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  • 08.08.17

What The Hell Even Is A Computer? Let This Artist Explain

Taeyoon Choi is building a computer by hand and detailing the process in a web book. Computer logic never felt so poetic.

Computers have become an unavoidable, intrinsic, indivisible part of culture. And yet, every few years, our culture feels the need to slap itself in the face, Macaulay-Culkin-in-Home-Alone-style, and re-ask itself: Wait, what the fuck are we actually talking about when we talk about “computers,” again? Like, what does that word even mean? 

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Do you know? Honestly. Take a minute. I’ll wait.

[Image: Taeyoon Choi/Avant.org]
Okay: No, you don’t know what it means. But it’s not because you’re an idiot. It’s because “computation” is one of the most philosophically and technically complicated things humans have ever dreamed up. (Or maybe we just “discovered” it? Don’t go down that rabbit hole.) Remember in 2015 when Bloomberg Businessweek devoted an entire issue–in fact, one gigantic article that took up the whole issue–just to answering the question “What Is Code?” And that wasn’t the first time. In 1974, when computers-as-culture weren’t quite so taken for granted, early information-technology pioneer Ted Nelson self-published an influential zine called “Computer Lib” whose tagline was “You can and must understand computers NOW.”

[Image: Taeyoon Choi/Avant.org]
Here in 2017, we still aren’t quite getting it. Taeyoon Choi, an artist/educator/activist associated with the awesomely named “School for Poetic Computation” in New York, is writing a digital book about building a computer from scratch, by hand. The twist: He’s documenting his ambling, circuitous, associative process not just in words, but in gorgeous artwork and disarming doodles, all collaged together on a scrollable flat website. He just released a new chapter (the third of seven) about binary logic.

[Photo: courtesy Taeyoon Choi]
If you think that sounds like a slog, trust me: You don’t know what you’re missing. No computer-science textbook would drift into reveries about emotional connections, reference the politics of Occupy Wall Street, or embed a YouTube clip of the trailer from Jacques Tati’s immensely influential but criminally underseen 1967 comedy masterpiece PlaytimeBut Choi’s web-native “book” can, and does.

[Image: Taeyoon Choi/Avant.org]
Give it a scroll. The design is perfectly calibrated for casual reading, or even casual looking. Computers may be a dense subject, but this treatment is lighter than air. That’s not to say it doesn’t get real: You’ll learn about the history of computation (fun fact: the word “computer” used to be a job title for humans) as well as the technical foundations of how computers work. The most poetic description I’ve read yet of computation comes from this tweet: “Just remember that a CPU is literally a rock that we tricked into thinking.” Choi didn’t write that quip, but his book is cut from the same playfully humanist cloth.

Look, I don’t understand what we talk about when we talk about computers, either. But the truth is: We tricked rocks into thinking. Don’t you want to know how? I know I do.

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.

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