The Cookie Monster

Once upon a time (ok, in 1970) a couple of MIT students wrote a computer program called the Cookie Monster. Although it was a joke, it illustrated the principle of malware to perfection. How’s that for a wholesome (sorry) oxymoron? The monster was part of a software class that became known as Terminate and Stay Resident, or TSR. A decade later, Borland’s Sidekick was the first real time management software for the personal computer.

In those pubic peach fuzz days of computing, software held nothing but promise. The cookie monster was an irritant, popping up on your screen from time to time and only disappearing after you typed in ‘cookie’ to appease it. Fun for the first two times you saw it, and then the sort of thing that made you want to hurl your coffee mug at the machine. And there was a lot to hurl at!

MIT computer in 1976. A smartphone can do far more than this cookie monster.

MIT computer in 1976. A smartphone can do far more than this cookie monster.

Newcomen invented the steam engine in 1712, an amazing three hundred years ago. It was designed to pump water out of mines. Decades later, still in the eighteenth century, James Watt made significant improvements to it, and opened the way to the age of steam.

Prior to that, the only automation that eased human life was a breath of wind and the gravity flow of water.

Further forces were soon upon us: the magic of electricity and the controlled explosion of fossil fuels brought immense prosperity, and did away with beasts of burden in the developed world. Children in Western Europe no longer see animals as creatures born to toil. In many cases, city kids don’t see animals at all, except in the zoo or aquarium, or in virtual form on Discovery or Disney. I’m excluding the token pet, of course.

Like old people, animals are squirreled away out of sight. Viewing is possible, but infrequent and unlikely. I’m talking about London, not Lusaka; New York and Vancouver, not Ningbo and Vientiane. In Asia, and Africa, beasts of burden are the norm. And old people are everywhere, grafting till they die. Beggars, street food vendors, ancient peasants pushing impossibly high loads on street carts.

There’s even an old lady giving blow jobs to tourists in Bangkok’s Soi Cowboy. With the delightful twist that she is a he—the quintessential Thai ladyboy, in this case ladypensioner. I wonder how many pre-uni kids in their gap year have lost their cherry in this honey trap, their judgement impaired by too much beer, a few tokes of skunk, and a healthy dose of jet lag. Kids don’t read this blog, it’s too long a tweet—so for any parents out there, I know your kid is special, not like any others, but just in case tell him to look out for big hands and feet.

But I digress. I came here to write about software, and I find myself straying into the realm of hardware.

The cookie monster is a software allegory because software is gobbling up our jobs. Today’s rant is prompted by an article referred by a friend. Some of the stuff in there is open to question, because job losses in the U.S. relate also to economic cycles and outsourcing. As an example, if you do a mammogram in the U.S. (assuming you’re a lady, or a bit of a funny fellow), the initial screening for suspect growths will often be outsourced to India. It’s even got a posh name—teleradiology.

But when the imaging analysis software improves, even the Indian radiologists will be out of work. Then it’ll be called teleunemployment.

The India Road made me truly appreciate the value of primary sources, so I went instead for the interview given by Andreessen to the Wall Street Journal. And that one you must read from nose to tail.

Now, I have a lot of time for ‘Mosaic’ Mark, even if his name does have more double letters than a Welsh village. Back in the day (1992! Ouch, where does the time go), he wrote the first web browser worth browsing at the University of Illinois NCSA,  located in the wonderfully typoed Urbana-Champaign.

Bangkok's urban pig (plucked from a menu in Jatujak, best enjoyed with a good vintage of  Urbana Champaign.

Bangkok’s urban pig (plucked from a menu in Jatujak), best enjoyed with a choice vintage of Urbana-Champaign.

Mr. A. now does venture capital, and his thoughts on the role of software in our lives, and particularly how it replaces us, are well worth reflecting on. Particularly if we go at it with the long view of history, and it seems to me three hundred years is pretty damn long—two generations older than the United States, so that qualifies.

Every paradigm shift in human activity, from sail to steam to nuclear, from the baited hook to salmon farming, has brought the usual mix of blessing and curse. By and large we count the blessings, forgetting how much less destructive war was in the days before daisy-cutters and mad Kim nuclear warheads.

Advances in agriculture mechanization, pest-control, and genetics have provided food security. Machines cost the same to run anywhere in the world, labor doesn’t. From agriculture to industry, the same transitions occurred. Our grandparents’ lives became easier, going back twelve generations now to the early 1700’s. My grandmother thought electric guitars played by themselves (they do with lots of reverb), since all her electric devices replaced a lifetime of manual toil.

Every one of these advances has increased productivity. In economics:

Productivity is a ratio of production output to what is required to produce it (inputs of capital, labor, land, energy, materials, etc.). The measure of productivity is defined as a total output per one unit of a total input.

Software replaces labor across a swathe of sectors: one million secretarial jobs disappeared in the U.S. in the first ten years of the new century, five million middle class jobs went in Europe—equivalent to the total youth unemployment in Spain.

Andreessen says we’ll break down into those who give and those who take orders from computers. It’s that hourglass economy: big head, big feet (watch those ladyboys), and a slim software waistline.

He also talks of how software has taken over music, movies, and now books. And yes, I am an offender.

Telecoms? Apparently there are now more mobile phones than toothbrushes. That speaks volumes about communication. There may be more of it, but it’s a lot more smelly.

Transport? Google has successfully demonstrated a driverless automobile. It went unblemished from Chicago to L.A., Miss Software at the wheel. Even Somali taxi drivers are at risk now.

I find it interesting that we’re hell-bent on writing more software to destroy our own jobs.  Maybe in a few years robots will write software to create jobs for humans.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.


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