The slab and the permacomputer
The astonishment of the Colab notebook is that it comes with a powerful computer attached, instantly, for free! You can buy a subscription to make that computer even more powerful, which I do, happily. I think these are glimpses of an accelerating reformulation of "Computers"-the individual machines like my laptop, or your phone, or the server whirring in the corner of my office - into "Compute", a seamless slab of digital capability. That's the twist, of course: cloud functions and Colab notebooks and Ethereum contracts DO run on "Computers", vast armadas of individual machines taking up real physical space, venting real hot air. First, if somebody offers you a seamless slab of compute and says, here, take a bite: sure, go for it. At the same time, think further and more pointedly ahead. There's an idea simmering out there, still fringe, coaxed forward by a network of artists and hobbyists: it's called "Permacomputing" and it asks the question: what would computers look like if they were really engineered to last, on serious time scales? The whole stack, from the hardware to the boot loader to the OS to the application, would be something that a person could hold in their head. Basically every computer used to be like that, up until the 1980s or so; but permacomputing doesn't mean we have to go backwards. Powerful forces are pushing computing toward vast, brittle systems that devour energy and are incomprehensible even to their own makers; I should know, because I am a small constituent part of these forces.