Where did the computer go?

The home computer as a cultural object is physically vanishing.

The home computer presents itself through several interfaces, some in software, some in hardware. While it is mostly assumed that these interfaces’ goals are to expose the computing capabilities of the system to its user, obviously interfaces are at the same time responsible for transporting the image of the machine.

The interfaces’ designs are not only driven by technical necessity and engineering decisions, but also by fashion, current pictures of the future, corporate politics or

might contain elements of entertainment.

For example, the Austrian born author and one of the earliest Chaos Computer Club members Peter Glaser frequently describes his fascination as a writer with early home computers as being able to write with light — with a cathode ray and a phosphorized screen (also known as monitor or TV tube). Pure thought, pure data, freed from physical constraints!!

Letters that appeared from out of the thin air on a TV seemed to be the aesthetic representation of computing principles. Indeed thoughts, logic and information are all bodiless. So the computer should probably be bodiless as well, this machine is mind, not body. To achieve complete freedom, like in free thought, the tangible form has to vanish.

The wish that home computers should physically disappear was there from the very beginning.
The legendary Commodore 64 is presented in a clear and sorted look in many advertisements of the 1980s. The actual working machine in real live would appear much more messy due to a large amount of cables.

On this picture we see a later model of the same system plus:

  1. power strip
  2. TV power cable
  3. computer AC adaptor with one cable from the power strip and one to the computer
  4. floppy drive AC adaptor with one cable from power the strip and one to the floppy drive
  5. serial connection cable in between computer and floppy
  6. video connection cable in between computer and TV (with an adaptor)
  7. cable in between joystick and computer
  8. (yet, there is no tape drive!)

This chaos does not look exactly like disembodiment. The solution for cable discomfort was to integrate as many peripherals as possible into one case and limiting the number of input devices.

Apple’s Lisa is offering her keyboard and the before unseen mouse to the user. All the other parts of the machine, where data is actually being processed, are kept on distance in a box.

This distance should grow over the years with further development of home computers. From becoming smaller it goes on to outsourcing of processes to remote machines.

The computer was divided into input devices and “the box”. But this box was too big.

The biggest part was the cathode ray monitor. A 21 inch model would even make scary sounds when switched on. Electrons and magnetic fields were audible!

Flat TFT screens solved this problem.

But there are still mechanics at work. Diskette and hard disk drives emitting funny ticks when active and constantly running cooling fans for hot processors are regarded as annoying.

Any signs of the computer being hard at work seem unbearable. Mechanical noise is especially disregarded as it reminds of mechanical parts. Everybody knows that the computer operates with nothing, with “ones and zeroes”. The noise is distracting from this ideal picture.

That is why processors with passive cooling and fan-less cases are getting popular.

In most people’s minds, Apple’s iMac computer series represents the closest thing to a dissolved computer one can buy in a shop. It is a system inside a flat screen. iMac stands suspended gracefully in mid-air, it’s a computer without a computer.

cables: none Concerning the wires: Infrared or bluetooth keyboards and mice are transmitting their information through the air. Of course they need their own batteries or power adaptors for recharging — so basically the same amount of cables is present —, but these facts can be brushed under the carpet. It is not difficult to understand why “wireless” became the synonym for “wireless networking”: Data running through cables was already difficult to grasp, it’s just consequent that now it floats around everywhere like Ether. Finally, real computers came close to the dreams of 1980s print advertisements!

However there is still room for simplification reduction! Pure ideas and the computer are separated by having to press buttons on devices in order to operate the thing! Nauseating! Shouldn’t it be more intuitive?

Pentop computers that operate completely on writing recognition and touchscreen interfaces do away with grimy keyboards finally.

But wait, isn’t the keyboard the way to escape pre-programmed paths because it enables the user to write code? Writing code is the deepest interaction possible with a computer!

While it is still necessary to have a locally present computer, people help themselves by hiding this box somewhere and connecting it to a video beamer. This is especially popular with airy art installations utilizing computer image projection and camera tracking.

Camera tracking also means that people can wave their limbs in the air instead of touching devices. That is intuitive.

Wonderful, I am whereever you are but never in the way and i keep you connected and entertained — but can you finally write with light?

Time-lapse photography from the fold-out of the Genesis album “… and then there were three …”, released 1978

The idea of (digitally) “writing with light” sort of betrays itself.

Fascination and enthusiasm for computers ultimately led to the fantasy that they should go away again, as the maximum fulfilment of their purpose.

However, as soon as computers disappear, when only the output of data being processed can be “experienced”, when all physical burden (including ownership) is taken from the user, computers will still have to exist somewhere else, away from the users. Probably in a noisy data-center full of glowing hot processors and spinning hard disks. And the “bodiless data” will be stored exactly there.

This is the end of part 1! Read more soon about the effects the vanishing home computer has on aesthetics and culture SOON! And of course you want to know how the home computer is even disappearing inside itself. under construction!

drx@a-blast.org, 2007-02-22

Foreign image material attribution:

  • Title image: Apple Inc., 2004
  • fashion: made with Web2.0 logo generator
  • Excerpt from Commodore 64 print advertisement: Commodore Computers, 1982
  • Apple Lisa promotion photo: Apple Inc, 1983
  • Sad man and happy man in an airplane: Polymervision, 2006
  • Doctor icon: Norton Utilities 2003, Symantec
  • Doctor with hard disk: Norton Disk Doctor, 1991, Symantec; annotated
  • Bluetooth mouse table: Apple Inc, 2004; rotated
  • Office picture: ALPS, 2006; cable animation added
  • Bubbles and shadows: Bubbles, Münch & Furukama, 2000
  • Dotty white on blue text excerpts from Origami Project, Microsoft, 2005
  • Record sleeve excerpt: Charisma/Virgin, 1978, designed by Hipgnosis