Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Inside the Personal Computer

The inside of a computer looks a bit like a city, its memory banks and I/O devices rising like buildings over the avenues of soldered circuits. But then so do modern cities resembles motherboards, especially at night, when the cars sparkle like point-to-point signal carriers travelling along the grid. It is a well-worn visual metaphor in films and advertising, suggesting that the nerve centres of business and finance have come to resemble the information infrastructure that sustains them. Besides, isn’t the city at the sharp edge of the late capitalist era above all a generator of symbols?

And yet this technology with which we are so intimate, and that more than any other since the invention of writing has extended us, remains mostly opaque to us. Why would anyone bother to learn what digital machines look like on the inside? What difference would it make, when the uses we make of them are so incommensurate with this trivial knowledge?

I like pop-up books, and early pop-up books about the inner workings of computers have become obsolete in an interesting way. They are the last thing we would think to use to demonstrate such knowledge nowadays. They are so prone to jamming or coming apart. They have none of the grace and smoothness that our devices aspire to.

The centre piece of Sharon Gallagher’s Inside the Personal Computer – An illustrated Introduction in 3 Dimensions (1984) is the machine itself, complete with keyboard and floppy disk drive.

If you push the disk inside its unit and lower the flap, a Roman blind-like mechanism changes the message on the screen from INSERT DISK AND CLOSE DOWN to HELLO: THIS BOOK EXPLAINS WHAT I AM AND HOW I WORK. BY THE END YOU’LL KNOW ME INSIDE OUT.

It’s a neat trick. But the book is at its best when it gets into the basics of how transistors work, or uses wheels to explain how to translate a number into binary code, or a typed character first into ASCII, then into its binary equivalent.

Or simply what happens when you type “M”.

There is the mechanical action that alienates us from the digital word. Writing technologized language but still allowed us to write in our own hand, whereas there is simply no way of typing gracefully. Any M is like any other M, and even if we choose a fancy font the translation from the essential M (ASCII code 77) to the fancy M happens inside the computer and in code. This is not a ‘bad thing’. It’s just the state of the tools of our culture, which require a different kind of practice.

The other thing that this book makes clear is that the personal computer hasn’t changed very much at all since 1984. Its component parts are largely unchanged: a motherboard, a central processing unit, RAM and ROM, I/O ports. Floppy disks have become USB sticks, while hard drives – which boasted at the time ‘between 5 and 50 megabytes of information – the equivalent of between 3,000 and 30,000 typewritten pages' – have fewer moving parts. But their function is the same as in the early models. Ditto the monitors, which have become flatter, and in colour. Even the mouse already existed, although back then its name still commanded inverted commas. Today’s computers, then, are a great deal more powerful, but otherwise fairly similar to what they were like three and a half decades ago. What makes them unrecognisable is that they’re all connected. And for that – for the internet – it makes even less sense to ‘take a look inside’. Inside what? Does the internet reside in the telephone exchange, or at the headquarters of ICANN, or where else?

The inside of a computer looks a bit like a city, but it’s an alien city. None of its buildings have doors or windows. The roads are made not of stone or asphalt but of plastic and metal.

The pictures above, by the way, show the guts of mine, which I recently upgraded. It’s what I used to write this blog and everything else from 2010 to June of this year, but I feel no attachment to it – it would be silly to.

There are guides on the web to help you mine your old computer for gold using household chemicals. They come with bold type warnings about how toxic the process is. But in fact computers are both hazardous to manufacture and to dismantle. Waste materials from all the PCs and assorted electronic devices discarded since 1984 have created massively polluted districts and cities in the global south. Places like the Agbogbloshie district of Accra, Ghana, and countless others. Vast dumping sites that are mined for scraps of precious metals as much as for the personal information left onto the hard drives, while leeching chemicals into the local water supply.

This would be a more meaningful inside in which to peer if we want to understand how computers work, and their effect on the world’s societies. One effect of globalisation has been to displace human labour. Not eliminate it, far from it, but rather create the illusion in the most advanced nations that manufacturing jobs have disappeared, and meaningful work consists in either farming the land or providing services. Automation has claimed many of those jobs, of course, but other have simply shifted away from the centres where most of the consumption takes place. This is another way in which the computer has become a mysterious machine: because no-one you know makes them.

Inside the Personal Computer was written 33 years ago in an effort to demystify an object that would soon become a feature in every household, and change everyone’s life. On the last page, it is no longer the book that ‘speaks’ to the reader, like in the first pop up, but the computer itself. Its message is perfectly friendly but in hindsight more than a little eerie.