The computer is something that can enthral us all, with its ability to provide us with the very things we desire. Well, it can as long as those things are visual and audible; the computer cannot manage such things as smell, taste and balance with such ease. There are reasons for this, only this post is about what it’s like to provide such visual and audible signals to us.
So inside our computer is a 32 or now, as common, a 64 bit processor. That is to say, the computer is able to see 32 (or 64) pieces of information at one time, which are called bytes. Everything that passes through the computer needs to be sliced and diced until it becomes a stream of 32 bit inputs. This is qualitatively different from a human’s experience, but this is the point of this post: why does a computer work in such a radically different way than the human brain?
That a computer can process these bytes at inordinate speeds only means that the computer sees lots of 32 bit bytes. Lots of bytes do not make a world; all it means is that the computer sees 32 pieces of information at any given point of time, irrespective of how small a fraction of a second that time actually is. What a computer does not have in its central processing unit is any measure of continuity. Each flash of 32 bits of information are as if new to the computer; there is no past – for all there being an electronic memory – nor is there any future. The entire experience (if one can call it that) of a computer is limited to each passing 32 bit byte.
The massive power of the machine standing in front of you is due to its speed. Everything comes down to how those bytes are arranged, and the computer, the ultimate mechanical slave, does exactly as it is told in processing them in the prescribed manner. It matters not a jot if those bytes represent a coloured pixel, a letter or an input from a remote sensor. Each byte is taken as it is and processed in accordance with the fixed software that is enshrined in the electronic memory bank.
That it does this a thousand million times a second and gives the appearance of great wisdom overlooks the fact that the computer is there to do our will and nothing else. Were the computer to stop for a break, we would call a technician to re-start it again; were the computer to do as it wished, we would be back on the phone to him to get him to fix it for us. Because a computer is not there to do as it wishes – the very core of being an independent, even selfish being.
The computer has only the input of each byte to consider. Whatever that byte means to us is irrelevant to the computer, for the computer has literally no conception that there is anything else in the world than that byte. For that miniscule amount of time, the computer is aware of a stimulus. It then does as it is told and its world moves on. This is hardly the stuff of great romance, epic thrusting science or military derring-do. It is banal and boring in ways that are beyond the human mind to conceive.
I have been working on a child-based “computer system” for the classroom, where the signals are fed into a 4 or 8 bit processor, each receiving “transistor” being a child. In some way, which I have not as yet determined, the child reacts to the stimulus by stamping a foot. This is then taken “electronically” elsewhere and the next line of data is fed into the “machine”. Do this for a couple of minutes and I am sure the children would begin to get a little restless. After all, just seeing a black or white square and stamping their foot if given this or that other stimulus is not work that engages the mind. All the child is asked to do in this exercise is to exert their will; that is to say, any stimulus results in a movement. No thinking required beyond the bare essentials that lie in the medulla, the tiny area of our brains that deals with movement and all things repetitive. Interestingly, it is the “fight or flight” area that is sometimes called the Lizard brain, and of course, fight or flight is nothing less and nothing more than a digital outcome. There’s no time to hang around if you’re a lizard, is there? You’re either bigger or you’ve disappeared. The realm of the will is the realm of muscles: it’s either taut or slack. The computer in this respect is an agent of our will, and all it can do is say “yes” or “no”; what is more, it won’t know what it’s saying because all it has is those 32 pieces of information we call a byte.
In other words, the string of bytes to a computer is utterly incomprehensible and meaningless in the completest sense of the word. It matters not a jot to a computer what that byte means to us; to the computer all it means is “process this and get on with the next”. All those zany patterns of zeroes and ones that we see on a page is invisible to the computer; it sees each one in turn and is either turned on or turned off. That’s how exciting life gets for a computer: total excitement or nothingness. Thirty two times over. Yet for us, it’s a fraction of a nanosecond of a Youtube video that is exciting your imagination with motorcycles jumping over a burning haystack. Those motorcycles are only a series of bytes, just as boring as summing up ten thousand numbers on a spreadsheet or as a googlebot, ticking through yet another website, having already visited thirteen million, two hundred thousand, four hundred and thirty five since the morning.
Interesting it is not.
And there is an eternity of computers ticking away in dark cellars, all busily calculating this, transferring that or just sitting in an interminable idle routine waiting for someone to start their working day.
Because the point of this post is to show that we find things easier to read when there are gaps, for example, the gaps between the paragraphs andindeedbetweenthewordsthemselves. That really slows down our ability to read swiftly; imagine trying to process this in the way a computer must: where all those letters are reduced to an all but meaningless porridge of zeroes and ones! We’d have immense problems trying to remember which zero or one we’d worked on last… we’d leave something there, make a mark with a pencil or leave a gap… after all, a computer can’t see spaces, in computer terms, a space is %20… it has to be told that there is a gap, and told that this is a gap because the computer can’t handle spaces. To a computer, a space has to be defined as being something, a paradox that lies at the heart of computer intelligence. Intelligence is that which can perceive the lack of something as well as its presence, and a computer cannot do that. If it isn’t there, there’s no stimulus, so nothing happens; the computer has no imagination to balance its ability to work through a billion bytes of information per second.
The great thing about the computer is its sheer speed – and it achieves this because it doesn’t have to think. True thinking is consideration, evaluation and recognition – all the computer does is to skim-read the novel and whilst missing the point of the story because it wasn’t absorbed in reading it, misses the spaces and punctuation too because they are just more bytes. The computer taps its transistor feet like so many schoolchildren and taps them very quickly. No thinking required.