The Computer Is For

The computer was originally conceived for military problems.

The means of computing was industry, and the end of computing was control.

Geoffrey Bowker, “The Ends of Computing,” in The Ends of Knowledge, (2023)

This new machine-based mind would lend to human thought permanent existence, not just in Heaven, as Kepler imagined, but on earth as well.

The most suggestive clue that the computer contains a divine aspiration might be the unresolved disagreement over its purpose. Computing inserts itself into every describable aspect of life, and the result is that existence itself becomes a computer-tractable unit , the “it from a bit” as the physicist Joseph Wheeler said.

But what about the relativist claim, that computers structure and condition–blind–our reality? Regardless of one’s position on what computing is, what cannot be doubted is that the computer is a tool–a means to doing things. It is obvious that some tools have an effect on the how their users know the world (e,g., trains, plastics, firearms), but the tools that condition reality most comprehensively work through people who are not even trying to use them; maybe they don’t even know that the tool exists, or are compelled to use it against their will.

The existence of any real and definite computer is neither miraculous nor obscure. Only the cooperation between immense numbers of people–friends, unknown collaborators, even enemies–makes the computer possible, and each realized design can be traced back through corporate, professional, and research associations whose human participants are–at least in historical terms–well-documented. The computer is a device with utterly mundane (as in mundus, of this world) origins. As inventions go, the history of the computer contains what is arguably the most comprehensive proof that it was not divinely inspired.

But by another aspect, the computer is one of the best examples in technological history of how the purpose of a device cannot be reduced to its origin story. The computer today reveals an aspiration to turn any possible qualia into a repeatable form, to create a Platonic abstraction machine. It becomes harder to take a deflationary, reductionist view of the computer (e.g., it’s just a logic device) without adopting a reductionist view of human beings. That is, the claim that “reality is just a computer” can often be found alongside the argument that humans are mere biological accidents, machines and other very un-divine material.

Tags metaphysics invention technology reductionism