Famous Quotations Taken Out of Context

10 February 2011 at 11:00 am 3 comments

| Peter Klein |

Kenneth Olsen, former head of computer-industry pioneer Digital Equipment Corporation, died over the weekend. DEC was probably the most important “minicomputer” firm of the 1970s and 1980s, one that failed to make the transition to the PC era and dropped out of sight. (DEC plays a major role in Tracy Kidder’s 1981 Pulitzer-winning book Soul of a New Machine – a book I read just this last year and which, despite the now-obsolete subject matter, feels surprisingly fresh. DEC was the dominant incumbent and foil to Kidder’s protagonist firm, Data General.)

Despite his many accomplishments — a 1986 Fortune article called him “America’s most successful entrepreneur” — Olsen is remembered today mostly for saying, in 1977, “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.” This is usually taken to show how the leading mainframe and minicomputer firms failed to see the gale of creative destruction on the horizon, or just to illustrate businessperson cluelessness more generally. (Bill Gates’s 1981 remark that “640K ought to be enough for anybody” falls in the same category.)

Olsen consistently maintained that he was quoted out of context, that he wasn’t talking about the ordinary desktop PC, but a sort of master house computer that would run the home, much like HAL in 2001. According to the useful Snopes.com entry on Olsen, “What Olsen was addressing in 1977 was the concept of powerful central computers that controlled every aspect of home life: turning lights on and off, regulating temperature, choosing entertainments, monitoring food supplies and preparing meals, etc.  The subject of his remark was not the personal use computer that is now so much a part of the American home, but the environment-regulating behemoth of science fiction.” As Olsen himself put it: “A long time ago when the common knowledge was that PCs would run our lives in every detail, I said that if you stole something from the refrigerator at night you didn’t want to enter this into the computer so that it would mess up the computer plans for coming meals.” I wouldn’t make that sandwich if I were you, Dave.

What are some other examples of famous quotations taken out of context?

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Business/Economic History, Myths and Realities. Tags: .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Rafe  |  10 February 2011 at 5:06 pm

    Vince Lombardi “Winning is not the main thing, it is the only thing that matters” or words to that effect.

  • 2. Tim Kastelle  |  10 February 2011 at 5:56 pm

    One of the ones that run across a lot is “Information wants to be free” from Stewart Brand. The full quote puts quite a different spin on things:

    “On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

  • 3. srp  |  10 February 2011 at 8:11 pm

    BTW, I’ve read other quotes by Olsen to the effect that businesses don’t want a computer that sits on a desk. They want a real computer that sits on the floor and has disk drives. I don’t think he was foretelling the tower configuration.

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