Sunday, May 01, 2016

The Return of the Mainframe and the Arrival of Cyberpunk

Back in the days people who wanted to use a computer needed to go to very special places to access those computers.
Actually "access" doesn't quite represent the same concept we have about "accessing a computer" nowadays. Today accessing a computer refers to direct interaction via touchscreen, keyboard, mouse or even voice. Back in "the old days" it meant punching holes in decks of cards (on special machines) and handing them over to so-called operators. Then you had to wait a while; hours at least, if not days, to collect the results after the stack had been processed by the computer.

A little while later time sharing online transaction operating systems were introduced and it became possible to interact directly with the machines. In a way. If you call accessing computer via a terminal, hooked up by a 300 bit per second modem line, capable of displaying 25 rows of 80 characters each "accessing."

This was the landscape of computing when the idea of a "home computer" and later the "personal computer" was born. People where just yearning to explore this world of programming and informatics and just accessing the mainframe on the terms of the owners of said mainframe wasn't giving them the freedom they wanted.

Thus the whole home- and personal-computer universe came into existence.

Because people wanted their own computers. And use them, how they wanted.

Now everybody – given the time, knowledge and still a considerable amount of money – could make their computers do what they wanted.

Let's skip a couple of decades and see the internet (and not only the world wide web) bloom. Created from all the wild experimenting, the un-feasible ideas, the "we'll see if it works", the "I think it should look like this" that individually owned, run, administered and programmed computers brought forward.

One of the biggest success-factors (the 'killer-app') for a long time was e-mail. Electronic mail that was sent from one machine to another over an intelligent network of interconnected servers. A network that found the currently best route from sender to recipient. Computers that delivered those mails based on a very simple standard (RFC 822) independently of the concrete system that was on each side of this connection.

And what happens today?

We get things like Google-Mail and Facebook that run best when messages are sent while you're using their server (a.k.a. distributed mainframe) via a Web-Browser (which is actually just a more sophisticated Terminal than that old 25x80 TTY) on their conditions.

And of course mail is just one example here – office suites that run only "in the brwoser", graphic software with "a web interface" etc. are all following the same trend.

Looks like we have the same old mainframe back in our yards – just with shiny new color and so many bells and whistles that we're (mostly) just lulled into going with the convenience of the solution. And only few people nowadays care about the freedom of their data. And guess what: some of the stuff those people are concerned about, say data security and encryption, are being made illegal – or at least hard to achieve.

For example, owning some tools which allow me to verify my systems integrity can become illegal is becoming illegal in some places nowadays and the development of such "hacker tools" has been made a public offense...

So we live in a time time where average people perform most of their information related tasks using corporation owned computers at the discretion of the corporations while system programmers and developers of safety critical software are bordering on the verge of criminalization – pretty much what cyberpunk authors predicted decades ago.

Just my 2¢...

Cheers Michael

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