The Unattainable Computer

Long before Steve Jobs founded {complink 379|Apple Inc.}, and even before Bill Gates turned MS-DOS into the Operating System That Ate Everybody's Brain, Gene Roddenberry and William Shatner planted in my mind a vision of personal computing so sublime that no real-life advance in this technology has given me the slightest thrill.

I can't identify the episode of Star Trek in which this magic moment occurred, but it stirred my imagination like few things I've seen on TV. It was a simple scene, really. Captain James T. Kirk needed something done. I don't recall what he wanted. Maybe it was a communications link to Earth, a gazillion light years away. Maybe it was a sociological profile of planet Golan-Globus 91, or a DNA map of the common short-eared tribble. Perhaps Kirk was just hungry and he wanted a sandwich.

Doesn't matter. All he had to do was sit down in front of a basic CRT monitor and say, “Computer?” That's all. Suddenly, in a voice seductively reminiscent of Miss Peggy Lee, the computer sprang to subservient life, eager, desperate, aching in her loins to fulfill Capt. Kirk's tiniest whim. And she was fully capable of doing it — doing anything — in the blink of an eye.

She could even spit out a perfect, mouth-watering, three-dimensional, 2,000-calorie Kosher pastrami sandwich on pumpernickel, with lettuce, Russian dressing, and a slice of baby Swiss.

Kirk didn't have to hit the power switch. His computer had none. She was always turned on, always at his beck and call. Nor did he have to touch a keyboard. There was none. Kirk didn't care whether the user interface was key-activated, touch-sensitive, word- or icon-based, tile-formatted or menu-directed, or equipped with any of a thousand navigation devices, because he didn't have to navigate anywhere. The computer's job was to do that, exactly the way a starship trooper under her captain's command would do it — immediately and properly, without pumping the boss for directions, instructions, options, repetitions, or superfluous keystrokes.

Jim Kirk said “Jump.” The computer knew how high.

I mention all this because {complink 3426|Microsoft Corp.} has just birthed its latest succubus — Windows 8. According to early reviews, Microsoft is once again nakedly mimicking Apple in a reluctant effort to enhance the user-friendliness of its new devices.

Windows 8 reportedly depends far more heavily on touch, tiles, and icons than on words, menus, and keyboards. This makes its adoption a natural fit for a youthful demographic whose post-literate habits derive from iPods, iPhones, and iPads. Of course, for older PC users who wasted the best years of their lives learning how to write in “Word,” and double-click through mazes of drop-down menus on “desktops” strewn with 15 apps at once, Windows 8 means a twelfth or thirteenth trip back to the drawing board.

Everyone required — by his corporation, her boss, or their clients — to “get up to speed” on Windows 8 (or its eventual de-bugged version, due out in six months and subtly re-named, say, “Windows Super-8”) will have to learn a whole new set of thumb-and-finger skills, and a fresh re-structuring of work habits that will barely have time to imprint on his or her psyche before, oops! Windows 9.

Neither this nor the next Mac, nor even the neato-keenest new Samsung tablet device, suggests, even vaguely, that we are making progress toward Capt. Kirk's lovely, whiskey-voiced digital slave girl. Every electronic gewgaw we make — whether phone, computer, camera, or music-player — still has no idea how to speak English, or French, Spanish, Farsi, or Klingon. It still requires its human servants to not only learn its idiot digitese, but to soon re-learn an equally witless and literal new dialect — with new terminology, commands, vernacular, accents, inflections, even new physical skills and gestures — with every generation of new devices.

These generations keep getting shorter. Today's twenty-somethings, with a pre-programmed affinity for the screen topography of Windows 8, are probably destined, five or six years from now, to find themselves clinging (like us) to “outdated” technology because they know how it works, and cursing the stylish but confusing newfangledness of Windows the Thirteenth.

The one constant in this moonwalk march of progress is that our machines — as much as ever — continue to bend human users to a mindless tyranny built into them by designers who seem to have little more human feeling than your average Vulcan. Beyond such ancient and intuitive inventions as the wheel, the fork, and the Linotype, there are precious few machines in current vogue that respond intuitively to human purposes in human terms.

For that sort of sophisticated intellectual breakthrough, we still have to take flights of pure fancy on the starship Enterprise.

17 comments on “The Unattainable Computer

  1. _hm
    October 22, 2012

    Let us wait for Windows 8. I hope we will be very close to your wish.

    October 23, 2012

    There is a huge push now to make computers ubiquitous and more integrated with our daily lives.  I just read an article about how many times Google is consulted during a typical evening in with friends as people need a question answered.  Such Googling often disrupts the flow of the social activities as mobile devices are whipped out and played with.  So companies envisage a world where our myriad devices are continuously on and seamlessly at our beck and call, listening to our banter and ready to answer our questions without disruption.  Beam me up Scotty !!!

  3. Adeniji Kayode
    October 23, 2012

    Probably we making transition from “jet age” to “computer age”

  4. Barbara Jorgensen
    October 23, 2012

    I am also a fan of futuristic computers. I've always wondered, though: why all the lights? In “Alien,” Mother is contained in a domed room  encrusted with blinking lights. The computer of the future won't need all those LEDs to tell you if something is working. It will just tell you.

  5. Mr. Roques
    October 23, 2012

    What's amazing is the vision that the first person to propose it had. Back in the days, who would have thought that was even possible? Now, while not there yet, is not as far fetched as it was then. Those are true visionaries.

  6. Nemos
    October 24, 2012

    Technology is running fast too fast , I dont know if will see in the next years the “unattainable” computer to become alive but we are heading to it. I dont  believe also this PC generation can do it ,we have to wait until quantum computing replace the todays PC.  

  7. Susan Fourtané
    October 24, 2012


    As a Star Trek fan I certainly loved this blog. However, I would dare to say that Apple's computers are the ones closer to Captain Kirk's computer. 

    My Mac talks to me every time she's running on reserve battery power, or when an app needs my attention, or asks me if I want to do this or that, or when my printer is running out of ink or paper, and many other things.



  8. elctrnx_lyf
    October 25, 2012

    I do not think there is any computer that still listens to human and do things. But I hope there will be some thing coming in the future and I'm very confident about this. This may result in certainly lot of new products that just listens to humans and perform their tasks.

  9. Susan Fourtané
    October 25, 2012


    Yes, there is.

    Siri listens to humans and do things. You can have a simple conversation with Siri. In fact, Siri is so far the equivalent to Capt. Kirk's computer. The iPhone, iPad, and Macs are the ones with which you can have interaction, and they respond to you.

    The day when Siri comes to the Macs is not far away. Apple started with the iPhone, then it gave Siri to the iPad, Macs are next. 


  10. Adeniji Kayode
    October 27, 2012

    That is one of the things our minds and desire can do

  11. t.alex
    October 27, 2012

    Given the computing power that a Mac has, Apple should have no problem putting Siri into it. Probably Apple does not want to put Siri into Mac yet. It needs a much more intelligent Siri for Mac.

  12. Susan Fourtané
    October 29, 2012


    I would not be surprised if Macs' next generation comes out with that more intelligent Siri. There is no doubt they are working on it. 


  13. Houngbo_Hospice
    October 29, 2012

    Hi SF,

    A more intelligent Siri may be on its way. But Apple has to be careful so that it won't repeat the apple map mistake. 

  14. itguyphil
    October 31, 2012

    I hope so too. I think we all need MSFT to stay viable to keep the ecosystem somewhat balanced for the future.

  15. t.alex
    November 1, 2012

    As of the latest news Google is challenging Siri with its latest offering of voice search. Competition is heating up.

  16. Susan Fourtané
    November 6, 2012

    Hi, HH 

    Sure it is. I think the maps issue is not likely to happen again. 


  17. Susan Fourtané
    November 6, 2012

    Hi, t.alex 

    Yes, Google is experimenting with voice search, too. Have you tried it? I have tried voice search for Chrome, without too much success, though. I was searching for the invention of candles, and invension of matches. Map of Helsinki worked well, at last! 


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