Pong, not Programs

June 7th, 2021

On Earth 2 history took a slightly different course.

Computers, as we know them, were never invented. There was no analytical engine, no IBM, no Xerox PARC, and no Macintosh.

But all that changed on a sunny day in 1972, when Alan Alcorn revealed his invention to the world - a machine he called Pong: a person-to-person electronic tennis system.

Pong was a large box about 5 feet tall, containing some silicon & wires, a television screen, and a few buttons & dials. Pong, he explained, was a "video game" - a kind of electronic sport you could play with friends.

In the context of Earth 2's history, it was an astonishing invention that seemed to combine insights in multiple fields into something new. It did not fit into any known category of machine, and was mostly ignored.

Remember that in our world - Earth 1 - the theoretical groundwork for computers was laid before we could actually build them. Lovelace's first program was published in 1843, long before any machine existed that could execute it.

But history doesn't always work that way. On Earth 2, the right people weren't born in the right places, and the intellectual currents necessary to imagine the computer simply never gathered into a wave, like they did on Earth 1.

But the basic component technologies did exist, enabling someone like Alan to tinker and experiment. Simple electronic circuits existed, though they were basic and non-interactive. They had evolved out of a more mechanical tradition, used in industrial machines, rather than as an area of mathematical study. Television screens existed, but they were used for one-way communication. The idea of combining a screen with a circuit, enabling a person to interact with and observe a kind of game, defined by abstract rules contained within that circuit... this was something completely new.

It took years, but eventually Pong developed a rabid following. This included table tennis enthusiasts (who saw Pong as an extension of their hobby), to board-game lovers (who liked that you could play it indoors), to electronics nerds (who were interested in the technology). It became clear to this group that this was the beginning of something incredible - an "electronic" sport, played on a screen, delivered through the almost miraculous invention of the Pong machine. Each found Pong compelling for different reasons, but they unite under a new identity: Pongers.

As people begin to learn more about the Pong machine and how it worked, some Pongers began to ask questions. What if we want a version of pong with four paddles, instead of two? Could new colours be added to the game? Could we change the rules in more radical ways? In theory, some said, one could build a similar device that contained instructions for a "baseball-like" game, or a "football-like" game. The use of this machine for a tennis-like game seemed arbitrary, simply the result of the passions of its creator, rather than an inherent property of the Pong machine.

Some people began to draw a distinction between "Pong the game" and the underlying technology which made it possible - the Pong machine. Pong, they said, is simply a "program" - one possible ruleset among many. And theoretically, we could build a version of the Pong machine which could run any arbitrary "program". They called such a machine a Computer. People began to speculate about what kinds of things such a "Computer" could do.

The Pongers were outraged. The real innovation was, and remains, Pong. After all, it was their community that invented this so-called "computer", and got people using it. The Pongers who maintain and build Pong machines are the people who have the most experience building "Computers", and Pong remains the most popular and widely sold "Computer" in the world. Anyone who thinks they know better than them must be grossly uninformed, and simply trying to profit from Pong's popularity. The Pongers take up a new rallying cry: Pong, not Programs.

For a while, it seemed like the Pongers might be right. Pong became a huge success, as people all over the world start playing it. It's a completely novel form of entertainment, and turns out to have a huge global market. Many of the worlds foremost experts in this new industry of computer architecture and chip design are working on Pong, because it is the most popular computer in the world.

Meanwhile, the Programmers (as they call themselves) struggle. It takes a while to reverse engineer the Pong-machine, and figure out how to design one in a way that is most suitable for a wide variety of programs. On Earth 2, Computer theory has to catch up with computer engineering.

Even once it's built, it takes a while to figure out what to do with it. "You can do anything with a computer, anything that could benefit from abstract electronic computation!" is a difficult pitch when no one has ever really thought about this before. The programmers need a few years to work out the theory, try new experiments, fail, and learn from their mistakes.

It takes a few years, but not too many. A new "generalized" computer is created, which lets anyone create "programs" that can run on it. You can even play Pong on it, if you choose. Or any variety of similar games. People start inventing other kinds of games, too. Electronic Pool, baseball, football. Some of the people who like Pong like these other games, too, and with a Computer, they can play them all.

Pretty soon, people are trying out non-game applications as well. What if - and this might sound crazy - you could use a computer to write and edit documents? Granted, that hardly seems efficient since you'll have to write it out again on a typewriter to get it onto paper.

And two young graduates named Dan & Bob have a weird idea to use a Computer to edit accounting worksheets - neat, but probably only interesting to accountants.

The Pongers are confident that Pong will change the world, becoming radically successful and redefining what "games" can be. The Programmers are confident that Computers will change the world too, though they have a hard time articulating the size of the addressable market.

What happens if they’re both right?

Image: Rob Boudon - Creative Commons

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