A Book Note on Computers

I'm currently working on a series of articles on technology. One of them theorizes the nature of computers as part of the history of literacy - the greatest technological revolution in human memory. As a result, I've had the delightful excuse to read a bunch of things sitting on my wish lists (I use Amazon wish lists as bibliographies, true nerd style). I got Computer: A History of the Information Machine, 3rd edition, for Christmas, and I'm four chapters in. 

A fascinating and important point made by the authors is that the history of the computer is not what it was thought to be in the 1970s, when the history of computers started to be written. At the time, computers were construed primarily as literal computation tools, but the authors point out this is misleading, so the term "computer" is, they say, a misleading name for the contemporary technology we call computers, which do primarily clerical rather than purely computational work. This is a compelling observation that points to the much broader framework we need to have to interpret computers and a society based on them. The authors stress the role of computers as information technologies used for business and data storage, so their first three chapters deal with what is more broadly information and business history, specifically the rise of large-scale information systems, like the census and modern financial institutions. 

Their description of a computer, which opens the book, is a useful stopgap, but the truth is I don't think we have a good description yet of modern computers, especially because the computer post-software is a very different thing than the computer pre-software. Whatever computers are, they cannot be defined by the technical apparatus that underlies them, just as you can't define a house by the fact that it has walls and encloses space - lots of building do that. Sharing underlying material forms does not offer a means of distinguishing an artifact; only functional differentiation, a mode of analysis pioneered by Plato and used to great influence in Aristotle, can help us define what a thing is. 

Computers currently do so many kinds of things, and in so many different sectors of society, that an attempt to theorize their distinctive function is fraught with challenges. One of the most significant is that the background space, what you could think of as the room in which the definition, viewed as a piece of furniture, would sit - that space is itself not clearly understood. A major part of my current work is to explore that space as a means to better  understand all the furniture - computers, the internet, AI - that gives it the shape it has in our lives. 

Expect more thinking about technology, computing, the internet, and AI in the New Year. You can have access to more notes like this on my Patreon