My husband and I were discussing today how phrases like “the Computer Age” and its variants have a kind of antiquated, outmoded feel to them. To me they conjure up visions of the past: room-sized computers with far less processing power than the average mobile phone, TRON-like mainframes and other such relics of the past. It was an age where anything seemed possible, artificial intelligence appeared to be right around the corner and the world’s problems would be solved by the new technologies (kind of like in the Victorian era, there was the sense that scientific inquiry would solve those same problems). It was hopeful, and every time the room-sized computer performed a complex calculation, it would be the subject of great wonder and accolades.
But we’re past that stage, in a post-computer age, if you will. We know damn well that computers solve some problems but likely won’t solve many because we do not know how to formulate the right questions, or create the algorithms, in a way that will allow a computer to spit out the right answer. In order to have even the most advanced computer solve any of our modern day problems, we have to understand what facet of the problem is… well… problematic, and how that integrates with other things, and interacts with the mind-bogglingly complex system that is the modern world. And, either that kind of formulation is beyond us, or there still isn’t enough computing power in the world to spit out a useful answer–or both.
And in the mean time, while we do wonder at the ingenuity of our laptops, tablets and smartphones–all the wondrous and infernal devices of our society–it is different from the past, when the computer was the focus. Now, the devices we love the most are the ones that are the most intuitive. These are the devices that get out of our way insofar as possible and let us do whatever it is we want to do: video game controllers that sense our natural movements, touch screens, accelerometers, lightness and portability. These are devices that might look pleasing but that ultimately allow us to watch the show, play the game, read the book, get the information, write the email or interact with friends on social network sites while presenting the most intuitive, barrier-free interfaces.
The post computer age in developed countries is about the ubiquity of computers and related devices in helping us do what we’ve always done: entertaining ourselves with diversions; working; relaxing; being social; and being anti-social. These devices allow us to extend ourselves and to reach out to the wider world, and to other individuals in new ways that have created alternatives to physical spaces and connections. We have new, integral, public and private spaces, which have been created by technology and which can, in turn, only be accessed via technology–spaces in which to interact, be ourselves and craft our personae. Welcome my friends, to the age of the cyborg.