Computer as a metamedium

As what I learned from last class, computer was first invented to solve a set of complex mathematical problems. At that time, computer is medium, simulating the function of calculator (and even to some extent, the role of abacus). Then, after the Second World War II, the goal of a society was shifted from augmenting armies or accumulating interest into building up a better living environment for human beings. Meanwhile, several computing gurus redefined computer: Bush and Licklider predicted that computers would be cooperators of human beings in daily life; Suterland invented “Sketchpad”; Engelbart focusing on augmenting human intellect introduced new properties of computer like graphic interface and mouse. Following the series of changes, Alan Kay’s model of “Dynabook” is a new revolution in computer history.

Kay described his “Dynabook” as being able “to simulate all existing media in an editable/ authorable form in a highly portable networked form”. He said that the main point for a Dynabook was to qualitatively extend the notions of “reading, writing, sharing, publishing, etc. of ideas”

From Alan Kay’s conception, we can see that modern computer is a metamedium rather a medium:

  • It can represent most other media while augmenting them with many new properties. The audio editing software “GoldenWave”can broadcast music as well as visualising the sound waves; We can also listen to music on QQ Music as well as  make comments and read other people’s comments; the application of “GarageBand” provide amateurs a handy tool to produce music.
  • It is active. While users keep telling computers what to do next, computers also give users feedback in return.
  • It can handle virtually all of its owner’s information-related needs. Today, there are various software (like excel, power point) to meet our needs of information. As Manovich mentioned in his book “Software Takes Command”that there was no such thing as digital media, there was only software, to some extent, the properties of computer are software techniques defined to work on particular types of media exologies, content and media data.
  • It is also a system for generating new media tools and new types of media.

From what I learned this week, I will say that computer is a spread of our sense, an artifact of our cognition to the world.

We may not have the time to go to a live house, but we can watch the video of it on the Internet at a later time; we can’t see how an electron run around a centron, but a model of an atom built by the computer can make a five-year-old kid easily understand the micro-world.

However, just as what Noah Wardrip-Friun commented on hyperlinks that the Web implemented only one of many types of structures proposed by Nelson, People should not be satisfied with the extension with the help of internet. Although nowadays we do have offline softwares like PhotoShop and Illustrator to draw and reproduce images, this is far from enough. Most of the computing softwares are augmenting our sense of visible and auditory sensation but seldom our sensation of feeling and touching. I remembered that once in an interview, Kay said that modern computer had done far more enough. In fact, an ideal computer model of Alan Kay is one that users can wear on. In this case, I guess that perhaps in the future, people can “feel” from a computer.