Productive reductive computing

Google's first production server

Towards the end of a recent meeting with my supervisors I was asked a question that went something along the lines of: “do you buy the argument that if something is computational, that it is then necessarily reductive?” An excellent question I think. I suggested at the time, and still believe, there are two answers to this question that go together. First, by virtue of what computing ‘is’, as a machine-enabled set of processes that rely by and large on languages based in a formal logic, we must answer ‘yes’. Second, ‘computing’ as an activity and ‘computers’ as devices do not exist in a vacuum they are a part of our lives. I am writing a blog post using my laptop, connected to a network of other computers, run and maintained by people, allowing me to ‘publish’ my thoughts on a web site held on yet another computer, and hopefully some other people are reading this! Therefore, computing is definitely a part of the ‘politics of things‘, as suggested by Latour, with and by which we and others socialise.

My two answers are not mutually exclusive, “either/or”, they go together such that, I argue, we must increasingly see ‘computing’ as a connective capacity. Computing connects people with other people, people with ideas, information with things, etc etc. In this way, I have some sympathy for those, like Adam Greenfield, that suggest that “ubiquitous computing”, or something like it, was somewhat inevitable. However, I think hindsight definitely smoothes out the errors and stumblings along the way. If we think about ubiquitous computing as “the application of computational tools to human activity regardless of the shape and form of those tools”, following Scott Carter (whom I interviewed this summer), I think we can see computing as an ‘affordance’, the capacity to enable possible actions, which is innately connective. Here we might start looking to Gregory Bateson or Deleuze and Guattari to theorise such a connective capacity.

Why do I blog this? It is useful to keep probing concepts central to, and perhaps assumed, in one’s arguments, and I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that the idea of ‘computing’ is not neccesarily fixed.

Image: Google’s first server, held in the Computer History Museum, CA, taken by me.