2.1 The Elephant in the Room

Many blind men examine an elephant, and each gets a different idea of what it is.

The beast of computing has regularly defied pundit predictions. Key advances like the cell-phone (Smith et al., 2002) and open-source development (Campbell-Kelly, 2008) were not predicted by the experts of the day, though the signs were there for all to see. Experts were pushing media-rich systems even as lean text chat, blogs, texting and wikis took off. Even today, people with smart-phones still send text messages. Google’s simple white screen scooped the search engine field, not Yahoo’s multi-media graphics. The gaming innovation was social gaming, not virtual reality helmets as the experts predicted. Investors in Internet bandwidth lost money when users did not convert to a 3G video future. Cell phone companies are still trying to get users to sign up to 4G networks.

In computing, the idea that practice leads but theory bleeds has a long history. Over thirty years ago, paper was declared “dead”, to be replaced by the electronic paperless office (Toffler, 1980). Yet today, paper is used more than ever before. James Martin saw program generators replacing programmers, but today, we still have a programmer shortage. A “leisure society” was supposed to arise as machines took over our work, but today we are less leisured than ever before (Golden & Figart, 2000). The list goes on: email was supposed to be for routine tasks only, the Internet was supposed to collapse without central control, video was supposed to replace text, teleconferencing was supposed to replace air travel, AI smart-help was supposed to replace help-desks, and so on.

We get it wrong time and again, because computing is the elephant in our living room. We cannot see it because it is too big. In the story of the blind men and the elephant, one grabbed its tail and found the elephant like a rope and bendy, another took a leg and declared the elephant was fixed like a pillar, a third felt an ear and thought it like a rug and floppy, while the last seized the trunk, and found it like a pipe but very strong (Sanai, 1968). Each saw a part but none saw the whole. This chapter outlines a holistic vision of the many dimensions of the elephant of computing.