Technology and Materials, 3

The first computers were people.1 They counted, calculated, and made sense of information. They used numbers, abacuses, tabulating machines, calculators, and eventually the machines that bear their name: computers.

With each iteration, the tool was able to support -- or supplant -- some of the rote tasks that people did. This freed people up for more abstract and complex tasks. Once those complex tasks could be standardized and turned into an algorithm,2 a new computer (ala Turing Machine) could be invented to perform those instructions. That process continues even today.

But what if the situation was in reverse? What if we started with computers, and tried to reverse engineer the people into them?

Well, that's what John Maeda did with two groups of his students at MIT.

In the first experiment,3 the group of students performed the processes of a computer. Each student mimicked the actions of an individual component, the "computer as a living machine". Students enacted the bus, the floppy disk, the power switch, mouse, screen, video manager, and so on. "The experience of seeing a living computer in action evoked the image of a beehive," Maeda writes.

In the second experiment,4 students were organized to 'draw without using their hands'. One group of student had to give entirely verbal commands to a second group of students that performed those commands:

A student sits down and asks the blue pen to draw from the right side to the center. Whoops, he meant the exact center. More carefully this time, he asks the green pen to drawn from the exact upper right-hand corner to the exact lower left-hand corner. Successive pens are asked to draw in relation to the intersection of line points, and exact offsets from the corners and edges. A variety of methods to speak to the paper are devised, the potentially most exciting is the suggestion to create a grid. Yet although the positioning of marks becomes significantly easier, the result is early computer-style house graphics.

In the first experiment, students end up recreating an organic and complex society (the beehive), which in turn mimics much of our corporate, government, and social structures: individuals performing tasks in a well-defined and limited roles, organized to do something much bigger than themselves, by outside powers.

In the second experiment, students demonstrated the core ambiguities inherent in communication, and in trying to eliminate those ambiguities, they ended up recreating the same process (and style) as by which computers work.

All of this to say: humans are computers still. To return to the central theme, ideas are technologies, and culture is a social algorithm. When asked to make our intent visible, we perform the same way that computers perform. Our thought processes are not so different.

1. The first calculators were people too.
2. Algorithms are really "sets of instructions for performing a task". So, the next time someone tries to sell you something based on complex and fancy algorithms, just remember that all they're saying is that they do stuff... literally.
3. "The Human-Powered Computer Experiment", John Maeda, Maeda and Media, pp.54-59. Vimeo:
4. "Experiment in the instruction of concepts in computer programming without using any actual computers", John Maeda, Maeda and Media, pp. 425-430.