Inverted computer culture

A thought experiment

Imagine a world where computers are inherently old. Whatever you do with them is automatically seen as practice of an ancient and unchanging tradition. Even though new discoveries do happen, they cannot dispel the aura of oldness.

Most computers are located in ancient buildings, "computer temples", situated in tranquil natural environments. They stand unchanged over centuries, like mountains, no matter what happens in the world around them.

The idea of using computers in urban everyday life or for commercial purposes is something that doesn't even occur to people's minds – that would be just as absurd and wild as the idea of cleaning one's home with a 100-year-old tortoise.

Mundane mechanical technology has limited lifespans, a couple of decades at most. Solid-state computer components, on the other hand, have no mechanical decay, so they are practically eternal. An average microchip is hundreds of years old and has thus seen many different uses in many different eras. It is difficult to even look at a computer without admiring the long history it has gathered within itself. Computers thus feel more rooted to the world than any other human creation – despite the fact that they have no practical use in the society.

Computing is something stereotypically practiced by old women. Someone who is interested in computers is probably also interested in crocheting. Men and youngsters who visit computer temples are considered oddballs by their peers; young people in particular tend to see computers as something profoundly anti-cool. Movements that try to rid computing of its "grandmotherly bias" are usually seen as silly and embarrassing.

It is commonly thought to be futile to even try to make youngsters interested in computers – they simply don't yet have the required patience or concentration. There's no addictivity or instant gratification, nothing flashy or punk that fascinates the young mind. The appreciation and understanding of computers is something that develops slowly over years, often via gateway interests such as meditation, cultural history or pure mathematics. The kind of people who want to settle in a monastery and dedicate their lives to science or art may also develop an interest in computing.

The psychological effects of human-computer interaction are considered similar to those of meditation: concentration, awareness, mental clarity. Computers are also seen as amplifiers of wisdom and intelligence. However, it may take years for a user to attain these effects, so those who are after self-improvement are more likely to adopt more straightforward practices.

It is considered essential to be in a properly alert and rested state of mind when using a computer. Even to seasoned users, every session is special, and the purpose of the session must be clear in mind before sitting down. The outer world is often hurried and flashy, but computers provide a "sacred space" for relaxing, slowing down and concentrating on a specific idea without distractions. Breathing slows down, thought processes become more wholesome and contemplative. People who have spent a lot of time in a computer temple often find it difficult to readjust to the fast pace, distractivity and intellectual one-dimensionality of the non-computer world.

Computers are seldom privately owned – they are considered essentially communal rather than personal – but their usage patterns are often highly individualistic. Programming is the most essential element of all computer use, and it is not uncommon to find users who have created all of their software from scratch. Centuries of computer science research has valued simplicity, elegance, smallness and clarity over mundane values such as efficiency or scalability, so there are many beautiful ideas to base one's individual programs on.

A small percentage of computer use consists of long-distance human communication. The topics of non-technical discussion are often big and timeless and seldom concern daily news events. Heated arguments and polarization are considerably less common than in the non-computer "world of illusions".

There are computer games, but they are never framed as "entertainment". They are more often seen as learning experiences that help see the world from different viewpoints. Children would find most of the games utterly boring, if someone were crazy enough to try to get them interested.

Common people have all kinds of weird misconceptions about computing. They often see computers as far more spiritual or even divine than they actually are, so computer people often need to bring them down to earth from their fantasies. Even though computers often do help improve minds, they do not turn people into omniscient gods or saints or grant them eternal lives. And the computers themselves aren't omniscient either, and cannot manipulate the fabric of reality.

The purpose of this thought experiment was to invert the current mainstream cultural aspects of computing. It is not intended to be a utopian fantasy, even though some of it does align with what I have written about permacomputing.

In the real world, people associate computers with many different things: corporate dehumanization, overwhelming consumer capitalism, alienation from the material world, shortened attention spans, ridiculously short obsolescence cycles, etc. etc. It is often difficult to tell these cultural biases apart from the "essence" of computing, and it is even more difficult to envision alternatives due to the lack of diversity. Thought experiments like this may be helpful for widening the perspective.

So, what is the "essence" of computing then? I'd say universality. The universality of computing makes it possible to bend it to reflect and amplify just about any kind of ideology or cultural construct. In the recent decades, some ideas have just been so overwhelming that they feel very essential even though they are not. In an alternate timeline, other ideas might be dominant.