By Harry McCracken | Monday, November 9, 2009 at 11:53 pm
It’s not love, war, or baseball. But over the years some memorable things have been said about technology. Some have been memorably eloquent; others are unforgettably shortsighted, wrongheaded, or just plain weird. Let’s celebrate them, shall we?
A few ground rules for the list that follows: I considered only statements attributable to a specific individual, which ruled out most ad slogans (“Think Different”) and many durable Internet memes (“You are in a maze of twisty passages, all alike”). I did, however, include individuals who happened to be fictional, or canine, or inanimate. I also let a couple of quotes slip in that are not strictly speaking about technology, though neither would exist without it–one from 1876, and one from earlier this decade. Sue me.
It’s hard to rank quotes by how notable they are. So I faked it by listing them using an imprecise, unscientific factor I call Googleosity: the number of results Google reports that reference (or riff upon) each quote. (You may quibble with the queries I performed to determine Googleosity, but I tried my best.) Googleosity tends to reward quotes that are not only famous but fun–they’re the ones that people like to allude to, to parody, and to generally weave into blog posts and other online conversation.
We’ll start with the quote with the lowest Googleosity factor, and work our way up from there.
Quote type: Satire as product evaluation.
Circumstances of origin: In Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury strip for August 27th, 1993, as Mike tries out his new PDA’s handwriting recognition; it’s what the PDA thinks he meant when he scribbles “Catching on?”
Why it’s notable: Trudeau’s sequence tweaking Apple’s high-profile Newton attracted attention at the time–the PDA had debuted earlier that month–and it still comes up frequently in discussions of the product. Some Newton fans seemed to blame the strips for contributing to the product’s ultimate failure, although the platform hung on until 1998. The Newton engineers, however, took the jibe gracefully, tacking the strip up on the wall as inspiration and building a version of the “Egg Freckles?” panel into a later Newton model as an Easter Egg.
Quote type: Terse goading.
Circumstances of origin: The statement was one of three ‘Sayings from Chairman Jobs” that Jobs shared at a January, 1983 Macintosh team retreat in Carmel, California. The groundbreaking computer was behind schedule and wouldn’t end up shipping for another year. (The other two sayings: “It’s better to be a pirate than join the Navy” and “Mac in a book by 1986.”)
Why it’s notable: Jobs was right–the technological innovations that matter most are the ones that appear in products that consumers can actually buy. Here’s a good blog post on how the “Real artists ship” ethos impacts Apple to this day.
Quote type: Momentous moment.
Circumstances of origin: Torvalds posted to the comp.os.minix newgroup to seek input on Linux, which he had just begun developing.
Why it’s notable: In an industry notorious for overhype–especially for new operating systems–this modest little message is one of the most hype-free major product announcements ever. Torvalds’ “hobby” went on to change the world, in part by inspiring such other worthy open-source projects as Mozilla’s Firefox.
Quote type: Inconvenient half-truth.
Circumstances of origin: Before the media at the launch of Sun’s Jini technology, January 26th 1999.
Why it’s notable: Former Sun CEO McNealy may be the most irritable man in technology. (He once told me I’d asked him the dumbest question he’d ever heard.) His dismissal of a question about the privacy implications of the company’s Jini platform for distributed services is shocking–in part because CEOs touting new technology usually don’t talk like that, and in part because his blanket statement is closer to being true than most of us would care to admit.
Quote type: Boneheaded miscalculation.
Circumstances of origin: A talk to the World Future Society in Boston, presumably before an audience full of folks who disagreed with him.
Why it’s notable: Unlike the similarly shortsighted “I think there is a worldwide market for maybe five computers,” Olsen’s seemingly blithe dismissal of the home PC is definitively real. But Olsen and his defenders say he was quoted out of context–that he was talking about all-powerful computers that would control lights, temperature, entertainment, and meals. I admire the guy, so I’ll cut him some slack. Is it a coincidence, though, that when DEC attempted to enter the home computer market five years later, it was with a famously miserable machine?