Smartphones are mostly not phones. They become phones when you want to chat, but they spend more time as message senders, game players, and cameras1. Personal computers are not computers, any more than automobiles are engines. Just as automobiles’ engines power their movement, the true computers inside what we call personal computers power what they do. Those names, “personal computer” and “smartphone”, are older than the tools they now label. “Personal computer” became popular in the late 1970s, for gadgets that most of us today couldn’t use. The modern personal computer, or PC, took shape in the late 1990s when browsing the Web found a wide audience. At that time, telephones transmitting over cellular radio also reached millions of people. One obscure model was branded “smartphone”, thanks to some crude PC functionality bolted on2. The real smartphone, iPhone, did not appear until 2007.
From the moment the modern tools arrived, we recognized how different they were from their now-defunct ancestors. We stuck stale names on them anyway, names that obscure what the tools really are and what we do with them. Despite their age, they don’t even get their own history right. Here we will take a closer look at how the machines work, and consider new, more
highlighted like so.
A computer is a machine made of math that performs math. Alan Turing discovered it in 1936. A decade later, engineers converted Turing’s machine, the universal digital computer, from ideas on paper driven by mathematicians’ minds to circuits driven by electricity. The resulting contraptions were limited but faithful instantiations of Turing’s machine. Like it they were very difficult to use, because they spoke mathematics as their native and only possible language. Engineer Grace Hopper responded to that difficulty by crafting a calculation that listened to words from people and spoke math to Turing’s machine, freeing human engineers from the labor of translation. Her invention,
allowed scientists to control computers in the service of their own goals, just as fitting wheels and pedals allowed the first automobile users to control engines in the service of traveling to their destinations. Hopper wrapped Turing’s computer in the first electronic
Information machines transform numbers, words, images, sound, and video at the speed of lightning4. Hopper’s
accepts cryptic commands from highly trained operators, keystroke by keystroke. It uses a computer to convert the commands to mathematical operations, feeds them back to the computer5, waits for the computer to reply with numbers, and finally asks the computer to turns those numbers back into words6. Rather than coming up with a name worthy of Hopper’s invention, we moved the term “computer” out a layer to the radically different machine she placed around Turing’s discovery. Just as code runners have computers inside them, every PC and smartphone contains a code runner inside it. PCs wrap code runners in a design from 1945. They show us words, numbers, and pictures. We follow links from page to page of news reports, references, and advertisements. They are
Page connectors work with formally presented information, which matters a lot to a few of us and a little to many of us. What matters a lot to all of us? Other people. Billions of us have purchased
iPhone and its knock-offs are the most effective tools ever created for augmenting our primal need to communicate with each other. We can all use them because they tickle the parts of our brain that respond to mechanical wheels, sliders, and other
gadgetry. A person employing a people connector engages an information machine that
the physical world, somewhat the way video games do. Two year olds wield its pokables effectively, and chimpanzees have given them a try. Why do we value people connectors so highly? Ben Thompson explains that we treasure
constant communication. Conversations are never ending, and friends come and go at a pace dictated not by physicality, but rather by attention. And, given that we are all humans and crave human interaction and affection, we are more than happy to give massive amounts of attention to … those who matter most to us, and who are always there in our pockets and purses.7
Human beings live by their relationships with each other. Now those relationships have become a layer beyond the devices in our pockets. People connectors have two cameras. One points outwards, so you can show your friends what you see. The other points back at you, so you can show your friends what they would see if they were standing next to you, sharing your experience8. When you take and send a picture with the second camera, it’s called a selfie. You often share selfies with groups of your friends via online communities that span hundreds of millions of people. 微信 (“WeChat”), WhatsApp, and Facebook are three you might know. The companies that build these community-making information machines design them to draw in everyone they can reach. We can call them
Almost everyone wants to chat with their family and friends. Almost everyone can use pokables. Almost everyone finds it worth their money to buy a tool that brings them online with their community, and promptly signs up with 微信, WhatsApp, or Facebook. Almost everyones blur the distinction between computerized gadgets and our social world:
WeChat should be understood … as a way of life. … What differentiates WeChat from other products is that it is entirely based on people who know one another … the whole WeChat product can be thought of as a friend circle. WeChat tries to make everything that you can do with your friends easier.9
These tools were hard enough to describe clearly before they began merging with everything around us. What names could possibly do justice to the ubiquity and complexity of computing technology today? How can we settle on single labels when the genius of these computer-powered device is to transform themselves into many different tools? Together let us look for answers in the history of what computers are for.
Our history has five parts. The first four cover the foundations of computing technology, laid in the 20th century. The fifth builds upon those foundations a simple structure for thinking about the electronic menagerie we find ourselves surrounded with.
- In 1936, Alan Turing discovered a universal Machine for Math.
- A decade later, engineers exploited Turing’s insight to construct limited by lightning-fast true computers that could understand only “machine languages” of pure numbers. Grace Hopper soon invented a way to translate between machine languages and words. We bent the resulting computer-powered Versatile Information Machines to a wild variety of purposes.
- From 1945 to 1990, researchers and business people slowly worked out expand the population of computer users from operators with computer-specific training to a broader cohort of literate, affluent knowledge workers. They invented Machines for Millions.
- In eight short years beginning in 1990, the Web went from an idea to a working tool for computer operators, to realizing the old dream of making the World’s Knowledge accessible to a billion people.
- Today Almost Everyone relies on computer-powered information machines to connect them to each other.
Begin with A Machine for Math.
3. As David Wooton observes, finding good names for new phenomena can be a slow, awkward process:
There had long been a perceived need for a word to do the job. The problem was that finding a suitable word — one that did not already have have a different usage and was properly constructed — was a genuine obstacle, so that only when the need became absolutely pressing was the obstacle overcome, and only then by breaking what was regarded as one of the basic rules of word formation. Fundamentally, though, [it] was merely a new and useful word for [what] had long been in existence. — The Invention of Science, p.32
4. Some, such as digital clocks and anti-lock brakes, are hard-coded to serve a single purpose.
5. This form of computer is called a “processor” or “CPU”.
6. Or other forms of information that matter to people.
8. Evan Spiegel of Snapchat: “It’s about instant expression and who you are right now. Internet-connected photography is really a reinvention of the camera. And what it does is allow you to share your experience of the world while also seeing everyone else’s experience of the world, everywhere, all the time.” Seth Stevenson, “Snapchat Releases First Hardware Product, Spectacles”
9. Zara Zhang, “China’s WeChat Way of Life”, unfortunately not publicly available. See “When One App Rules The All: The Case of WeChat and Mobile in China” in which Connie Chan beautifully describes how versatile an information machine WeChat has become.