What is learned today will be irrelevant tomorrow.


The best computer is invisible

Computer Art Fazination 1996
PDF (In German)

Computer Art Fazination 1996
Computer Art Fazination 1996
PDF (In German)
The time has finally come: The computer is beginning to vanish! “What!?” I can already hear millions of astonished people wondering. “More and more computers are being sold and you say they are disappearing? You must be blind! Or are you so much in love with the past that you can’t help but express wishful thinking for the good old workplace devoid of the ‘ugly box’? Get with it. The computer is here to stay.”

Yes, I have to admit that the box, in its many stylized embodiments continues to sell extremely well. Millions of boxes will take up more space at the workplace and also in the home. More and more of us will complain about shoulder pain caused by carrying the ever lighter (but never light enough) laptops sold unceasingly at all kinds of discount stores that are never able to provide a minimum of technical assistance when things go wrong. And more pockets will be ripped by the notepads without which one is a nobody. But-and here starts my argumentation-the massive adoption of digital technology in all areas of our lives is exactly what “the end of the box” means. It also means the beginning of a new phase of our pragmatic involvement with computers. But let’s proceed one step at a time.

Computers as better calculators, as better typewriters, or better publishing desktops are rather boring artifacts. Moreover, they are expensive. Especially if these, let’s say, typewriters force us to buy the new model every second or third year. Without the new model, one loses contact with everything that makes the machine work: the printer, improved software, spell checkers, interface to layout programs, etc. Not to mention compatibility, with its seemingly endless aspects. Computers as the purpose of human activity-that is a beautiful project for everyone working as engineers or scientists in digital technology. What could be more exciting than designing the faster chip, or the technology for better memory? But the computer as means of a qualitatively new human practice-this is exactly what justifies my statement about the disappearance of the ugly box. The core of my thesis is that the computer is, in the final analysis, a semiotic machine that facilitates the enhancement and/or augmentation of human cognitive capabilities and thus the attainment of higher efficiency.

What does this mean? And in which sense does this increase of efficiency have anything to do with the disappearance of the computer? The history of humankind is the history of the ever higher efficiency of human activity. Increased efficiency is attained through the introduction of mediating elements. This means that direct actions are replaced by mediating actions and mediating elements, such as tools. Direct action is the application of physical abilities, of muscles and limbs. Hunters and gatherers, from the prehistoric age to our own, survive at this level of activity. Tools aid in augmenting the efficiency of human activity. Even primitive tools open the dimension of mediation. Each tool consists not only of the material used in making it (stone, branch, skin) or the object used to accomplish a task (lever, wheel), but also the thinking process behind the selection of the object and its particular function. New and different forms of mediation take place through images and languages. These are not based only on material phenomena, but involve ideal mediations through sounds, words, and representations. One cannot find such mediating entities in nature; one cannot process them through skilled labor. They come, so to say, from our heads. To make a long history short: today we live in a pragmatic context defined through mediations that are progressively more cognitive. They are based more and more on what we know and on thinking. Thinking and knowledge acquisition take place as semiotic processes, that is, though sign processes that are representative of the world we work in. What goes through our minds when we think are not objects, but their signs. What we identify as knowledge are representations of things and phenomena. The computer appeared after a long history of striving for a tool that would help humans think. This tool, machine actually, was not meant to be a substitute for human thinking, but to make our thinking more successful, free of all constraints (including prejudices). Indeed, where our direct experience becomes a constraint-for example, in envisioning a space of more than three dimensions-we can only rely on a machine that is not encumbered with the limitations of human sensorial perceptions.

The expectation of higher level mediation as a necessary strategy for increased human efficiency or better quality is embodied in the functions for which computers are programmed. However, in programming, humans also change themselves, not only in their behavior, but also in their cognitive functions, their ways of thinking about the world and what they do in it. If we understand semiotics as the logic of sign functions, we come to the conclusion that computers are semiotic machines. Their engine is digital; what they process are signs, in particular, symbols. For example, computers used by banks or stock markets do not process physical money or gold or commodities. When used for the design of new offices or homes, computers do not replace the bricks of buildings. And they do not process human samples in order to make digital diagnoses in modern medicine possible. Financial data, engineering information, computer graphics, and visualization are only representations. Obviously, computers are not the only embodiments of the semiotization of practical activities through which we humans constitute ourselves as individuals. The entire genetic project of our days is essentially semiotic. It is focused on the genetic code, its evolution through time, and the genetic mechanisms of inheritance. Market activity is also more and more semiotically driven: all the transaction in futures, derivatives, currencies, and other financial instruments are transactions in representations, i.e., in signs. A successful semiosis, in the form of a marketing strategy, can make or break a business. It is by no accident that the industry with the greatest growth and the most impressive diversification in our days is communication, itself a form of semiotic activity.

The ubiquity of sign processes in all fields of human activity-politics, science, marketing, communication, design, to name a few-has been furthered by the emergence of the computer. This brings us back to the theme of the disappearance of “the box.” After its first 50 years of existence, computer technology is probably not more mature than the generation of electricity was at the beginning of the century. At that time, each person who could afford it had a generator at home. The production of energy was not different from our current use of computers at home or at our place of business. The operating systems of home generators were not different, in terms of complexity, from those of today’s computers. In short, they were complicated. The same tale can be told of the telephone. The elegant multifunctional products (with answering machines attached, with integrated FAX, with autodialer and memory) we today call telephones were indeed boxes, with batteries and connectors and levers. Yes, levers were turned as one party tried to connect manually to another. Today, electricity, as much as the telephone, is part and parcel of our civilization. The interface to electricity is the idiot-proof switch (or even the switch activated by voice or by a handclap). And as far as the telephone goes. . .ask your five- or six-year-old child, or the fruit sellers in Chinatown who run around comfortably with their mobile phones. And if this does not yet suffice, think about Internet. Millions of people interact digitally, in a variety of ways, through the networks.

The progressive integration of computers in medicine, communication, traffic and air control, home appliances, automobiles, etc. belongs to the same dynamics. But here my claim might be contradicted again: “Even if all your examples are right, still, the number of computers is increasing. There are already activities where not one but several computers are at work. And the increase in their sales, already so high that more computers than television sets are sold annually (not to say cars). Doesn’t all this contradict your assertion?”

To the question “How does something that is sold more often disappear?” two answers can be given. In the first place, more and more digital functions are integrated in the artifacts we use daily-at the bank, at the supermarket, in household appliances (from the microwave oven to the fuzzy logic of washing machines), in airplanes, and in automobiles. That is, computers disappear as objects (monitors, keyboards, printers) while they still carry out their functions. In the second place-and this is the determining development-through networking, best embodied in the global Internet, it becomes possible, not unlike electric energy and telephony, to take advantage of possibilities connected to digital processing without owning the “generators” and without having to be in command of operating systems. In this networked world, it is no longer necessary to have a graphics program on one’s desk in order to generate computer graphics (in 2-D, 3-D, or in a space of more dimensions). The time is coming when the layperson will not have to study UNIX, DOS, MACOS, or Windows.

The computer industry is slowly recognizing this reality. It invests more in the “disappearance of the box” than in the production of bigger machines. IBM established a new unit focused on this goal. J. L. Gassé, who once was in charge of technical development at Apple, established a company that pursues the same goal. Philips is at work in the area, and the small Acorn Computers of England has reported its first results. Here I can envision not only the chance of undoing Microsoft, but also of having Europe take a more important role in the evolution of the technologies of the 21st century. The beginning is made through the new networking technologies, which open new possibilities for cooperative work.

Virtual companies are probably the most visible product of the development I speak of. Instead of occupying skyscrapers and other expensive office buildings as places of business, we can carry on business through networks. And instead of learning new programs-an activity involving our memory more than our intelligence-we can concentrate on what we have to do, not on how to do it. The computer literally disappears from the table and desk, but digital functions are made possible through networking. Not unlike the use of electricity for bringing light, heat, and other services to our homes.

The industrial revolution increased the efficiency of human activity by many orders of magnitude. But it also contributed to the segmentation of the world into many seemingly unrelated pieces. Think of all the machines and appliances in a household. Or about the many tools and products that fill our offices and factories. We are now able to reintegrate what was segmented. Digital integration, uniting several functions in one process, furthermore solves the problems of energy efficiency, ecology, and improved human interaction caused by segmentation. Instead of the unfriendly and ugly computer on every desk, and instead of all of us becoming typists, we should look for more natural interaction through many invisible levels of information processing. Today, we can already research all the libraries in the world in order to find what we need when we need it. We can unload information at will, and we can offer our own services interactively. Find and click, be clicked and found! We can study together, we can make art together, transcending not only national borders, but also cultural boundaries.

Networking represents only the infrastructure of this change. In the final analysis, the semiotic dimension is determinant. For all who have experienced the worldwide web (WWW) pages, it is obvious that networks are not only twisted cables or fiber glass or communication satellites. First of all, networking is the connection of programs, information, and processes. Networking makes better human interaction possible. The Web-page is an interface, as effective and as simple as a page of paper. Behind the Web-page are services we can use as needed. On the WWW, that is, on the reality of hypertext, we experience sign processes as connections. A click causes connection to applications, opens access to databases, exchange of information presented as text, sound, image, or multimedia representation. I don’t have to convince anyone that the disappearance of computers will take place from one day to the next. But that it will happen no one should doubt.

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