The Joy Of Computing
What's really interesting about computers is how much they are capable of.
On the surface, a computer looks like a simple device; the computer is
fundamentally a screen and a keyboard, plus the actual computer case which
the user doesn't usually interact with very much. But the power of the
computer comes in how much you can do with that screen and that keyboard.
The power of the screen is the fact that it can show virtually anything that
can be viewed with the human eye. Unlike drawings, which communicate a static
set of ideas, the screen can morph in a fraction of a second to display or
convey almost any thought. Consider how many books have been written, how
many books are printed, and how many books get read. Books are a big deal in
human society. Yet a screen can display any text you wish. This is the power
of television: The screen.
But a computer goes beyond the screenish power of television and adds much
more. A computer allows you to interact.
With a keyboard, you can type anything. Every letter of the English language
is there (and mechanisms exist to enter non-English characters as well),
meaning any thought you wish to convey can be easily placed into the machine.
But not only can a computer store and display information; it can process it.
This is the key to the seemingly limitless capabilities of a computer. The
processor of a computer can process and control, something no other device
could do before computers, except perhaps in a very limited context.
With a few amazingly simple concepts--the processor, the screen, and the
input device--has been created quite possibly the most revolutionary device
humanity has ever known. The scope of things you can do with a computer are
beyond the extent of the human imagination.
One of the simplest things you can do with a computer is control the color of
one pixel on the screen. Yet the act of doing so brings a thrill not unlike
plucking the string of a musical instrument. When I was learning how to make
graphics on a computer, I cannot describe the astonishment I felt when I
first entered a byte into my video memory. Having poked the value for a red
pixel into an appropriate memory location, a dot on my screen turned red. It
was a moment perhaps comparable to Archimedes' epiphany while taking a bath.
But Archimedes only discovered how to determine the volume of an object; a
significant discover to be sure, but his "Eureka!" seemed to pale in
comparison to mine: Like a child shrieking that he has just seen Santa Claus,
"I MADE A RED PIXEL!!!"
This same sort of epiphany was repeated when I learned how to play a note on
a computer's speaker, and repeated yet again, years later, when sound cards
came into existence and I learned how to play much more sophisticated notes
on those wonders of FM synthesis.
The television appeals to the two most important human senses: Sight and
hearing. This accounts for much of its potency. Yet a computer can not only
replicate this functionality (as most modern computers have screens and
speakers of their own), it also extends it far beyond the television.
With the proper hardware, a computer could be programmed to appeal to *all*
of the human senses. Already many devices exist to provide sensory feedback
to computer users, thereby involving the sense of touch. It is also certainly
possible to devise a device to mix chemicals together and dispense them
through output interfaces to affect the senses of smell and taste. The use of
such senses within computing has been rather limited, partly because the
senses of smell and taste usually form a lesser part of the human experience,
but there is no reason why they could not be involved as well.
Yet sensory experience is not the greatest aspect of computing. The best part
of computing is that it involves the user in a way that most forms of media
The interactivity of the computer is what makes it so incredibly appealing.
By pressing one button, you can make anything happen. The computer can be
programmed to display any image, play any sound, or perform any other
computery act in response to a keypress. There's nothing quite like playing
your first computer game and watching your character move in response to your
keypresses. "I PUSHED THE LEFT ARROW AND THE LITTLE PERSON MOVED TOWARD THE
Beat THAT, other forms of media.
The simple capabilities of input, processing, and output would already make
the computer the most revolutionary man-made device ever. But people have
found many ways to extend the capabilities of the computer in directions that
did not originally seem obvious or possible. Consider, for example, the
marvel of "artificial intelligence". Much research has been put into neural
networks, which model the thought patterns of the human brain. Yet they can
be implemented using a common, simple home computer to make a machine that
processes information in remarkably human-like ways. The potential of future
artificial intelligence is beyond the human imagination, but even the
capabilities of present-day artificial intelligence are unique: You can sit
down and type "I don't think that it is possible, using current ideology, to
conceive of a machine cooler than the computer," and have a synthesized voice
speak a response: "Why don't you think that it is possible, using current
ideology, to conceive of a machine cooler than the computer?" THAT IS SO
AWESOME!!!!! If this experience can be duplicated with any device other than
a computer, I'd sure like to know about it.
Today, I am saddened by the extent to which people have lost sight of what
computers can do. If you go into a home electronics store today, computers
share shelf space next to audio systems, televisions, and telephones,
especially cellular telephones. Why do people limit themselves to the
impotent world of passive audio and video, when a computer can replace
televisions and stereos due to its video and audio processing capabilities,
while simultaneously doing so much more? The cell phone phenomenon also
baffles me: People everywhere speak on cell phones, yet the cell phone does
nothing except convey the human voice. What's the big deal? Sure, it can be
entertaining for a few minutes to speak into a phone or listen to one and
think "Hey, I'm speaking through electronics to someone who's not locally
here!" and get a mild kick out of the experience, but like a children's toy
which seems cool but really only does one thing, the novelty wears off
quickly, and afterwards the cell phone can't do much else. Perhaps this
accounts for the decline of the modern electronics industry. Clearly, nobody
really cares about nonsensical devices like televisions, stereos, or cell
phones; people really want cool, awesome things like MOSFETs. So-called "home
electronics" retailers would do well to eliminate their current stock and
replace it with a broad array of practical technologies like FPGAs.
Even the computer itself has been reduced in modern society to be mainly a
communication device. E-mail is the dominant purpose for which computers are
used. While e-mail is a very useful and important tool in modern society, it
is only one of many things that computers are capable of. The Internet did
much to drive adoption of household computers, yet people seem to have
forgotten that home computers existed for decades before the Internet boom,
and people in those days often didn't even have modems; there's so much you
can do with a computer without ever going out onto a network. Networks
certainly expand the range of possibilities for what a computer can do, but
even an unconnected computer is a machine with limitless potential.
I hope that through this article, I have communicated how much can be done
with a computer, and how pleasurable it can be to do those things with a
computer. I hope that people will recognize just how versatile the computer
really is, and appreciate the possible ways it can augment human life. Thanks
for reading this, and I hope that in your life, you find that computers also
allow you to express your imagination in ways you'd never expected.