“The mainframe is the eternal computing platform,” writes Rudolf Winestock in a pithy essay about the circular path of computing’s history, from time-sharing on central mainframes to time-sharing on central clouds. The “PC is dead” storyline has been around for a while now, but what’s really dying is the practice of “personal computing,” at least if we take that phrase to imply personal ownership of the means of computing—processors, software, data.
The desktop computer won’t completely disappear. Instead, the outward form of the personal computer will be retained, but the function — and the design — will change to a terminal connected to the cloud (which is another word for server farm, which is another word for mainrack, which converges on mainframes, as previously prophesied). True standalone personal computers may return to their roots: toys for hobbyists.
The original mainframe era provoked, in the mid-60s, a revolt by the young against the central, corporate control of personal information. The reduction of the self to a string of numbers stored in a database—a database that was a component of the military-industrial complex, no less—seemed to pose a threat not just to privacy but to individual autonomy, to freedom. It was viewed as a form of imprisonment. “I am not a number” became a rallying cry that rang through popular culture.
We haven’t seen much resistance to the new mainframe, or mainrack, era. In fact, most of us, and particularly the young, have been actively complicit in the shift away from personal computing and toward the corporate central-processing station, as Winestock makes clear:
Users love the web apps coded by rebellious hackers who’d never have fit in during the Stone Age of computing. Without any compulsion, those users volunteered their data to web apps running on mainracks that are owned — in all senses of that word — by publicly-traded companies. … Demanding the ability to export our data and permanently delete our accounts wouldn’t help even if we could do it. The data is most valuable when it is in the mainrack. Your Facebook data isn’t nearly as useful without the ability to post to the pages of your friends. Your Google Docs files aren’t as useful without the ability to collaborate with others. Dynamic state matters; it’s the whole point of having computers because it allows automation and communication.
To quote Woody Allen: We need the eggs.
But there’s another reason, I think, that today’s internment of the self in centrally stored data has not spurred the kind of protests we saw a half century ago. In the 60s, the reduction of the self to computable numbers found a tangible, ubiquitous symbol in the punchcard. To hold a punchcard with your name printed across the top was to see your being reduced to a series of binary punch holes, a series of inscrutable ones and zeroes. Like draft cards, punchcards served as concrete touchstones for protest. Ordered by some faceless bureaucracy not to fold, spindle, or mutilate the cards, one felt a moral obligation to fold, spindle, and mutilate them. To tear up a punchcard was to liberate oneself from, as Mario Savio famously put it on the Sproul Hall steps, “the machine.”
The machine’s interface—its outward representation of the numeric self—is no longer the cold, bureaucratic punchcard. It’s the avatar, the selfie: the lovingly curated, intangible image of the I. The cloud, and particularly its social-networking mechanism, personalizes depersonalization. It allows us to design our own representation of the numeric self. Behind the scenes, it’s still all ones and zeroes, but whereas the punchcard brought the binary code into clear view, the avatarial image hides it. The apparatus of control wears a new face, and that face is our own.