Thursday , April 18 2024
Looks back at the 60-year history of computers.

Book Review: Too Soon To Tell by David Alan Grier

David Alan Grier’s new Too Soon To Tell is subtitled Essays For The End Of The Computer Revolution. For Grier, the revolution ended quite some time ago, and his case is compelling.

In the preface, Grier argues that with over one billion personal computers in use globally, the computer can “no longer be considered new, novel or revolutionary.”

Point taken, but what brought us here? Through his father, Grier has an unique perspective on computer history. Thomas Grier’s career in the industry began in 1957, working on the Univac. A generation later, young David would join the “family business.”

Too Soon To Tell is a collection of 43 essays organized into a rough chronological order. Of these, 20 were newly written for inclusion in the book, the remainder were originally published in Computer magazine, in his column “In Our Time.”

I find the early years of vacuum tubes and the first printed circuits to be a fascinating subject. Grier takes us from 1957 to the present with a style that is refreshingly lacking in technical terms and industry jargon.

His field of endeavor is programming, and morphed into education. No offense to programmers, but I was a little surprised at just how enjoyable a read Too Soon To Tell was. Grier is a talented writer who is able to weave personal reflections of his father and those he worked with into the narrative.

In an early essay titled “Songs Of Comfort And Joy,” he relates the story of how in 1958 his father and others programmed their Univac to “play” Christmas carols. Management was not impressed, and digital music would be put on hold for decades. When the genie finally was let out of the bottle, it spelled the end of the music industry as we had come to know it.

Speaking of music, another essay discusses the 106 (in)famous IBM company songs such as “Ever Onward” and relates them to such current items such as Radiohead’s “Palo Alto.” It is a great connection from the past to the present.

Too Soon To Tell ends on a philosophical note, that everything we know today about computers will be moot in just a few years. But the basics will remain the same: Fundamentally, computers are tools for the people, a fact which gets lost at times, and is always good to remember.

About Greg Barbrick

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