There is a process, that I’d call man-made evolution, for the lack of a better term. By intellectual effort, mankind can achieve new abilities.
Basically, there were two major breakthroughs until recently:
- Tools. A tool would transform our force in a way, so that it can be used in a way previously impossible. Man has no claws, but could shape stones to be used the same way, an animal with claws would use claws.
- Machines. As the next step from tools, man created machines. Machines are a step forward in two ways. For one, they allowed to perform desired motions in a very effective way (such as using a loom, which requires only a repetitive and simple movement, to perform a task, that would otherwise be very time consuming), but secondly also allowed harnessing other sources of energy than manpower.
And then, not so long ago, computer applications emerged (you may want to imagine some dramatic music here, a choir of angels and that kind of stuff 😉 ). Of course, computer applications require computers to run, but personally, I don’t think, the biggest gain mankind gets from computers is, that we can compute things insanely fast, but rather that we can run applications on them.
I believe applications, to be the third significant breakthrough.
What a machine does, is determined by the laws of physics and the constellation of its components. A computer constitutes a world, where the laws of physics are replaced by the possibilities of the hardware. What an application does is determined by those possibilities, while the physical composition of components is replaced by mere software, providing flexibility, that was probably undreamed of 100 years ago. Without material or mechanical modification, a computer can be altered in order to perform new or other tasks, or can be improved at the tasks it is carrying out. Any application installed on a computer, can be thought of as an individual machine.
Computers are a leap forward in that a single computer can be used for a multitude of extremely unrelated tasks, while an application can run on an unlimited number of computers. When computers actually emerged, this was more a theoretical possibility, but now, we live in a world, where computers are cheap, small, fast, amazingly reliable and writing portable software is feasible in a reasonable amount of time.
Truth is, computer applications are great in many ways, but they still are machines. As any machine, they need an operator. For him to operate the machine, control elements are needed. Or an interface, as programmers would say. Computers (at least PCs) typically all have the same physical interface (screen, possibly some sort of audio output, mouse and keyboard), while applications have a more abstract interface built on top of computer interfaces. The great thing about application interfaces is, that they are also just software. Again, without any material or mechanical modification, an interface can be adapted to its user. Suppose, you wanted your alarm to start filling your tub, when it rings, or you want to switch your tap from separate taps to a mixing tap. In the world of software, an equivalent task usually requires less effort, and once you succeeded, you can do it for any tub in the world, without much effort. This would really be of great service to the inhabitants of the UK. 😛
With the advent of the internet, the potential of software development spiked. One application can run in multiple physical locations (something basically no traditional machines can accomplish reasonably). The application can be updated automatically and easily. I think, we rarely appreciate or even understand, what an enormous potential this is. But it is. One man can create an application, that saves 10% of the broadband-internet users (should be about 50 millions) 1 minute of work per day. That’s half a billion minutes saved per day, assuming a workpensum 40 hours a week (ergo about 125000 minutes per year), this is equivalent to 400 man years saved. Per day. Now these are numbers serve more the purpose to impress you and everyone else, than to really measure anything, but I think, they do make my point. 🙂