Everybody likes computers. Everybody hates computers, too. Who knows how many computers, computed upon this message, that you are are reading now? Quite a few, for various reasons. And none of them understand it. They just do what they do.
Computers don’t understand what they do. They don’t know what a letter is, let alone a word. They don’t know where your monitor is, what a web browser is, or even what a picture is. They have no concept of sound, to play music, or hear another voice. All they know is how to measure a voltage of a tiny little thing, and lots of them, very quickly. Really, they don’t even know that. They just do that. And that’s how you’re reading this, or how you speak with another on the phone, or watch a show on tv.
Not long ago, people whose job was adding large tables of numbers were called “computers”. They worked in a sort of sweat-shop of the mind, fraught with error. And error irritated Charles Babbage (and others) who, back in the mid 1800’s, designed a “difference engine”, powered by steam, that could, in theory, add numbers, but never worked. His later design did work, however, after his death, when his son uncovered the designs and built it.
Before he died, however, and further irritated by his own failure, Babbage designed an “analytical engine” that might read instructions from holes punched into cards. The daughter of the poet Lord Byron even wrote a program for this non-real machine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers. As such, Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, is often considered the world’s first computer programmer.
But how can steam and gears translate into the occulted computing machines we use today? If we leave the physical world behind and enter into mathematics, abstracting ourselves away, we’ll find the work of Alan Turing. This is the man who set the groundwork for a mathematically sound representation of computation itself, defining its process and limits. Turing created a machine built of pure mathematics that laid the foundation for computer science. After all, we don’t want some machine, in whatever physical form it takes, to add numbers wrongly under certain conditions.
Turing’s model went much further than any previous attempts in many ways, most notably by proving that a machine could handle any possible mathematical computation, as long as that computation was expressible as an algorithm. Basically this means, if you can write down the rules, a machine can do it. The Turning Machine is, to this day, the most fundamental focus of computer theory.
If this weren’t enough, Alan Turning also is generally attributed with being the force who broke the Nazi’s Enigma Cypher, without which the Second World War might have turned out quite differently. But, being a gay man, and after the code was broken, Alan was convicted of homosexuality and chemically castrated, then soon afterward, took his own life (apparently). Earlier this year, the British Prime Minister apologised for it, citing the different ways people view things over time. That’s for another piece…
But the Turning machine is worth looking at, even for non-computer scientists. You must use your imagination. Imagine a long piece of tape — infinitely long, in fact. This tape is bounded by lines, making squares all along it. In each square there is a symbol, or a “0”. The tape is on rollers that allows the tape to move left and right, bringing a different square underneath a head that can read or write to each square, one at a time. That head is designed to take certain actions based upon the symbol upon the tape underneath it. These actions can include moving the tape to another square, or changing what is on the square, or just reading it. The last, and most difficult to understand, is the “state register”, which basically can store the states of various symbols and actions performed along the tape, in defined ways.
All computers, no matter how modern, can be represented and work perfectly as Turing machines. In fact, if you’re designing new computer hardware, you will want to make certain your design works as a Turing machine first. If it doesn’t, it is far more likely you have designed something wrongly than discovered something a Turing machine cannot do. Actually, that’s a bit of a lie. Quantum computing, which does not yet exist, may not follow Turing’s models, and, in fact, may be hindered by trying to do so. This is a very gray area. We would like our machines to give sensible, meta-world results, even from the chaotic nature of the quantum world. As such, abstract quantum Turing machines are being developed. Although some results look promising, who knows where this will lead. If quantum computing does work, it may represent a spectacular revolution.
Some of you are glazing over. Others are scandalized by my reckless generalizations. It’s all in your head, which is not a computer, organic, quantum, or otherwise. Logic and reason is in the realm of the mind, not the computer. We tend to consider our machines during any period of history, as representations of the human mind. But the human mind is not a steam engine, nor is it a phone switchboard. The human mind is not a computer. Our mind is as much like a computer as it is a steam engine. Computers do not have logic, even in so-called “logic” circuits. They can only measure a thing, and pass a current. Dispassionately, with no real sense of logic.
Our memory is not separate from whatever process gives us awareness. They are intertwined, and are literally sitting above our passions. If we try to separate ourselves from passions, to “think” like a computer, what we will find is that our passions are not so easily quenched, but instead influence our decision making invisibly, because we assume we are acting dispassionately. We can look at raw data and make what we want of it, perfectly logically — perfectly reasonable. We can justify nearly anything.
Here is the letter ‘X’. It is not an ‘X’. Inside your computer, on its Turing tape of memory, we have a sequence of high and low voltages I have put there, all in a row: 0101100. It traveled through many other computers to reach yours, in many different ways. Caught up in the great system, it enters your web browser or email program’s domain. It is passed through rules to a committee that hands it off to another. And this committee hands it away to another wholly distinct domain which acts upon it, turning lights and colors on or off upon a screen, in a shape you alone recognize as an ‘X’.
There are records of it everywhere along the way. Traces. Systems are always being refined, and not only in the interest of efficiency. Systems have transformed our lifestyles, our businesses, our societies, and the world. We all know the word “glitch”. It’s a new word.
Lately we have experienced many glitches. Glitches in our political system, glitches in our economic system, glitches in Capitalism and Democracy itself. Glitches in the methodology of war. Glitches in religions. Glitches in what it means to be a healer, or even just a good person. Glitches in how we relate to our fellow human beings. Who are not just objects.
Glitches always reveal the inner workings, or the underbelly. Glitches cause the magical structure we take as given, and for granted, to become revealed in its gross, complex and patently un-magical and irrational form. And then, what is left? A quick patch to raise the circus wheel back into life? A redesign? Or toss the whole menagerie onto junk heap of history?
One thing is clear. Systems can help people. But for us to become the subject of systems, for us to become the fuel that keeps a system operational where some purpose of its aggrandizement outshines our own humanity, is a failure through short-sightedness, of that same humanity.
It is we who are the creators of worlds. It is we who are the destroyers. It is we who are sharing this brief time, here, together. And with this infinite tape of symbols and actions, what is it we create for each other, in the noble ascendancy of our aspirations? What universal language might we find that does not eventually cost our soul?