Catalysts of Modern Computing

The modern computer, capable of handling countless operations as well as various forms of “new media,” has come a long way, owing much of its progress to three distinct developmental drivers.  In this post I hope to touch upon the key points within each of these drivers.

1. Boolean logic and physical form

DeLanda begins his story of the development of computing with a look at the “abstract machine,” an idea that allows us to begin to transfer the power of the human mind to physical machine.  An “abstract machine,” he explains, is self driven and powered by the differences of the mechanisms that run it.  These machines are essentially powered by the flow of energy between two combined entities that existed in different states.

The physical example he uses in the text references the Carnot cycle, in which energy can be created by exploiting the difference between hot and cold temperatures.  Given a container separated into hot and cold compartments, energy is actualized by introducing a passage between the two compartments, creating a flow of hot air through the hole.  In this example, the energy created by the machine motor is the flow of air, and the mechanisms that power the machine are the different air temperatures.  DeLanda’s idea that abstract machines are driven by the difference in the states of two entities brings us to the cornerstone of computing: reason.  The flow of “energy” between logical notations forms a “Boolean motor,” an idea that, combined with binary code, forms our computers’ most basic operations.

George Boole, and English mathematician, understood that “true” and “false” was the basis of logic.  By repackaging these two ideas as “and” and “or,” these ideas could now be mechanized and proccessable.  In conjunction with binary code, a certain combination of these “and/or” operators could be used simply for addition and multiplication with his Boolean algebra (I will elaborate on this more during the presentation), essentially capturing “some of the powers of computation found in the human brain”.  By breaking down “true” and “false” into two the two operators “and” and “or,” Boole was able to create the fundamentals of modern computing.


Then, another breakthrough in 1936 occurred when Claude Shannon, and American electronic engineer, demonstrated how circuits could be expressed by equations using Boolean algebra.  Joining the ideas of Boolean algebra with circuitry, Shannon becomes the first to give processing a true physical form by creating the Boolean motor.  In Shannon’s model, the “and/or” operators control the flow of electricity within computers—the first stage of computer hardware evolution.  By increasing the complexities through operator combinations, more advanced computer circuitry was able to evolve, culminating into modern day processors which are able to process billions of these simple operations every second.

2. The military’s drive towards miniaturization

The drive behind the development of such hardware was the military.  Financing basic research and development, the military steered scientific solutions towards military needs.  Too expensive for commercial applications, these basic machines had specific functions such as calculating artillery range tables and missile guidance systems.  Realizing the potential of the calculations performed by Boolean strings, the military made the push to miniaturize.  After  F.C. Williams built the first general purpose computer in 1948 using “and/or” operators as its foundation, computer hardware evolved and grew smaller through several stages.  The first stage consisted of vacuum tube hardware to handle the “and/or” operations.  These evolved into transistors, making them the first physical devices capable of acting as a motor without any moving parts.  The problem with these miniaturized transistors was that they had to be wired by hand, creating an upper-limit of circuit complexities as well as risk of faulty connections.  Eventually, transistor technology gave way to the latest generation of hardware called “integrated circuits,” where circuit connections are printed on solid crystal, allowing for very complex circuits to be created on silicon.

While the development of these integrated circuits was strongly supported by the military (providing up to half of the research funding for transistor development by 1953 and holding 90% of the market in 1964), DeLanda argues that its tight grip on the integrated circuit industry was detrimental to its growth.  In order to assert its control on this technology, the military restricted research publications as well as centralized control of production to the top of command.  With such restrictions, other countries, with a focus on maximizing production, managed to catch up with American productivity.  Whereas in 1975 all major integrated chip manufactures were American, by 1986 all but two were not Japanese.

3. Mass media and new media

In Manovich’s “The Language of New Media,” it is explained that computer and media technologies developed side by side, almost in a parallel fashion.  As computers evolved to become faster “calculators”, the advancements of modern media evolved to allow for storage of an increasing variety of formats, from sound to vision to a combination of both.  In the 1890s, film took its first steps as still photographs were put in motion.  Less than a decade later, audiences worldwide were enjoying the Lumiere brothers’ Cinematographie camera/projector hybrid.  The popularity of this media format was accompanied by the development of electronic tabulating machines, machines that processed data from punched cards.  In 1890, the Census Bureau adopted tabulating machines designed by Herman Holerith.  After several company mergers and the growing popularity of its tabulator, Hollerith’s Tabulating Machine Company was renamed the “International Business Machines Corporation,” or IBM as we now know it.

These different kinds of media, from Louis Daguerre’s daguerreotype (an image reproduction process), to radio, or even film, serve as vehicles of information.  Similarities in media and computers is prevalent, from the parallels of the input/output structure of Babbage’s Analytical machine and Jacquard’s loom to the physical read/write styles of film and the Universal Turing Machine.

The link between the two, when drawn, alters the form of both media and computer.  As media is transformed into “new media” consisting of computable binary code, the capacity of the computer expands to media processing.  Access to new media allows for the complex numerical processes to work beyond numbers and arithmetic calculations by taking advantage of the elemental building blocks of “and/or” operations.  The abstract machine, with its deep roots in the military, has taken on a new additional identity as a “media manipulator”.

2 responses to “Catalysts of Modern Computing

  1. Our society is absolutely obsessed with the idea of miniaturization. I understand the need for the military to make technology smaller and therefore portable, as with the example in the reading with walkie talkies. The process of miniaturization moved quite quickly as well, with vacuum tubes as first generation in the 1950s, to transistors as second generation in the 1960s, then to integrated chips as third generation beginning in the 1960s. With technology improving at such an insane rate and with the Japanese declaring in the 1980s to create the fifth generation of technology, when will society be satisfied with the progress of miniaturization? Will society generate technology so small as that it is practically invisible and have technology embedded into our daily lives that we do not even realize we are operating technology?

  2. Lauren Ingerman

    I know this is a really old post but I wanted to comment on Boolean logic. In class it seemed really complicated. However I was at my internship recently, where I do television research using syndicated software, and I noticed for the first time at the bottom of the screen a guide of the different ways to organize a search and sort data. I recognized the venn-diagram illustration instantly and realized just how relevant that type of logic was to the work I’ve been doing for months. I had been using the and/or logic every time I ran a report. For some reason it didn’t click until now, but I thought it was an experience worth sharing.

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