Computers as Appliances

Computers are different today. Nothing has driven this more home to me than observing my children’s encounter with them.

When I first encountered computers they were much slower than today. The hardware was slow and the internet was even slower. To get online and browse the web demanded time and focus. Each click was a commitment because if it was interesting it would inevitably come with slowly loading images or endlessly buffering video. This heaviness of experience shaped the things people built and the things I decided to do on computers. Learning Photoshop or HTML was at least as interesting to me as trying to find something to entertain me. The computers of the 90s and early 2000s were general purpose like the ones we have today, but were good at much less. So, for many of us who were interested in them, computers were a tool to be mastered and tinkered with more than a source of passive entertainment (we had Nintendo 64, PlayStation, and DVD players for that).

Today is different. Computing power beyond my wildest teenage dreams waits in our most personal computers, the phones in our pockets. Internet bandwidth is plentiful. These conditions have shaped what people make for computers and turned them into passive entertainment delivery systems. The feeds, streaming services, and vending machine sociality are built like casino slot machines, to capture attention and never let go. In order to use a computer primarily as a tool, for doing something your best self knows it would like to do, requires tremendous self discipline. These horses that we raised to carry us places have grown unruly.

Thus, my children’s encounter with computers has been very different than mine. A constant stream of consumerist child influencers on YouTube, endless feeds of inane behavior and foolishness, and a blind-leading-the-blind ideological training ground for the grown-ups’ culture wars. The closest analog to the creative explosion I experienced as a teenager is what I have seen in Roblox, where young people build their own worlds and gain fake status within a walled garden’s pyramid scheme.

So, I catch myself dreaming of a different future. Instead of all-purpose computers, I have a design and code workstation with hard boundaries that don’t allow the non-sense in, more typewriter with a GUI than an etch-a-sketch controlled by others. Then I have my entertainment computer, styled like a carnival game, so I can’t lie to myself about what it really is. Each in their own corner. I think of a child entering that room. They will certainly be drawn to the carnival ride, but the workstation will attract them in a different way, the way a woodshed or tool bench draws you in. It will have mystique, and its rewards will be better because they will be earned.

Computers Focus