In the early days of computing, a computer’s users were primarily interested in exploring the new technology. The important thing was figuring out how to achieve things with the new toys. Gradually, the emphasis shifted from the mechanism to the product, from the process to the result.
In recent years, the purpose for employing computers has been the manipulation of data. The primart interest of computer users has been the data that they are manipulating, rather than how the mechanics of how the computer actually works.
These two models of computer use represent fundamentally different approaches to computer use. There was a paradigm shift between them.
So, we identify these two paradigms:
- The Process Paradigm.
- The Data Paradigm.
The Process Paradigm
In the early days, this was the dominant view in information technology. According to this way of thinking, the focus was on “how” to do things. Examples of The Process Paradigm include:
- Procedural programming: the emphasis instructing the machine to follow a list of actions.
- The command line user interface: commands issued to the computer, one at a time.
- Application-centric interaction: a single program is used to achieve a result.
The Data Paradigm
Gradually, there has been a shift in emphasis from the “how” to the “what”, from the verb to the noun, from the action to the thing acted upon. The Data Paradigm is exemplified by:
- Object-Oriented programming: the emphasis is on the manipulation of whole classes of data.
- The graphical user interface: the direct manipulation of “things” that live on the screen.
- Document-centric interaction: the manipulation of documents, potentially using multiple applications (e.g. copy-paste, OLE, Web).
The First Paradigm Shift
The shift in focus from process to data did not, of course, eliminate the need to develop new processes. Rather, the need to develop process became subservient to the need to manipulate data. This is similar to the shift that occurred when the Newtonian paradigm of gravity in a flat, infinite universe gave way to Einstein’s new curved model of space-time. The latter subsumed the former in a grander, more fundamental vision of the universe.
What interests me is the upcoming shift to yet another paradigm in computing, something that will revolutionise the way in which computers are used.
The New Paradigm
I believe that the future belongs to what I call the “Semantic Paradigm”. In the future, computer use will focus on neither the “how”, nor the “what”. Instead it will primarily be concerned with the “why”. It will focus on semantics, rather than syntax. Examples of this change in focus include:
- Goal-oriented programming: the use of declarative, 4th generation languages that focus on results rather than processes or the things processed.
- A user interface that WYSYWIM (What You See Is What You Mean) user interface. Interaction will focus on the intentions of the user and the relationships between data, process and reality rather than the process or data itself.
- Goal-centric interaction: Users will be facilitated in achieving results rather than being forced to support the technology.
I believe that we are just on the cusp of a second paradigm shift. Changes on the ground will not be instantaneous. Rather, there will be a slow revolution as ideas and products and people change. In the future, however, we will look back and see that our whole approach to using computers will have shifted radically.
Hopefully, we will be released from our slavery to the system. We will become the masters again.
Practically? We shall see…