Monday, March 17, 2014

Let’s Consider: Computers

There is much more that can be said and discussed about these amazing machines than I can cover here, but let’s get a taste.

The thing, the physical stuff sitting in front of you – emitting various wavelengths of light, spinning magnetic platters, generating heat as electrons flow in time to the vibrating of crystals – is not what you’re looking at. You’re looking at what I've written – probably imagining waves and spinning, heat and vibrations, crystals and little pin-points of light (that’s how I imagine electrons). The physical thing in front of you, if measured and considered as a physical thing, is basically a water-slide for electricity; the electrons spin around and around inside a box, and then that energy becomes heat, or light, or just goes around some more until you stop the ride (that is, turn off the machine).

They're in the computer?
But, obviously, that isn't what your computer is. Your computer is essentially metaphysical. A computer takes a lot of a
certain kind of work off your mind, but without a mind to look at what it produced, it would just be an electrically charged box. “But, that’s true of everything," says you, “even my cheap paperback is just a pile of compressed tree pulp with polymer etched on it, except that we know how to read.” 

True; lots of things are pretty metaphysical, and computers are metaphysical right along with them. But, computers are metaphysical in a special and amazing way of their own, which I will now tell you about.

Writing takes advantage of the amazing human capacity to understand things symbolically. The letters ‘c’, ‘o’, and ‘w’ each represent a noise, and those noises, when put together, represent a big, fat thing that stands in a field and eats. So, all I have to do is write “cow” and suddenly you’re thinking of a big, fat thing eating in a field, without ever needing to leave the comfort of your home to go find a field of bovines – very convenient.

We also have the related capacity to think metaphorically. If I call you a cow, you will be offended; because you will assume that I am not just terribly mistaken about your species but must be claiming you have some cow-like qualities. Reviewing these, you will notice how unflattering they all are.

A computer is a wonderful machine that takes advantage of both of these capacities (Symbolic and metaphorical thinking I mean; it’s the internet that takes advantage of being able to insult you).

Doesn't it remind you of planning your last vacation?
Someone (perhaps Mr. Mauchly and Mr. Eckert) noticed that electricity could be channeled and controlled in certain ways that were related to logical thinking and calculation in a metaphorical way. For example, there is a device that will only allow electricity to flow in one place, if it is already flowing in another specific place. This is very reminiscent of saying “if X is true, then Y is true;” there is also a device that will only allow it to flow in one place when it is not flowing in the other, which is like saying “if X is false, then Y is true,” and so on and so on. I call this metaphorical because the circuits and electrons are not thinking. It’s just that various physical objects are interacting according to their properties, and when we look at it, we are reminded of a certain kind of thinking.

Well, not us necessarily, but the computer engineers, because what we deal with are the symbols the engineers have caused the computers to produce as a result of the movement of the electricity. And the symbols represent, not the movement of the electrons, but what the movement of the electrons is reminiscent of in the above sense. And this is everything from certain branches of logic, through calculation, writing, files, desks, books, all the way to funny cat videos.

So, your computer isn't so much a box of plastic and silicon, as it is a point of contact between the physical world and the world of the mind; like you, but way faster at adding, and totally incapable of having a reason to add.

© 2014 John Hiner III

1 comment:

  1. ZX Spectrum, nice.

    I spent a few minutes trying to figure out how you'd plan a vacation using a circuit diagram. Maybe the ICs would be locations and the pinouts would be possible events you could participate in.

    Anyway, one of my favorite things about this article is how you explain computers from a very abstract standpoint without getting into anything too specific, I also like how sum everything up at the end with a very simple and clever statement. That part is still echoing in my brain.

    I wish I had thought of something equally as clever when any of my professors started talking about "Artificial Intelligence" or "The ghost in the machine".