Have a conversation with computer, where are we on the continuum between human and computer? – Ruizhong Li

Interacting with computers, we human are on a continuum between ourselves and computers. According to Licklider’s depiction of “Man-Computer Symbiosis”, in order to enable the effective man-computer interaction, human and computers should work on the same display surface. In that case, before we get to that point when human and computers literally can work collaboratively, where is human’s position on the contimuum in this process?

It is interesting to know that Licklider’s effort to clarify “man-computer symbiosis” is considered as a way to humanize computing. We are getting computer adapted to human thinking. However, in the process of getting computer stayed tune with human, human is adapted to computer in this process as well. Extrapolating from it, it is true that human function as an agent in the development of technology, but technologies are self-evolved according to their innate mechanism. The role human play in the process is to take advantage of the technology and, according to human’s need, to decide what’s the main technology human would probably make heavy use of in the next decade. In this process, human can benefit from what affordances provided by the technologies, but also cannot get rid of the constraints of the technology.

As we look back into the history, it’s not hard to find that many of the computing technologies were developed during the post-War period. We cannot neglect the social context when we recount the history of computing. In the post-War period, there were growing demands of accuracy and efficiency in computing. It seems that the atomic blast that ended the World War II have an unforgettable impact on post-War scientific research. The eager for nuclear technology created the need for developing the basic computing technology. The most important feature of Sketchpad when it was invented in 1960s, was to perform rapid and accurate calculation, and model the architecture design: both of the two features are related to the preparation of arm race.

But look at the Sketchpad technology today, it is widely employed in our daily life, like handwriting system in our mobile phone, and children’s eco-friendly sketchpad.



It seems that using Sketchpad technology to do these daily things are like employing a steam engine to crack a nut. Is it? I think it is the necessary “backwards” of the technology. They are sharing the similar mechanisms, but they are differentiated by their usage. Using a mature technology to find radical new ways of using such technology. It reminds me of Gunpei Yokoi’s philosophy: lateral thinking with withered technology.

“Withered technology” in this context refers to a mature technology which is cheap and well understood. “Lateral thinking” refers to finding radical new ways of using such technology. Yokoi held that toys and games do not necessarily require cutting edge technology; sometimes, expensive cutting edge technology can get in the way of developing a new product.

It is exactly what is going on between human and technology. If we could slow down and have a look at the way we were coming through, human are driven by the social needs all the time. That’s why we are in a passive position in the development of technology. We do not have enough time to understand the computers, and we lock the secret of how computer working in a little box. We are going too fast to understand what’s going on in the world. Using Sketchpad for daily use is a sign that we could change our way of thinking and be ready to embrace another breakthrough.


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

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

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

Conery, John. 2010.  “Computation Is Symbol Manipulation.” The Computer Journal, 55, no. 7.

Licklider, J.C.R. 1960. “Man-Computer Symbiosis”. New Media Reader. Wardrip-Fruin, Noah, Nick Montfort, ed.. 74–82. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003.