What’s a computer?

*This is part of a series. Please be sure to read the Introduction before continuing below.

So what’s a computer? The girl in the Apple commercial uses it to produce information and consume information, while Nathan, Gavin, and Morgan talk about computers as places where they consume information.

Nathan and Gavin both seem to conceptualize computers as something almost magical and transactional: we provide the input in the form of pressing buttons and something we can consume pops up/out based on the information we’ve put in.

For Nathan, a computer “has buttons.” When I ask what those buttons do, he says, “they control.” After listening to the interview to make the movie I realized that when I was interviewing Nathan an off-screen voice of one of his older brothers says, “control” and Nathan repeats it. And then he says, “they control nothing!” So he knows the computer has buttons, but what the buttons do he’s not quite sure.

I cut off Gavin twice when interviewing him about computers and what he uses them for, so I don’t think I get as much information from him as I could have. But he too sees computers as devices onto which we type and then information comes out of it: we don’t produce on machines, but rather punch buttons that respond to our commands so that we can then consume what appears. Case in point: Gavin plays games on computers. He also uses them at school, but I didn’t ask for what! Later I learn from his parents that he and his older brother have Google accounts at school on which they have email and have made google slide presentations for school, but this doesn’t come to mind right away for Gavin.

Morgan starts by describing the physical characteristics of contemporary computers: a screen with a keyboard, which isn’t always how computers have looked nor how many look now—is my phone a computer? Is my smartwatch a computer? While his younger brother uses them to play games, Morgan uses them to find answers. Different types of consumption, but consumption all the same. Morgan even says that a computer can “give you an answer, on like, anything.” He goes on to explain that you can’t always trust the answers the computer gives you, though, and you have to check it against other sources of information.

All three brothers remark that a computer has the ability to show you things that you request. Like the computer does it as a function of its essence, and not that someone else—a human—has programmed a computer to follow your commands.

But the girl in the Apple commercial does so much more than consume on her “computer”: only a couple times in the ad do we see her consume: she reads a graphic novel on the bus on the way home, for example. She spends most of the day producing and the “computer” helps her do that: she writes, she takes photographs, she draws, she designs a newsletter.

This makes me continue to think about computers and what they are. Something to aid us in consumption? Production? My entire web portfolio was produced on a computer.

And where does the agency lie in these production- and consumption-machines? All the things we can produce or consume are programmed by humans to respond to the specific set of commands we communicate to it through a series of buttons we press. But the machine has a degree of learning it can do as well. So what kind of agency do computers have and do we assign? I used to have a colleague who said, “computers hate me.” This confused me: a computer doesn’t have emotions. I would snark back, “right. Because computers function like that.” So what’s a computer and who has the agency when we interact with computers? And why do we think that? Does this influence our conception of the digital?

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