An end to PCs

In the last days of 2005, leading thinkers and scholars from around the world share their fears, hopes and expectations of 2006. Forty-nine of openDemocracy’s distinguished contributors, from Mariano Aguirre to Slavoj Zizek, Neal Ascherson to Jonathan Zittrain – offer their predictions for the coming year. Since this is openDemocracy, we did not expect them to agree. We were not disappointed. (Part Two)
Jonathan Zittrain
22 December 2005


2006 will see a fading away of the personal computer. Blackberries, iPods, Tivos, Xboxes, mobile phones – these chimeras of convergence will leave increasingly less room for the general-purpose PC. What should we miss most as the PC recedes? Its generativity. An open internet combined with PC platforms that any third party can program without permission from Bill Gates or Steve Jobs led to an extraordinary series of information technology innovations – chat, instant messenger, web browsing, email clients, screen savers, Napster.

So much innovation, in fact, that I fear people think that our cups already runneth over – that everything that might be invented already has been. As existing popular applications are reified into special-purpose objects, the generic PC, jack of all trades, master of none, will become less prevalent among diverse groups of people and institutions – instead being relegated to, and locked down within, white-collar office environments. At that point, coding new applications for it will be that much less attractive, since there will be fewer audiences ready to take them up.

We need to find a way to maintain the generative nature of the PC and internet – especially because so many of the innovations have to do with speech and dialogue, bringing people and cultures together that formerly would be ignorant of one another. We must do this even as the PC's very success and excess have sealed its fate.


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