These days, it’s easy to assume that we can do just about anything on our computers. Whether we’re working on a laptop, desktop, tablet, or even a smartphone, we are capable of listening to music, drawing and creating graphics, shooting and editing photographs, writing content, and and much more. According to Alan Kay, computers are – and were – the first “metamedium,” consisting of media that have either already been invented or have yet to exist (Manovich, 23).
Instead of drawing a graphic at a desk using pen and paper, we can use a stylus on a tablet and create the same image. There is the illusion that we’re interacting with a pen and piece of paper, but instead, the stylus is sending signals that the computer picks up on, and the pixels create the image that imitates the job that a pen would perform. As Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin mention in their book, Remediation: Understanding New Media, even ten years ago, these metamedia did not exist; people saw computers as devices that were used exclusively as numerical engines (23), while individuals such as Alan Kay envisioned they be used as a much more basic, day-to-day communication platform that even children could utilize (Kay, 321).
Now, however, we think of computers in a whole new way – “…we now think of them also as devices for generating images, reworking photographs, holding videoconferences, and providing animation and special effects for film and television” (Bolter & Grusin, 23). As computer technology progresses, it appears that new media keep building upon each other, leading us back to the concept of metamedia. There is media within the first metamedium – the computer – creating a new dimension of metamedia that constantly develop, progress, and evolve; this causes the language that we use with the computer machine – the interface – to change, and we adapt with it.
As computer technology has evolved, we have made the transition from hardware to software. As Manovich explains, software re-adjusts and re-shapes everything that it is applied to, just like other technologies such as the printing press, the alphabet, and even the first computers. Software plays a vital role in shaping how we use and interact with our computers, and in turn, this relationship shapes the way that we contribute to our specific human culture (Manovich, 14-15).
An interesting concept that stems from much of this week’s readings is the idea of the socio-technical system, or the ways in which we are conditioned by the technologies that we interact with each day. While it appears that our computers can do everything, there’s still much room for progress, and Kay pointed that out when discussing his Dynabook concepts. Our devices come to us in what we think is the complete package – all of the hardware is put together, all of the software has already been downloaded, and all that we have to do is use the apps the way we’ve been conditioned to use them. However, no one is taught how to de-blackbox their device. As Kay states in his TIME Magazine interview, people – or children – cannot create apps for each other (Greelish, 2013); every portable computer these days contains elements of the Dynabook idea; however, they all lack the collaborative and inventive concepts that Kay and his team had hoped for in the 1970s (Greelish, 2013).
We wonder: why don’t computers come blank, as a blackbox? Kay had imagined something more complex, and perhaps he thought that people would be able to adapt to such an idea where we could individually create our own software and apps. However, this involves a certain element of literacy and knowledge in the field of computing, which many people lack. Computers are not sold as black boxes, and therefore, there is no need for people to learn how to de-blackbox them. Children are not taught how to build computers or software, and thus, we are stuck in a socio-technical system where we have only learned the basic symbolism behind computer interaction and use.
Computing can be understood as the intersection between human intention and the symbolic process. In this intersection, though, we often treat computer systems as black boxes. The knowledge we gain (and share) about our devices is limited by how we learn through an interface, so we are in some ways conditioned by the technology we use.
Moving forward, interfaces like voice and touch recognition, along with ones that foster education, knowledge sharing and procedural literacy, could aid in realizing some of Kay’s ideas surrounding software that gives “life to the user’s ideas” (Kay, 234).
In connection with the idea of sharing/collaboration, Kay discusses the “helpful agent,” which hasn’t been realized yet (Greelish, 2013). For example, we cannot create an app and share it directly with friends — we have to submit it to the App Store, wait for formal approval and then release it via Apple. In other words, we have not achieved “symmetric authoring and consuming” of computer stored data (Greelish, 2013).
In short, we do know that building blocks of a computer systems comprised a metamedium that houses and manipulates different data using certain techniques to create and store that data (Manovich, 110).
As computer systems continue to evolve, it will be interesting to see how the relationship between hardware and software develops as well as the level of transparency that programmers and users seek when using devices that typically mediate how we understand, store, retrieve and manipulate information.
Bolter, Jay David and Grusin, Richard, Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000.
Kay, Alan C. Xerox PARC, Alan Kay, the Dynabook/Metamedium Concept, and Possibilities for “Personal Computers”
Kay, Alan C. Kay’s original paper on the Dynabook concept: “A Personal Computer for Children of all Ages.” Palo Alto, Xerox PARC, 1972).
Kay, Alan C. “Microelectronics and the Personal Computer.” Scientific American 237, no. 3 (September 1977): 230-44.
Lampson, Butler. Butler Lampson’s original 1972 memo on the Xerox Alto computer, the first “personal” computer implementing a GUI Windows and mouse system and networked via Ethernet.
Manovich, Lev, Software Takes Command, pp. 55-239; and Conclusion.