The Computer is a Feeling

Written by Tim Hwang and Omar Rizwan (original)

Note: I really enjoy this piece, but I hate that its canonical home is a Google Doc. I’ve made a copy of it here so it can (hopefully) live a nice long life online. No copyright intended.

  1. The computer is a feeling, not a device.
  2. By this we mean that what makes a computer a computer has nothing to do with commands, compilers, or even machines. For us, computer is the specific feeling of artifacts that allow for intimate systems of personal meaning.
  3. This point has been obscured for two reasons. First: the language we use to talk about computing – established decades ago – has lost its original meaning and force.
  4. Consider the term “personal computer”. This phrase used to distinguish what was special in the moment about the devices that gave us computer feelings: the Apple II, the Commodore 64, the Windows PC. They were personal – not big mainframes – and they were computers – a kind of device that runs instructions. 
  5. Both of these features are now ubiquitous. Computer-devices are now everywhere, nearly all of them personal in some sense. This comes from the commodification of hardware. What was previously scarce and expensive is now simply an implementation detail: computerization is the cheapest way to control any machine, whether it is a toaster or a fridge or a car or a smartphone. 
  6. These devices may have the hardware of a computer inside, they may even run a computer operating system like Linux, but they’re not computers in the emotional sense that we mean. “Computer”, once an apt term for both the technology and the feeling it gave, has become less descriptive with time. 
  7. Second: the modern internet exerts a tyranny over our imagination. The internet and its commercial power has sculpted the computer-device. It’s become the terrain of flat, uniform, common platforms and protocols, not eccentric, local, idiosyncratic ones. This is out of necessity: if two or two hundred or two million or two billion computers are going to communicate with each other, they simply must agree on quite a bit. 
  8. The triumph of the internet has also impoverished our sense of computers as a tool for private exploration rather than public expression. The pre-network computer has no utility except as a kind of personal notebook, the post-network computer demotes this to a secondary purpose. 
  9. We live in a world of ubiquitous computer-devices, but fading computer-feeling. Consider the smartphone, an indisputably “personal computer.” The smartphone is for you; it sits in your pocket. The smartphone is a computer; it is made of silicon and software.
  10. But the smartphone is not a philosophically meaningful computer. It gives only dim flashes of computer-feeling. Accepting it as a COMPUTER feels silly, wrong.
  11. Do you dream about your smartphone? 
  12. Does it feel like a place that you can inhabit and shape and reconfigure? 
  13. Does it give you a sense of possibility? 
  14. Computers are a feeling, not a device.
  15. An old dogma is that true computer-feeling emanates from certain technical commitments. Open source and free software partisans hold to the orthodoxy that the computer-feeling depends on the capability to read and write source code. 
  16. The modern era highlights the absurdities of this creed. We live in a world awash in resources shilling the self-help doctrine of “learn to code”. But, as yet, the computer-feeling continues to ebb away. Programming is a means to evoke a computer-feeling, but no iron law requires that one will use it for this purpose. 
  17. This orthodoxy is also a kind of fetishism. “Programming” can conjure a computer-feeling, but it is not the computer-feeling itself. The sense that programming is the only way celebrates the tools, but not the experience. We want the experience. 
  18. Making “computer” mean computer-feelings and not computer-devices shifts the boundaries of what is captured by the word. It removes a great many things – smartphones, language models, “social” “media” – from the domain of the computational. It also welcomes a great many things – notebooks, papercraft, diary, kitchen – back into the domain of the computational. 
  19. The agenda is to expand our understanding of what makes the computer-feeling. 
  20. The agenda is to advance the computer-feeling in devices, objects, and cultures.