dimensions of computing

Illustration of space

We think about computers in terms of speed and size. Faster. Cheaper. Smaller. More power. More performance. More processors. More space. More everything.

We expect computers to be small, cheap, and flexible, but not too long ago, they were very different. The ENIAC was the first general purpose computer. It was a huge machine, costing about half a million dollars at the time, weighing almost 30 tons, and needing several people attending to it at all times in order to function.

Today’s computers are so inexpensive and portable that you probably own several without even knowing — in your TV, your watch, your washing machine, or your car.

Computing has changed undeniably over the past 50 years — at least hardware has. The interesting thing is that even after quantum leaps of improvement in hardware, today’s software, apps, and tools have seen very little improvement in comparison — perhaps none at all.

Software has been free riding on the improvement of hardware over the past decades. Our apps got “better”, because the hardware they run on got better. Most of what we see today isn’t new at all. It’s just old, recycled stuff that we think is better because it’s running on better hardware.

Our omnipresent graphical user interfaces have their roots in Doug Engelbart’s groundbreaking research of the mid-’60s. The concepts he invented were further developed at XEROX Parc in the ’70s, and successfully commercialized in the Apple Macintosh in the early ’80s. Forty years later, despite thousand-fold improvements along every technological dimension, the concepts behind today’s interfaces are almost identical to those in the initial Mac.

We use so much energy inventing new technologies that are not really new technologies. They’re just new reflections, new projections of old technologies. The real progress has been in hardware, not software.

No wonder we think that new is always better. And we only think about computers improving over time.

But what if the timeline of computing was not a simple line from past to future, but rather a space with many different dimensions — many of them yet unexplored?

This line of thinking comes from Weiwei Hsu’s The “Space” of Computing. She proposes that our history of computing is not a linear progression, but a space of possible computing futures. And by shifting our focus from gadgets to spaces full of possibilities, we could have a different set of conversations around the future we would like to forge.

Here are her suggestions of what these dimensions could be:

Centralized
Distributed
Fixed
Flexible
Controlling
Collaborating
Momentary
Long-lasting
Peek-into
Be-inside
Consuming
Authoring

What I really find fascinating is thinking about the current approaches while keeping these dimensions in mind.

Computers, the internet, and the ways we work together were originally designed to be completely distributed, and easily shared. More recently, however, Google, Facebook, and Amazon (among others) have emerged as giant monopolies, controlling and parsing our access to information and people. They’re using our data and calling it convenience, but is it really?

Or how we are always staring into a rectangular screen — a black mirror — that captures our attention and pulls us away from each other. We have reduced ourselves to peering eyes and swiftly moving fingers with a singular focus on the digital world. We’re no longer engaging in a full sensory experience.

It doesn’t have to be this way, as Dynamicland — a research group in Oakland, California — demonstrates. They are inventing an entirely new medium, where people work together with real objects in the real world, brought to life by technology built into the room. It’s a space where everyone gets their hands on everything, where you play, trade ideas, and work together with all the skills you possess.

And how we are merely consumers of our apps and websites. These days, only those with a programming background, or considerable resources, have the ability to create digitally without limits. We allow programmers to do the thinking for us. But is this only about convenience, or are we forcing serious limitations on people?

Very likely you have different ideas about this, or other dimensions you’d like to explore, or even completely new dimensions you could discover. And, in a way, this is the point — to provoke a discussion about other possible futures. By looking at which paths are interesting, which ones are important, and which ones we should avoid.

The space of computing is not a linear progression, where everything is already given. We’re free to ask what else is possible, and to co-create those alternative futures — hopefully a better one.


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