Fancy Dancy Phenomenological Trickery

The biggest surprises in this week’s readings came from Mahoney for me – how difficult a task it is to talk about the history of computing; how difficult a task to figure out where even to start. I barely have a grasp on how to define computing, let alone to truly contextualize it in human history. But the biggest takeaways for me were two ideas: 1) that computing history is the history of computing market demands and the people who were in charge of meeting these demands, and 2) the idea of designing computing processes as creating “operative representations.” The prior worked out an understanding that the design of computer hardware and software is not a magical black box – it is a constant reimagining of computing capabilities to meet the changing demands of consumers, as well as an ongoing process of human innovation in computing capabilities. The latter, applying the process of semiosis, shows what computing adds to meaning making. It is to add to our meaning making process a “meta layer,” as stated in Dr. Irvine’s introduction. It is to reason with our meanings in a hyper automatized way, and in this way, we can think of advances in computing capabilities as advancements of cognitive capabilities.

I love all the neat stuff we’ve gotten to look at throughout the course of this class. This week, the original design of the Memex and Engelbart’s patent for the computer mouse were especially neat-o. The idea of computing history as a history of the designers and engineers in history who made computers especially got my mind going when looking at Engelbart’s technological realizations of Bush’s post-war computing challenges and visions. Today’s computers carry all of the functionality that Bush’s Memex envisioned, but designed so we can even carry our devices with us. Vannevar would lose his mind if he could fiddle with an iPad.

Looking at the patent for the mouse helped me make the connection between design, interface, and the idea of a human-computer symbiosis. Up until this week, I always thought of the mouse pointer as an object that I was moving across the computer screen. That the laser at the bottom of my mouse and the movement it tracked was actually moving the pointer across the screen. What this course is showing me is that the mouse pointer is not necessarily an object, but an array of pixels, and the manipulation of these pixels gives the effect that I am moving an object across the computer screen as opposed to the messages from the mouse changing the position of the array of pixels that look like a mouse pointer (the shape of the mouse pointer itself being a semiotic sign). This phenomenological perceptual trickery is by design – the computer screen should feel like an extension of space, and the mouse pointer should be a metaphorical limb with which I navigate the digital interface, especially if the intention mirrors Vannevar Bush’s vision of how computing would integrate into human cognition. Another instance of this trickery can be seen from an older computer mouse design, the one with a ball in it. Though the effect could show the mouse pointer traveling across the screen diagonally, this doesn’t change that the pointer can only move along an x or y axis (I’m not sure if this is the case with laser mouses).


Bush, Vannevar. “As We May Think.” Atlantic, July, 1945.

Engelbart, Douglas. “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” The New Media Reader. Ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin. Ed. Nick Montfort. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003. Pp. 93-108.

Irvine, Martin. “Introduction to Affordances and Interfaces: Semiotic Foundations.”

Licklider, J.C.R. “Man-Computer Symbiosis.” The New Media Reader. Ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin. Ed. Nick Montfort. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003. pp. 73-82

Mahoney, Michael S. “The Histories of Computing(s).” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 30, no. 2 (June 2005): 119–35.