerized" peaked in 1987, "computerization" in 1988. (That's according to Google's Ngram database of word usage.) They've been in steady decline ever since, though they've never quite gone away.
For a while, there was a similar general utility to the prefix cyber- but apparently that got too firmly attached to sex to be applied to everything in the world. So, now, we use new terms like "algorithmic," "connected," "smart," and "artificially intelligent."
A "computerized system" might now be a "machine learning system" or it might "algorithmically" do something. Applications can be smart and cars can be connected. The data-handling capacities have increased, but inside these new terms beats a computerized heart. We still want our computers to make it all make sense.
As automation doesn't eliminate all the jobs, though, each new computerized capacity leads to new problems, quirks, systems of error correction, and disillusionments. And this is the well-worn path of technological evolution. Mark Twain lampooned phone conversations in this magazine. A New York Times reviewer pointed out "a rising tide of satires about computerized existence" in 1964. And now we have droll McSweeney's articles about Recipes.com's futurist.
"What if your microwave could contact your personal trainer? So you nuke a burrito at 3:47 AM, and it sends a distress signal. What if your microwave could post information to your Facebook wall whenever it wanted to? What if your microwave wanted to be called Steven? What if it wanted to keep in touch with transistors at the factory from which it came? Do you have it in you to be a good custodian for it?"
At the very beginning of the computer revolution, there was an alternate term for what we came to call computerization: cybernated. This drew from the term and field of cybernetics, which focused on human-machine hybrid systems. And this word actually remained more popular through most of the 1960s.
A cybernated system, though, requires an operator. A human is built right into the model. And the dream of computerization and its descendants is to eliminate people from the equation.
That we can't remove humans entirely is both a good thing and part of the estrangement of modern times. If, as in the old Sartre misquote, "Hell is other people," then purgatory is us among the machines. They are never perfect, but at least they never have their own emotional needs. Your microwave never wants to be called Steven, unlike your old pal Steve, who has always been called Steve, and why would he even want to change, anyway?
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