Invisible Machines

The Personal Computer as an object disappears

An essay by Christoph Rauscher
University / FH Potsdam, European Media Studies / Design
Reading time: 16 Minutes

Read the German version here

The first personal computers were sold in the early 1980s. Their neutral exterior—grey, square boxes—were supposed to change our households as a flexible tool. But how was it possible that these emotion-less designed machines became the symbol for the information age? And how did they almost completely lose their shell through the decases?

Chapter Number 1

Computers everywhere

In 2016, the developer Brian Kane published a video on Facebook in which he talks to a singing fish made out of rubber—the Big Mouth Billy Bass. He asks it about the weather. The fish moves its mouth, flaps its spine, and answers through the voice of Alexa—Amazon Echo’s speech assistant. Kane installed the Amazon Echo Dot inside the body of the fish and through that, enhanced it with Alexa’s (more or less) artificial intelligence.

The Billy Bass’s appearance is an odd one by default. Normally, its motion detector would react by warbling songs from Bobby McFerrin (“Don’t Worry, Be Happy”) or Al Green (“Take Me To The River”)—but through Kane’s modification, the living room decor classic has been elevated to a contemporary technological gadget. The cyborg-like rubber fish shows perfectly that the so-called Internet of Things1 can be very, very bizarre. At the same time, the device reflects a broad technological complexity, and a dream that has been around since the beginning of Personal Computers—namely: how do we make such technology invisible?

“The future lies in designing and selling computers that people don’t realize are computers at all”2—in 1983, author and developer Adam Osborne envisions a future where computers are completely unrecognizable. 34 years later, their implementation in our everyday lives and in our society is so strong that we cannot imagine living without them—it sometimes does seem that they are, in fact, invisible.

The PC’s transformation from foreign object into a work- and entertainment tool that changed every aspect of our lives—that’s what this text is going to be about. I’ll explore the topic from a historical and phenomenological point of view, and I’ll take a look at what the “invisible machine” means for today’s society. This paper examines the hypothesis that the Internet of Things—an idea that has been around since the middle of the 20th century—was only able to flourish through the establishment of personal computers in our home.

Digitization of everyday life; today

Let’s travel back to the last third of the 20th century—the time when the personal computer was really starting to become relevant for a broader audience. The Spanish sociologist Manuel Castell is right with his observation when he commented that the Gutenberg Galaxy is in a crisis. The industrial age is being ousted by the information age3. With the entry of the personal computer, our ways of communication, our lifestyle and our understanding of work is changing dramatically. That’s one of the reasons why, in 1982, TIME magazine didn’t elect a “Person of the Year”, but simply named the year the “Year of the Computer”4. It wasn’t a certain person, but the introduction of the machines that changed our culture, society and the world.

Cover of the 1983 TIME Magazine with Otto Friedrich’s article

The Year of the Machine: Computers back in the days

At the beginning of the 1980s, the first consumer-friendly machines entered the market. Apple’s Lisa and the following Macintosh, from 1984, had a graphical user interface which utilized metaphors of the analog office environment and users didn’t need to learn programming languages. But even then, the actual vision of the computer’s integration into our lives was a different one—at best, they wouldn’t be recognizable as machines at all5. In the 1990s, this idea became more tangible at Xerox PARC in Palo Alto. Mark Weiser wrote his vision of the Computer for the 21st Century: small devices (“tabs, pads and boards”) were supposed to replace our everyday tools and they would be able to save and share information among themselves6.

Even back in the days, scientists and engineers were dreaming about invisible technology. Computers were never supposed to be those chunky, heavy machines, but rather be weaved invisibly into our environment. When I write about invisibility or disappearance in this essay, I am not talking about the actual absence of technology, but rather about its integration into everyday objects and the periphery7. I want to understand how those big, grey devices were integrated into our culture, behavior and perception. Let’s start with a simple question: What should personal computers be useful for in the first place?

Chapter Number 2.1

The ever-changing appearance of computers

Mystic Machines pt. I: Tasks of the Personal Computer

Even though the media celebrated the early 1980s as the breakthrough of the personal computer, most households were slightly overwhelmed with the devices—people didn’t really know what to use the machines for. In his article The Computer Moves In, Otto Friedrich explains that in the beginning, more than half of all sold PCs were bought for playing video games. Those provided a low-key introduction to the device’s usage. It was especially children who recognized a new way of interaction and a new tool for communication and education in video games8.

Adults were, besides being overwhelmed, also skeptical—at least in the beginning. The missing knowledge about the new technology, as well as the general difficulty to find tasks for the device, led people—especially parents—to to react warily and with caution towards the new mechanical housemates. For her research paper from the 1990s, Laurence Habib asked a variety of families how they perceived the PC’s integration in their own homes. About one couple, she writes:

They both consider computer technology as a “time-liberator” but fear its noxious influence when used as part of the “corporate machine”, as indicated in one of Duncan’s pessimistic comments: “We’re standing around watching the devil play and we’re not doing anything”.8

It was particularly the initial experiences that adults had had with computers in their work environments, that led to this rejection and general avoidance. At work the machines were perceived as troublemakers, and people were eager to keep this negative aura away from the intimacy of their homes and structured family routines10.

But it didn’t take long until computers became more and more important in education and at work. As an integral part of the information age, the PC changed the basic structure of society, and in their homes, people learned to integrate technology into their habits and rituals11. The computer lodged itself between children’s toys, desk utilities and books. Its presence even opened up new business areas—the “auxiliary industries”12 sold (more or less) ergonomic work stations, furniture, PC cleansers, computer bags and accessories. In the late 1970s, office jobs became the standard and furniture manufacturers started creating chairs for people who spend a lot of time sitting in front of a desk and computer.

Cropped image of the advertisement for computer tables
Fig. 3: Crop from a print advert for computer tables from HYTEC Systems, 1984

Computers as a design- and status symbol

Slowly but steadily, computers were seeping into apartments and private environments, just like older media such as books and TVs did. Even today, a book case implies literacy and prosperity, and newer inventions like e-readers are not able to fully replace the traditional medium. In the late 1980s, it was palpable that the computer might have the same power to become an equally valuable status symbol. Its purchase was legitimized on a variety of levels: it was a necessity, it was an investment in the children’s education, it was a tool for personal growth, a piece of memory—and, even more, an item to impress your friends13.

Print advertisement of the Apple IIc placed in a children’s room, titled: “Why every kid should have an Apple after school.”
Fig. 4: The computer in the children’s room. Print advert for the Apple IIc, 1984
Chapter Number 2.2

The new role of work within people’s lives

One aspect of life changed particularly dramatically when the personal computer was introduced: the meaning and role of work. As a tool, the machine was already established at the workplace (meaning the office)—which was one of the main reasons why it was perceived as invasive in the home. The industrial revolution, which has been changing the economy and work environments, “threatened” to also transform the intimate home surroundings14.

Image of the Apple Lisa computer
Fig. 5: Apple Lisa, 1983

However, the fact that the personal computer, in its appearance, has always been made for work is proven by early models such as Apple’s Lisa. It was designed particularly for office work, done at home15. The graphical user interface took metaphors from the office environment that we still know today: “desktop”, “calendar”, “folder”, “mailbox”, “recycle bin”.  Within the computer interface, these symbols move into a personal space that wasn’t originally intended as a work space: the living room, children’s rooms, the kitchen. It provokes a constant aura of work.

In 1980, even before Apple and other software developers equipped their machines with office-inspired interfaces, the author Alvin Toffler senses the computer’s potential to transform our work environment. With the growing number of jobs that handled information instead of things16, the classical desk setup was transformed and simplified17. Toffler imagined a big number of people working from home instead of offices—which fueled dreams of freedom and independence. From today’s perspective, this obviously didn’t happen—we’re still working in offices or similar work spaces—but our stance towards work has changed. Technology has made us more flexible and mobile. The presence of the personal computer in our homes and private spaces changed our relationship to work in general, it raised expectations and established new, unconventional ways of problem solving in our everyday lives18.

The PC as a tool for self-empowerment

It seems that finally, people had gotten used the the machines in their homes, just like they managed to get used to other devices like TVs or radios. But—in contrast to the media established until then—computers offered a new way of interaction19; one that the users had to deduce themselves. This necessity of creativity and flexibility made us interact differently with media—an observation that had been written down by the computer scientists Alan Kay, Adele Goldberg and Larry Tesler. In their paper How To Advance From Hobby Computing To Personal Computing, they describe the computer primarily, as a tool that enables humans to finding better solutions for existing problems. From this form of self-empowerment through technology, they see a chance for deeper self-reflection for individuals. The acknowledgement of a person’s own skills and their adaption to the new tool was expected to be the biggest outcome of the personal computer’s success20.

Computers as projectors of possibilities

The PC as a tool for self-empowerment offers a new perspective on its role within people’s lives. From today’s perspective—as a simple calculating machine—the computer was used to take on repetitive tasks and free humans from time-consuming, annoying work. As a creative tool, it changes the meaning of work altogether. Placed within the living room, the computers takes on the role of a mediating tool between humans and their abilities. As a technical artifact, it begins to vanish into the background. Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad software from 1963 is an early example of technology’s mediating role: its object-oriented programming and the usage with a stylus-like pen, built the base for visual user interfaces. These interfaces provided their users with almost tangible information about the computer’s possibilities. Jan Distelmeyer analyses, that in this way, computers always also expressed their own views of the user:

To prove their functionality as universal machines, computers are geared to show the possibilities about commanding them. That’s why computers not only express “themselves”, but also “their” vision of the user while handling the machine. Insofar, the interface’s design operates in a medial way by conveying its claims. They are constantly modeling.21

People begin to mirror themselves in the machines. Their expectation towards technology is being reflected by the devices; interfaces are pointing the users to their possibilities, which they then can use as self-empowerment and as a space of action. Is it possible that the initial fear about manipulation by computers was not that unjustified, after all?

Transforming work; transforming the machines

Let’s apply the insight on mirrored expectations and possibilities onto the nature of work and its changing role within our society. Licklider and Clark describe a clear progression in their paper On-Line Man-Computer Communication: The first machines, developed solely for the military, were dominating the user’s interaction patterns through their appearance22. They provided little tolerance to mistakes and therefore set the tone to which their operators had to comply. Time after time though, people were in need of a more flexible, more connected interactive system that could arbitrate between humans and machines. “Man and computer complement each other”, as Licklider and Clark wrote, which led to the vision of deeply intertwined team structures between people and technology. The work relationship between human and machine should be just as strong as it already was in human-only research- and engineering teams23.

Eventually, this newly established acceptance to include machines as adequate team members within work processes, allowed the personal computer to take on a new role in people’s lives. Nested within the home, their visual appearance was able to fade into the background. It changed shape; from technical artifact to interior object to invisible tool. The change of our work environment and our acceptance of the machine as a “team member” allowed it to disappear.

Chapter Number 2.3

The computer’s visibility fades

Periphery and Embodied Virtuality

As previously stated: The idea of invisible computers isn’t a new one. One of the most cited papers on this topic was written by Mark Weiser, The Computer for the 21st century. He compared the new-found technical possibilities with the omnipresence of written information, like text in magazines, on street signs or on product packaging. This type of text, he writes, was read subconsciously24—and that’s the kind of ubiquity he wished for our world through computerization. The media existed within the periphery, and consumers would be able to access it on demand. If they didn’t need the information, it would disappear again—without any operational effort.

At the Xerox PARC computer laboratories, whose technical leader in 1996 was Weiser, researchers worked on freeing computers from their shells. They called this “embodied virtuality”, and their goal was to design machines against information overflow. Established technology such as light switches and ovens already helped “activating the world”25—and in the future, this technology should be refined and connected. The idea of ubiquitous computing was born.

And even if Weiser refers to computerized household technology such as electrical stoves, switches and thermostats, the prototypes developed at Xerox PARC (“tabs, pads und boards”) focussed on the digitization of office tools. Post-It notes, paper and whiteboards were supposed to be replaced by digital equivalents, and every employee should be granted with easy access to those tools, to make them as ordinary as possible.

Bild von Prototypes der Tabs, Pads und Boards im Büroumfeld
Fig. 6: Tabs, pads and boards. Image: Adaptive Path

At this point, personal computers were already established at home, and households weren’t too far away from getting access to the world wide web. Even though Weiser’s idea of a fully ubiquitous computer environment hadn’t prevailed yet, it moved one step closer to reality with Toffler’s vision of the mobile workplace. According to Toffler, office spaces vanished, and the disappearing border between work and leisure would lead to digital work tools being established in ordinary households.

Personals computers became smaller and smaller, and by now, 2017, Weiser’s assumption became reality: “Indeed, it may be impossible to find all the computers in a room.”26 They are possibly hidden in a singing rubber fish, hanging on the wall, and taking on tasks like maintaining calendars, playing music, calling cabs and taking dictations. Computers, and therefore work as well, became a lifestyle that doesn’t occupy us for eight or nine working hours, but—hidden in invisible technology—accompanies us around-the-clock.

Mystic Machines pt. II: Manipulating time

Households filled with technology herald the start of a new sense of time. While the “Second Wave” accelerated our machines, the “Third Wave”—meaning the information age—spurs the rhythms of our everyday life and community. This way, it frees us from the machine as a restrictive artifact27. The technical ubiquity melts our sense of time and forms a new construction: the medium becomes the environment, and therefore is everywhere.

Over decades now computers in the home have proven to be practical, not only for office tasks, but with administration and productivity also playing a role in housekeeping, the computer can support us with that too. That way it was possible to reduce the office metaphors in computer interfaces, and make the computer usage more abstract. The PC, as an enabling machine, showed us new ways to be productive and creative—it enhanced our possibilities and space of action through its change of the interface. While 30 years ago, people needed to know how to write a programming language, it is now enough to talk to your device. Speech recognition, algorithms and machine learning connect the machine’s abilities to our mind. The fact that there is still a machine involved oftentimes goes unnoticed.

Chapter Number 3

The computer as a mediator

The Internet of Things

The idea of invisible machines—ubiquitous computers—did eventually become a reality. More or less. The transformation of work and homes (and the computerization of the same) taught us to get used to technology. However, since the beginning of this computerization, it has been criticized with, for example, Otto Friedrich stating in the early 1980s that, a lot of those “smart” products are not intelligent at all.  An expensive software that suggests ice cream as a starter for your pizza order simply wasn’t worth its money28.

Even today the development of so-called smart technology comprises a paradox. Regular domestic appliances like juicers are being over-engineered and equipped with technology that, instead of simplifying our lives, incapacitates us. This emphasis, solely on marketing and profit focussed computerization, is doomed to fail. As an example, on September 1st 2017, the startup Juicero Inc. had to tell its customers through a press release that their machine’s production would be stopped immediately.

Bild der Juicero Saftpresse
Fig. 7: Juicero, 2016. Image: Business Wire

The company used to sell a “smart” juicer, controllable via an app, that juices device-specific juice packets. The juicer was sold for 399 US dollars. After Bloomberg published a video in which they demonstrate that the juice packs could simply be squeezed by hand (neither the device nor the app were necessary), the company—critically acclaimed by top-class investors—went downhill. Until its disappearance, it simply stayed a highly speculative machine29.

The absurdity of machines like this, formulates the counter-thesis to invisible machines—the futile computerization and interconnection of objects make computers actually more visible30. The fact that a smartphone needs a working internet connection to activate a juicer exposes this newly weaved technological foundation.

Technological Materiality

That, of course, was not what Weiser had thought of. His vision of ubiquitous computing did not focus on economic or marketing advantages, rather on the effects technology has on our society. A more detailed description on how technology was supposed to weave into our lives and behavior, and the design challenges those requirements introduced, was written by Weiser together with John Seely Brown, in their paper Designing Calm Technology31. Challenging the computer’s invisibility and integration into our perception was supposed to help us humans to rethink our existence32.

However, the critique on the “invisibility’s omnipresence” contains another, less pictorial property; named “technological materiality”33. Data and algorithms—the actual essence of the internet of things—are a much less noticed part of the greater whole.

PCs as human-world-mediators

In this, the computer and its interface only take on the mediating role. Through its presence in our own home; in furniture, tools and everyday objects, we have grown accustomed to it as a mediator. It has become an ally to us. May it be that Kane’s talking fish, which I had dismissed as nonsense in this essay’s beginning, is less silly than I assumed? In its position as a silent observer, installed on the wall of hobby rooms and workshops, it empowers itself of the periphery. The technical enhancement, through the artificial intelligence Alexa, makes the object an intermediary between humans and the world, both of which are connected by the personal computer through a tightly interwoven network.

All this information—the technological materiality—remains hidden from us, but will continue to take a leading part with the advancement of artificial intelligence and the automation processes of the future.

Literature header image
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