The Dreamers

We had a dream, once. It was the dawn of a new age. Computers, as we eventually named our grandest invention, had left the exclusive realm of academia and large corporations and became more and more ubiquitous. Hobbyists, enthusiasts, scientists and entrepreneurs united in possibly the largest collaborative effort ever undertaken by our species, to envision and subsequently produce a computation machine capable of being programmed by its user for a sheer endless number of possible tasks. The remarkable progress achieved in this field, especially considering it has been scarcely more than 70 years from the expensive and clunky mainframes of the 1950’s to the semi-magical smartphones of today, is profound.

Any modern laptop or smartphone are devices of such incredible complexity, not a single human being exists who would know, or be able to comprehend, all steps of their production or operation. Coupled with modern communication networks, their exact modes of constant operation across a very large part of the world’s inhabited territories, and the complexities of the software actually running on those machines, just imagining the unfathomable amount of labor performed by our predecessors to allow me to write, and you to read this sentence, can warp the mind. Why did they do it? Designing, producing and programming complex mathematical machines is pretty much as difficult as it sounds, and I would be truly astonished to find out that more than a tiny fraction of the people who figured it all out liked doing complex mathematics any more than you or me. They did it because of the dream.

Free, open access to all of humanities knowledge, for everyone. For the first and only time in human history, every person with the ability to read and comprehend any of the larger spoken languages would have ungated access to any medium that could be digitized – be it books, music, films or pictures. Additionally, message boards or self-published websites allowed for the least curated form of free speech ever conceived. Then the corporations took over. Computer science is by its very nature an unholy union of scientific and capitalistic interests interwoven in excessive mutual gains, to which no other analogue exists in academia. Spurred by the enormous costs of most computer science research projects, and the easily applicable economic relevance of many, married to the core capitalist concepts of efficiency and growth, science and entrepreneurship have been pampering each other in harmony since the inception of the field.

Then, as either coincidence or a directed push of certain interests would have it, pivotal changes in international legislature were ushered forward just as computers became commonplace, which allowed the formation of today’s huge multinational megacorps – owned by a tiny fraction of the world’s elite, presiding over the largest amount of free-flowing cash ever generated. No king or emperor in all of history has ever matched one of the elite few major stakeholders of any ‘publicly-owned’ multinational bank, energy or software company either in wealth, power or blissful anonymity. These people are who we all now serve. They dictate our laws, our leaders, our friends. They subverted the dream machine to become the most sophisticated surveillance system ever conceived, constantly monitoring one’s location, habits, contacts and interests, and consequentially establishing a firm control over the fate of humanity.

Computer scientists are not innocent victims in this dark future. Ever concerned with nothing more than just another engineering problem to solve, we have sold the world too willingly in pursuit of the next big thing. But back then, at the dawn of the new age, it was impossible to resist trying to catch the rainbow.


Nils Steinert