Computer technology has changed our lives in enormous and subtle ways over the last fifty years, and there are some changes that are so profound they have perhaps changed the way humanity works. With the infusion of computers, software has started to profoundly make our life different. Sometimes the changes are harder, but mostly the software has made our lives easier.
All cars made in the last twenty years have computers, and a car bought today relies on the computers for most of its functions. The majority of drivers never think about their automotive computer until there is a problem, and then they are mostly annoyed that their car has a computer. However, the computer in a car makes life easier. Gas mileage is much better now because the computer regulates fuel and air flow, bringing a car to a stop is safer because of computerized anti-locking braking, and when a problem does appear, it’s much easier to diagnose because of the standardized on-board diagnostics, OBD, port under the driver’s side dash.
Word processing has become ubiquitous. The first word processor program was created by IBM in the 1960s and as personal computers became more widespread, word processing began to supplant typewriters. Typewriters could cleanly put words on a page, but once the word was there, it was permanent. Some offered correction ribbons, but to change entire sections of text was impossible. The word processor changed that and added other features including multiple fonts and languages, and now there is no company in the United States that makes new typewriters.
With the spread of word processing has come a new feature that started as a stand-alone program on mainframe computers in the 1960s, spell check. In the 1990s spell check started migrating from simply a word processing application to being included in web browsers, and by the 2010s it is included in almost every technology that allows user input. Spell check is so common that now everyone is expected to be able to spell on a document, and errors become glaring.
Google was launched in 1998 with the simple mission statement to “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. At the time, this was a herculean undertaking; most search engines were clunky, slow, and easy to fool, leading to difficult searches. Google introduced new algorithms that have completely changed the way we search for information and now almost anything that is on the internet can be found using this service. Google is so powerful that it is one of the few company names that has actually become a verb.
World Wide Web
The World Wide Web was created in 1989 when Tim Berners-Lee of CERN created the software that would easily and seamlessly allow computers connected together to communicate. When this was paired with the existing internet and released on an unsuspecting public, the world changed. Because of the world wide web, and its language, hypertext markup language, HTML, the world has truly changed. Before the web, phones consisted of a device connected to a wall, and a personal computer was little more than a toy. Now thousands of Americans have never had a land line and computing has become so integrated that people have more online friends than real friends. Trillions of dollars are transferred through business actions and banking transactions on the internet and none of this could be possible without the creation of Mr. Berners-Lee.
There are thousands of computer programs released every year and most of them serve their function and then quietly fade away, but occasionally something appears that truly changes people and is remembered. Some are subtle like the on-board computers in cars, and some have become very flashy like Google. All of these, however, have made a dramatic impact in the lives of people around the world.