How Size Defined the Laptop

28 September 2015

I reluctantly picked up Steven Levy’s “Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution” as suggested reading for a computer science seminar that I’m currently taking. On a whim, I began reading and was unable to put the book down. I realize now that what I found so addicting about that read is the allure that early computing has. For all the prowess we might have today, working with high level, object oriented programming languages on monitors approaching higher pixel densities than our eyes can distinguish, we forget the origins of our skills — that hacker culture that put the scraps together and coded away in machine language to make something.

There are a lot of activities in my life which give me a rush of adrenaline, particularly those that involve deploying code, but I feel that it’s unlikely that I’ll ever feel quite as accomplished as those in the MIT lab in the early 60s when they were writing at the hardware level in literal assembly language. There’s something so mystifying and desirable about that level of mastery: an understanding so deep that you can write at the lowest level possible, almost as if you’re touching the machine. So, I decided to ask myself, how did the hacker culture catch on? It couldn’t simply have been because of a small sect pushing an idea, but rather because at some level we all possess the innate desire to build something. I’ve come to reason we are where we are today, in terms of computing, is because of the interactive terminal.

Had that unfortunate IBM system won out, had the punch cards and the men in ties evaluating our code been the preferred method of computing, I highly doubt that I would have a laptop as powerful and accommodating sitting on my lap now. Rather, I think it was the instantaneous response that the terminal offered, the ability to input, watch your code run and then get the result or errors, all in one sitting that enabled hacker culture to spread. It was the interactivity with the machine, the feeling as though one was attached because she saw her builds compile and run before her, that encouraged far more to start hacking in the first place. It was the completely different ethos of this system, as compared to those of IBM and the unreliable time sharing systems like CTSS, which made it popular. Levy writes about the great Bill Gosper recalling memories: “The challenge of programming appealed to Gosper. Especially on the PDP-1, which, after the torture of IBM bath processing could work on you like an intoxicating elixir. Or having sex for the first time. Years later, Gosper still spoke with excitement of ‘the rush of having this live keyboard under you and having this machine respond in milliseconds to what you were doing…’”(Levy 67). So, if it’s safe to assume that the modern computer today is a permutation of the interactive terminal, if it’s a tool that we use to carry out tasks and see their immediate response or result — whether it be writing, doing math, or producing media — then I would reckon that this originated from that idea of the PDP-1 and the TX-0.

Having established that modern computers are, by definition, more advanced machines developing on the PDP-1 and other period era computers, then it only seems logical to assume that the defining feature of a computer is the interactive terminal. The defining feature is that instant response, gratification, and rush that it gives to the input you feed. This is why the computers of today are as they are: a couple hackers decided they wanted to be able to see the results of their code as soon as it ran without waiting for the IBM ties.

So at this point you might be saying to yourself “Cooper, this post is supposed to be about laptops, not the early history of interactive computers!” and I would say, “Yes, you are correct.” In much the same way that the terminal came to define the expectations one had for a computer in that it would obey and process instantaneously, the core definition of the laptop was informed by size. Now that I have come to expect my IDE to work, my terminal to be a UNIX environment where I feel comfortable and, in general, my computer to be a place where I can do all the work I seek without limitation, the main definition of the laptop is the physical presence it has. Just as the ability of those early computers was the sole factor in whether they would be hacked upon, size is the factor that influences our willingness to take a laptop, not performance. Thanks to Moore’s Law, we’ve nearly reached a plateau of speed wherein even the slowest clock speed chips of today are mostly fast enough for the general populace. I admit that I prefer my high clock speed core i7 for that lovely hyper-threading, but I don’t really need it.

The metric by which we define computing today is portability. By all means, we can consider phones and tablets to be computers (they do help us to accomplish our desired tasks in the same way a computer does) and we all know that those manufacturers will never stop touting their size specifications because they know that the device that will be bought and used is the one so small and portable that one doesn’t have to even think about taking it. Think briefly for a moment about the last time you picked up your phone before you left the comfort of your home. It is most likely that in this situation you did not leave it at home because you didn’t have room in your clothing or your bag — it’s something which the size and your need for combines to dictate that you will always take regardless of context. This, though, is not true for the laptop. It’s often that we look at where we’re going, then think about the size and weight of our laptops and leave them at home. For some this is certainly not true — those who are the modern definition of hackers, those who want to build at every given moment, but they are not the majority of the populace. Instead, we compromise on our computing and productivity because of size restrictions.

What I am trying to evoke is that last memory you have of working on an Excel spreadsheet on an iPad, or maybe working on a long email on your phone. You’d be lying to yourself if you thought the easiest way to accomplish those tasks was on either of those devices, yet you worked on those items in less-than-ideal environments because that was what you had when you needed to accomplish the task. So, in a roundabout way, like that of a proof by contradiction in mathematics, I’ve shown you that the laptop is defined by size and not ability today. If what we cared about first and foremost was ability than we would always pick the laptop over the iPad if we were traveling and knew we needed to work, yet for many that’s not the case, rather it’s one of what you’re willing to carry versus the duration you need to carry it for.

The desktop, or by another term, the computer was defined by the terminal. The ability of the hardware on a desktop was secondary to the matter of whether it could be hacked upon. Size, not capability, is what defined the laptop, and by extension, the portables of today. It tends to be less of a question of whether the task is best suited for a device, and more so a question of portability and weight. So, with all of this said I’ll leave you with this: the next time you buy a laptop, get the smallest one possible and carry it with you everywhere because you don’t know when you’ll realize where you made the error writing that Javascript and finally have the code to implement your solution. Keep the hulking desktop at home as the place you can always turn to work without restriction, but get that small laptop so that you’ll never need to compromise on being able to accomplish your work.

Thanks to Evaline Xie and Joe Sweeney for reading earlier drafts of this and confirming that I was not indeed crazy.