The Meta Lathe
Recently, I read yet another news article predicting the End of the PC in five years. Besides the usual claims that tend to look silly after a few years, there did seem to be a few good points. The one that sticks with me compares the general purpose computer to a metal lathe in someone's garage.
(Update: Thanks to Paul Mison for reminding me that the article was "The post-PC era is upon us" at The Register. The quote was, "We'd no more think of using [a PC] by the year 2010, than we think of buying a metal turning lathe today to make spare parts for our road vehicles.")
You don't want to use a metal lathe in your living room, and you wouldn't want to let just anyone loose on the thing unless they knew what they were doing. As shop in junior high taught me, a lathe is powerful tool capable of doing quite a variety of things. Some of those things leave you with jewelry and maybe more tools, and other (mis-)uses leave you with nasty injuries.
If you'll pardon the bad pun, a general-purpose computer is a “meta lathe”, capable of an enormous range of things. A “meta lathe” can be more dangerous than a metal lathe because it can be used on itself to expand its own capabilities. That is, one program can be used to introduce a new program that does entirely different things than the author of the original program intended.
For instance, consider a worm that finds its way into a system via security holes in Internet Explorer, which then goes on to link infected systems together into a remotely-controlled attack network. Somehow I doubt that that was a feature ever proposed on whiteboards in Redmond, but the meta lathe is flexible enough to oblige nonetheless.
Means and Ends All Tangled Up
So, we've got all these people using meta lathes in their living rooms, in their laps, and in coffee shops-- and an alarming lot of them have no idea what those suckers can do. Most of them aren't trained meta lathe technicians, nor do they want to be. Mostly, they just want to live better, be happier and more productive, talk to each other, maybe play some games. For them, the computer should melt into the fabric of their lives while they get on with doing other things. It's only a few odd ducks, including alpha geeks like myself, who want to crack things open, go meta, and turn the machine back upon itself.
So, why are all these people using full-on meta lathes again?
See, I think it all started back with the Homebrew Club and their contraptions. These were proto-lathes right from the start. Pretty soon, there rose assemblers and operating systems, which made it easier to write software like VisiCalc and WordStar--and so these meta lathes started looking interesting to people outside the Homebrew Clubs. However, these users didn't want meta lathes--they didn't even know what meta lathes were--they just wanted VisiCalc and WordStar and you needed one of these weird boxes to run them.
Problem is, the modern descendants of VisiCalc and WordStar have yet to be separated from the meta lathe platforms on which they were crafted. It's like you've made a bracelet or a ring on the lathe--but instead of unclamping it and taking it off the machine, you just wear it: bracelet, lathe, and all. Wouldn't it suck if someone accidentally plugged that thing in and turned it on while you were wearing it?