A Human Powered Computation Machine
What happens when we see and set the process of computation as non-productive?
The project that I’m presenting today consists of an experiment that attempts to find alternative outcomes of one of the most important discoveries or inventions of the last century: computation.
This project is a computation machine, or computer, that instead of running on semiconductors, runs on humans and ideas. The architecture or the set of rules that allows it to work, exists as a sequence of instructions instead of as a hard-wired and inevitable electronic behavoir.
This computing machine can be programmed as any other. However, it is very slow, it might be unreliable, it is impractical and inefficient. It is open, it is transparent in its workings, and it can exist anywhere where a person is. It is probably not entertaining, and it can be neither sold nor bought. It is therefore expected to behave in complete opposition to the logic that dominates us.
Nowadays, the apparent benefits that we get as a society from the use of electronic computers (PCs, laptops, mobile devices, routers) and their interconnections come at the expense of many issues.
We could talk about the inequality of access, about the black-box nature of the majority of technologies, about the environmental impact of their manufacture, or about the exploitation of the cheap labor forces, as well as about the monopolies, systems of opression, and surveillance that happen on a higher level, and about the consumerism culture and the subsequent disposability of devices.
We can think about many advantages that they have brought to us. However one could argue that these don’t apply to the majority of the world. Or even that these advantages have damaged the majority of the world.
Some people want equality of access so that everyone can get the benefits that we have seen they can bring. However, there’s a question of how much we, that already have access, get the most out of these technologies.
In general we want more computational power, but why? Isn’t it the same pattern of behavior that has brought the main problems in the world? (Wanting more money, wanting more land, wanting more users, wanting more power)
Electronic computers have the advantages of being very fast and being able to handle repetition very efficiently and without complaining. This is completely linked and beneficial to a productivity-based mindset.
Ironically, for us to avoid doing the repetitive tasks that these devices can handle, we need devices built by people without other option than to execute repetitive tasks for a living.
How could we create a computer free of human and environmental abuses? How could we create a computer free of the global market?
It is possible to build a microprocessor out of integrated circuits, but these have to be supplied in some way. The integrated circuits could be replaced by arrays of transistors, but again, because of their nature of semiconductors, they are not readily available and would need to be supplied in some way. And even if it was feasible to build homemade transistors, the appropriate materials would need to be supplied in some way.
How could we get out of this situation?
We should remember that people studied these topics in the abstract realm before being able to implement them in a physical reality. Several models and illustrations have existed. Starting from the concept of Turing Machine and Universal Turing Machine, and eventually getting to the von Neumann architecture that we nowadays use as a basis. There’s even a model called Little Human Computer.
What if we brought these ideas to a physical but not electronic reality? One of the main implications of the theory of computation is that a computer can be any machine or process with a specific stucture, set of rules, and therefore capabilities. This means that we can execute by hand an equivalent procedure even if it’s millions of times slower than what we are used to.
Maybe this will allow for a better understanding of these machines. There’s a tendency of thinking of them (and making people think about them) as something mystical, magical. And as they are electronic devices and electricity IS something that appears mystical and magical, there’s not much of a way out of it.
The construction of this Human Powered Computation Machine implies trying to wonder and marvel about what is there in computation besides efficiency, speed, productivity, convenience, blackboxing, and domination.
It implies trying to construct a machine that truly connects the people that make it “come alive” through following its architecture.
It asks what kind of computer-generated art can come from programming and executing its procedures.
And finally, it asks what does it mean to create a computer in opposition to the current, non-sustainable, global political and economic system.