What is a computer?

Here is a questions, which should be quite simple but has been giving me quite a bit of problems recently.

"bidden or unbidden god (meaning) is present" -

A friend who I once shared flat with use to have this quotation on her wall, and whenever something mysterious or miraculous happened she would look at me (knowing I am a devote atheist) and then point at the quote.

What does this have to do with technology? I am reading a lot (and hearing a lot, and being told a lot) that there is not enough meaning in: modern life, technology, design, art, consumerism ect ect ect.... And this does not sit well with me as the good 'post-structuralist' I generally profess to be I want to say "There was never any meaning there to begin with, get over it'. But then I think even deconstruction shows the opposite. What we can learn from diferancè is exactly the opposite.

"Bidden or unbidden meaning is present" - this is what we can learn by following the threads of Foucault, Lacan and Derrida back their source in Saussurean linguistics. There is meaning there, there is a a symbolic order - always already. The meaning is just a little bit more slippery, harder to control, de-centred. To talk like an economist for a moment, meaning is at the margins. So there is meaning in all design, there is a symbolic language but unless the designer has deliberately constructed the symbolic language (with an audience and community in mind) the meaning that radiates from those objects may not be what the designers intended.

Here is a questions, which should be quite simple but has been giving me quite a bit of problems recently.

"What is a computer?"

I was born in 1982, and the year of my birth my parents bought their first PC. I believe it was an 8088 - intel/IBM machine. But what was it? To me as I became aware, it was the corner of the dinning room, it was a box with slots, a box with glass, and box with numbers and letters. If I were to draw a picture of a computer I would draw a screen and keyboard and a box. If you asked me which part was the 'computer' I would haven't known what you meant. The whole combination was the computer. It was the computer, you couldn't break down the 'computer' into constituent parts because take away any part and it would cease to be a 'computer'. In a symbolic sense the term computer (for me) is complex relationship of a point time (my birth), a location in our house (the dining room), a way of relating to my family. Over the years there has always been a 'computer' in the same place in that house. In fact my parents still have computer in that location (even though they both have tablets and laptops). For me, a computer is 'that thing that sits in corner of my parents house".

Why am I taking the pains to tell you this. 50 years before I was born a 'computer' was person, who was good at maths. Often women 'computer' were people who did calculation - At that point would it have been more meaningful to ask "who is a computer". For person is not a what.

Recently in lectures and demonstration, individuals who claim to experts in these things, have shown me: christmas light, little black chips, a box with a bunch of ports, all sorts of thing and tried to convince me that they are computers. I have even taken to calling some of these things computerz. But, I am thinking 'This object cannot sit in the corner of my parents dining room in rural USA, how can this be a computer?'

It all comes down to meaning. The most meaningful phrase in the english language is this ""Ceci n'est pas une pipe." (trans. "this is not a pipe"). I believe that whatever the computer scientists say, a computer is a thing with keyboard and screen. To most the very things that seem superfluous to computation have become the 'computer'. To most the computer only has meaning (as such) because of these auxiliaries.

This why I think the products called a 'raspberry pi' is such a powerful tool for education. Not because of what it is but because of what it means. What a 'raspberry pi' symbolised for the class room is a new era of 'computation' freedom. Yes, almost everything that you can do on a 'raspberry pi' can be done on second hand laptop (which cost less), but that is not the point.

The point is this, meaning changes more slowly than technology. If we can begin to shift the concept of the computer away from a screen and a keyboard and towards small black chip that does processing, we can beginning to build inter-personal semantics which non-computer scientists can use to begin to imbue meaning into a world which is full of processors.

The computer scientist cannot count the number of 'computers' it take the average person to get to work (in their phone, in their car, in their watch), the lay person answers easily - zero.

Meaning is what we can help but put into the world. "Bidden or unbidden meaning is present" The question is does designer/creator/engineer/programmer understand they create meaning and not objects.

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