David Bunnell, R.I.P.  -  Tech Media and Promise of Social Change

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David Bunnell, the founder of PC World, PC Magazine, and Macworld passed away in Berkeley, CA on October 18th, 2016, at the age of 69. 

Bunnell was an entrepreneur and social activist who represented the spirit that drove the  personal computer revolution that had its origins in the mid 1970s.

The promise of using personal computers, in contrast to centrally controlled and managed, and to some extent, cloistered, computers that were inaccessible to the masses, was considered a catalyst for social change, since computers were the gateway to accessing information, and through information, power.

The publications were not direct vehicles for social activism, but they celebrated the new ecosystem that enabled computing that was “owned” by the masses, out of the control of the then dominant computer makers and those who bought and operated them. You choose what software to load. You choose what peripherals to buy. You choose where and when to use them. It was not “the man” who controlled them.

Bunnell kept his social beliefs separate from his business and publications, but once in a while, he wrote editorials that stated his beliefs, and he personally founded organizations to help those in need, and provide access to technology. The vision for democratization of technology continued to burn in his heart.

In 2016, that greater vision has taken a slightly different route in society. The power of disseminating information widely continues to affect our country today, but we now see the dangers of concentrated collection of information and re-centralization of computing resources. It’s not apparent that personal computers created the new form of democracy that was envisioned. It was somewhat naïve to think that devices could directly influence politics, but that was the belief of the era where the technology revolution was intertwined with counterculture.

Regardless of how this story continues to unfold, access to information has vastly improved due to personal computing, which evolved from the systems that his publications covered – starting with homebrew computers, IBM PCs and compatibles, Apple Macintoshes, and of course the current generation of smartphones.

The world of the technology press has spread through his many publications, which continue in some form online. One can argue that the mass technology press is no different than hobbyist magazines (think of model railroad or photography magazines) or popular science magazines (such as Scientific American), but Bunnell’s publications did elevate some founders and personalities of the PC revolution to be recognized as celebrities. The publications were not like People magazine, but they were not Fortune Magazine either. They were something different.

Early PC era pioneers such as Paul Allen, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs were featured prominently in these publications. That continues today as technology leaders are plastered on covers (or front web pages) of business publications and interviewed on business television. That was a big change, as early mainframe or minicomputer executives were rarely elevated to that celebrity status.

How does this tech-celebrity culture differ today from when Bunnell first started to publicize it? The difference seems to be that the early technology pioneers had a love for the technology and the change it promised. Now, much of the incentives seem to be financially driven, despite the fact that many profess that they are “not in it for the money” or that they want to “disrupt.” But that may be just six of one, half a dozen of another. Change continues to happen regardless of what motivates people, and if those changes do some good to society and no harm, it’s all fine.

 

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