When I was a kid, in the early 1980s, I programmed a little in a language called BASIC. Recalling that long-ago era, I see myself, bowl cut and braces, tapping at the keyboard of some ancient computer:
10 PRINT “[Whatever]”
20 GOTO 10
And when I hit “return,” up jumps a digital column of whatever I’d entered between the quotation marks to fill the screen:
And so on. Later in my life, there were more advanced computing experiences—my parents eventually got me a TI-99/4A with Extended BASIC—but 20 GOTO 10 lingers. Those early days at the computer enabled me, for the first time, to issue commands. I was—suddenly, shockingly—a person to be obeyed. My commands didn’t carry any grand force, as do commands in, say, a military context, but issuing them did make me happy. The Nobel laureate Elias Canetti described the dynamic well some 60 years ago in Crowds and Power:
The power of those who give commands appears to grow all the time. Every command, however trivial, adds something to it, not only because in practice it generally benefits the person who gives it, but because, by the very nature of commands—their knife-edged precision and the recognition they exact in the whole sphere they traverse—it tends in every way to augment and secure his power.
Today, the power differential has changed. My own son, Ari, is 13. Ari’s a far more skilled computer user than I could ever hope to be—and he has access to extremely sophisticated equipment.
Ari makes me think about the future of computers, as technology moves away from the keyboard-and-monitor model of computing. Consider the Amazon Echo, a specimen of which is playing the audio version of Carrie Fisher’s The Princess Diarist in the other room as I type. For all its magical qualities, the Echo—or Alexa, to give the name the device responds to—is an imperfect interface. Alexa often has us repeating ourselves, but we forgive her because the very idea of conversing with a computer is still a wonderful novelty. Voice-activated computing is at an adolescent stage, which is fitting for my newly teenaged son.