A finger presses a key, a voice speaks into a microphone, a camera focuses a view onto a sensor, and that captured information is sent as electricity into a running logic recipe, which makes choices based on it and sends new information back out into the world: a sound or an image or a written message from a friend. That is what our computers in their many forms do. They get information about the world from us, work with it, and send more information about the world to us.
Information Points at the World1
Information points. Bush focused on the association — the pointing — a person made from one idea to another. Engelbart and his colleagues invented a pointing machine and built their page machine around it. Berners-Lee extended pointing from closely linked machines to any machine in the world. Page arranged those pointers into an oracle that shows you how to find whatever you seek. Christie and Ording gave us an information world we could move through with our pointer finger, and their boss Steve Jobs filled it with the people we want to point things out to. Right now all around the world millions of people are using their pointer fingers to point things out to the friends that their people connector puts them in touch with. These points are neither metaphors nor coincidences. They show us what computers are for.
Since the beginning, we’ve [used our] hands to communicate. Among the first cave paintings are outlines of human hands — living stencils outlined by blown-on pigments. These traces come only from the last stage of our evolutionary journey, but even here we see how pointing and touching are so fundamental to human communication. Humans talk, but even simpler, we point … and now, we type and text2. — John Hawks
If smartphones are like extensions of our fingers, then messaging is like touching people and things3. — Connie Chan
Computers give us the information we care about. Most people want to hear their friends’ words and see their smiling faces, so most people value people connectors and almost everyones. Many people work with knowledge: company memorandums, school papers, financial projections and the like. Page connectors manage their work for them. A few well-trained people ply code runners for engineering. Their work comes back to us as pages (what did the latest scientific conference on climate change report?) or pokables (what’s the weather tomorrow?)
What can we do with computers? What are they for?
- We can use math to reason about the physical world.
- We can use math to simulate physical worlds.
- We can share our presence with friends distant in the physical world.
- We can capture and share sights and sounds from the world,
- We can ask them to be aware of events in the world and to respond on our behalf.
- We can write, publish, read, and link words about the world.
Computers show us our world. That is what they are for.
We said that we would look for better names for computers by considering their history. The names these devices have now pretend to be current, but by seeing only a snippet of their own past they mislead us. We took a careful look backwards so that we could find a clear path forward, one unblocked by those bad names. Turing created a numeric recipe that could run any other numeric recipe. Von Neumann and his colleagues built a machine that ran Turing’s recipe at the speed of lightning. Hopper and her colleagues wrapped numeric Von Neumann machines in a logic recipe that listened to words. Those code runners gained sensors and senders that moved information between their circuits and human minds, making them versatile information machines. Russell and his team simulated the physical world with one. Engelbart used code runners to fulfill Bush’s vision of a page machine for working with knowledge. PARC and Macintosh proved that reminding pictures could make page machines usable by many people. Berners-Lee and Andreessen crafted the Web and Navigator to extend Bush’s links to the world. Page made their Web navigable with Google. Christie, Ording, and their coworkers discovered that a simulator could make versatile information machines usable by most of humanity. Jobs harnessed their pokables to the mobile phones so many of us used to connect with other people. Almost everyones sprung up to maintain those connections.
The history of computing, from code to Navigator to iPhone, is in great part the history of inventors reshaping machines to better fit human purposes. Our search parallels the work of those inventors. We have reconsidered the history of their work, leaving out most of it and reshaping the remainder to better fit our need to understand this important part of our world. Names and essays are in their humble way also information machines. They are tools that shape understanding. Perhaps you can coin better names than the ones introduced by this essay. I warmly encourage you to do so.
We have not covered every form that computing technology takes today, but the simple language we have settled on has more applications. Consider these exciting forms computing has taken of late:
- 3D printing
- virtual reality
- augmented reality
Ask yourself how you might sum them up with a “we can … world” statement. (Hint: think about the simulator.) I’ll hide my answers in a footnote:4.
Now let’s go the other way. Which common information machines do these statements describe?:
- We can ask them to guide us to where we want to go in the world.
- We can ask them to notice and respond when we enter a new part of the world5.
Coining new descriptions of tools that already exist is a fun game, but limited. Vannevar Bush showed us a much more exciting game in “As We May Think”: the game of describing an information machine that doesn’t exist yet, but should. What might you create with the ideas we’ve covered here? Will you design a tool worth building?
Sources and Further Reading
The public work of Horace Dediu, Benedict Evans, and Ben Thompson formed much of the inspiration for this essay. The explicit citations above do not do justice to the extent of my debt to their rewarding analyses. (I missed many of their tweets and most but not all of their podcasts and doubtless echo some of them inadvertently.) The three of them focus on the complex interplay of business and technology, which I have deliberately underplayed. A favorite piece from each:
I came to Connie Chan’s unique insights on messaging, cameras, and the modern information landscape late but gratefully. Her analysis of China’s Internet in particular has taught this non-Mandarin-reader a great deal. Here is one starting point:
From a different writer, another enlightening guide to WeChat:
Myanmar and the accelerated adoption of almost everyones:
Dediu, Evans, and Thompson are my favorite guides to the present of people connectors. For their origin, see Brian McCullough’s
which concludes with a good set of citations. For the Web and its antecedents, we have excellent documentation from the creators. In reverse chronological order:
For possible future directions in the integration of page machinery and simulation, see the work of Bret Victor:
For the earliest years, I recommend two books. Charles Petzold’s The Annotated Turing would make a wonderful addition to any college curriculum. George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral goes both wide and deep in covering how the mathematical community created working computers. For a much richer representation of mathematics along the lines of my interpretation of Turing, enjoy How to Bake ∏ by mathematician Eugenia Cheng. David Wooton’s The Invention of Science is magisterial account of the creation of the intellectual tradition which brought us Turing, Von Neumann, Bush, Hopper, Engelbart, Berners-Lee, and Page. His Galileo: Watcher of the Skies covers one great forebear in fine detail. Employing a lens of much wider angle, César Hidalgo explains Why Information Grows.
Ali Almossawi, Kartik Agaram, Sam Baghwat, Carlos Bueno, Mick Costigan, Jesse Dhillon, Anthony Di Franco, Jay Hinton, Hal Morris, Venkatesh Rao, Bill Seitz, Toby Shorin, and Brandon Whitehead read and gave me helpful feedback on the first draft. Thank you my friends.
Kevin Ashton graciously explained the etymology of “Internet of Things” to a stranger on Twitter. The above challenge to its current use does not reflect my opinion of his original coinage in context.
Chris Massot allowed me to interrupt his work for a chat about his development of the Disney MagicBand, a conversation which influenced the responsive awareness section.
Julia Penrose and Alex Green weighed each sentence in the introduction.
Among those who sifted through early drafts of the Turing material for usable bits were Kartik Agaram, Sam Bhagwat, Britt Crawford, Lila Penrose, Mike Travers, and the meticulous Xianhang Zhang. Mark Reid reviewed the final draft.
No individual here acknowledged or omitted should be construed as endorsing any part of this work or having any responsibility for its shortcomings.
1. Sue Krenek suggests “milieu” as more precisely denoting what I hope to evoke with “world” in this context. She’s right, but I worry it might drive away more readers than it enlightens. Wyeth’s use in titling “Christina’s World” resonates for me. (Image reproduced under Museum of Modern Art Terms and Conditions as retrieved from https://www.moma.org/about/about_site/index 9 July 2016.)
2. John Hawks, “Are Humans the Greatest Things Made by the Human Hand?”
4. 3D printer: “we can use a simulator to instruct a manufacturing device to add a physical object to the world.” Virtual reality: “we can extend a simulation to completely fill our visual and auditory world.” Augmented reality: “we can project what we simulate on top of what we see in the world.”
5. The map apps and geo-fencing capabilities of people connectors, respectively.