Technology 101: What Do We Need To Know About The Future We're Creating?

By Howard Rheingold

(last revision: 5/4/98)

1: Where I'm Coming From
2: Growing up Futurian
4: Jumping into the Virtual World
5: From Thinking Tools to Thinking About Tools

3: Seduction by Mind Amplifier

Like falling in love, my involvement with personal computer technology has been both a long slide and a series of abrupt, memorable, life-changing epiphanies. The first time I used Wordstar to move a block of text, after ten years of retyping the entire page to switch two paragraphs, I was hooked. Then I saw the Alto, with its mice, and windows, and point-and-click interface. What I saw on that computer screen was not just the words I typed on my keyboard, but the ideas in my mind. It was like taking all those temporary holding areas in my brain where I marshal ideas and words until their point in the sequence comes along, and externalizing my mental whiteboards on the computer screen. A short passage in a technical publication about the design of the Alto interface jumped out at me the first time I read it. The italicised phrases in the quote were also italicised in the original publication:

When everything being dealt with in a computer system is visible, the display screen relieves the load on the short-term memory by acting as a sort of "visual cache." Thinking becomes easier and more productive. A well-designed computer system can actually improve the quality of your thinking.

A subtle thing happens when everything is visible: the display becomes reality. The user model becomes identical with what is on the screen. Objects can be understood purely in terms of their visible characteristics.

One way to get consistency into a system is to adhere to paradigms for operations. By applying a successful way of working in one area to other areas, a system acquires a unity that is both apparent and real....These paradigns change the very way you think. They lead to new habits and models of behavior that are more powerful and productive. They can lead to a human-machine synergism.

Over the past fifteen years, personal computer hardware, software, and ways of doing intellectual work have evolved far beyond the Alto. In 1984, I got my hands on a Macintosh and started playing with Macpaint. In Macpaint is a tool that enables you to zoom in on a graphic and turn on and off the individual pixels that make up the details of a bit-mapped image. "Fat Bits" was the name of the pixel-twiddling tool in Macpaint. I think I sat down for three hours without getting up, as soon as I started playing with Macpaint and discovered Fat Bits.

Fat Bits was a kind of trance. Hours would go by, and I could keep my consciousness focused at the pixel level. It was a variety of abstraction exercise. My consciousness began to change. The Gutenberg trance begain to change into another one. In some ways, the changes were instantaneous; in other ways, the changes took years. Yes, the screen became a kind of reality, an extension of my mind. I started spending most of the day there. And as I learned to use it, I learned to exercise my cognitive faculties in ways that took advantage of the screen-mind trance. Abstraction requires a certain amount of somnambulism: forget about all the detailed underpinnings, once you've clumped them into an abstraction; continually strive to change your focus to the next level of abstraction, where you can clump abstractions together to create the even higher levels. it's a breathtaking game, but you have to remember you're playing it, or you run the risk of forfeiting part of your humanity.

A computer is a hierarchy of abstractions. At the bottom of the hierarchy is the electrical microcircuitry. As Claude Shannon demonstrated, on-and off switches can be arranged in circuits that emulate the functions of boolean algebra. Those arrangements of switches that can be thought of as "and,""or," and "not" logical gates, constitute the first level of abstraction. The "machine language" of any computer is composed of these abstractions. And machine languages are clumped and processed through compilers and interpreters and other virtual machines to become higher-level languages. And those higher-level languages write the text display and windowing and mousing behaviors that make up the graphical user interface -- the level of abstraction where personal computer users spend our time. Fat Bits zoomed in to an even higher level of abstraction, and today's state of the art image manipulation software, PhotoShop, is a toolkit of graphical abstractions, orders of magnitude more complex than 1984's Macpaint.

The particular entrancement induced by computer-based tools combines sensory entrainment via high-resolution multimedia with abstraction languages that enable human minds to play with symbolic structures we are not able to manipulate by means of our unaugmented brains. This abstraction-entrancement focused on computer screens was correctly pointed out by a contemporary critic of computer technology, Sven Birkerts, in The Gutenberg Elegies. What such critics, and Birkerts in particular, fail to acknowledge is that abstraction entrancement didn't begin with computers (he could have taken a hint from the title of his book). If you want to identify the culprit who shunted the human race into millennia of symbol-intoxication, it was the person or persons unknown who created the alphabetic-phonetic alphabet in the vicinity of Sumeria, around five thousand years ago. More on that later. Socrates and McLuhan both had useful observations in that regard.

4: Jumping Into the Virtual World

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