The story of the computer

A rambling consideration of what might be told

This isn’t much of a story this week, rather a teaser about a story that might exist, were someone to tell it. I haven’t much been able to tap into the fount of creativity that fiction requires lately, and I’m afraid that that means that F U TU R E SIG H T, rather than go dark, will instead wander through the desert for a bit. The original storyline still exists, I’ve got outlines to prove it, but it’s going to be a while coming, if at all. All things considered, this seems like a small sacrifice. So, instead, I ask you to consider: the story of the computer.

There’s something kind of incredible about the story of the computer. If I were to sit down and start telling it to you, I’m not sure how long I’d have to talk for, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it took a few weeks, all told, just to get it out.

That’s not even counting the cul de sacs of minutiae that encompass the entire body of “modern computing”. And it probably leaves out most of the history, too. No, it would take weeks just to tell you the story of the computer, of the software side of it, non-historical but practical, object level, currently practiced.

I’m not saying that the history wouldn’t slip in, every once in a while, but it’d take many more weeks after that to lay it all out for you, exactly.

We think of computing as a new thing, but the hours of lives that have gone into developing the nooks and crannies and connectedness of it is, in story hours, an ancien regime. Every once in a while someone comes along and attempts to build a new order atop the old, or break out in new directions, but the weight of convention, of pure, raw infrastructure, is such that those efforts never end up more than eddies in the story-stream. By-gone eras that are forgotten, written out of the story of the computer of today, unpracticed religions. Dead code.

Computers don’t have lives, they have uses. The bodies, the carapaces, of the machine itself is a specialized, expensive, triumph of engineering. The bits and bobs that animate it, that give it a digital purpose over and above a fancy paperweight, that’s all replication. We reproduce the computer’s heart through replication, deterministic arrival at being.

The bits you copy and carry with you are the ones that survive. No one can put a price on the Linux code repository, the blessed master branch from which all copies are downstream of. When you think about it, it’s kind of funny that the actual software everyone runs, what actually lives and breathes, is all, always downstream of master. Master itself being no more than a concrete, observable figment of our imagination. It exists truly nowhere.

If code lives in memory but is not executed, does it even really exist?

So much code is ghostly. Never run. Written and then lain aside, a testament to the power of human’s capacity to consider the possibilities. Some realities, imaginable, never truly come to pass.

We don’t talk about that much because there isn’t much truly to say about imagined realities.

We live in the present, no exceptions. So it goes.

There is something kind of incredible about the story of the computer. I could tell it to you, but it’d take me years of effort to get it down, all lined up, nice and neat and beautiful for the hearing, comprehensible, linear, like we, humans, and, they, computers too, like to hear it. 

Instead I’ll tell you to read Petzgold’s Code and Kernigan + Pike’s Unix Programming Environment, just to get a start to the story, to see the shape and taste of the direction a story like the computer’s might go. A preview, if you will. The first sally forth into the shape of story that hides there, behind the screen.

Image via by Niyi Okeowo