the purpose of a computer

there are objects called “tools”. a tool has a purpose; it achieves an end. there are very many tools, and everyone uses tools regularly. this is for good reason, as they make life monumentally easier, and they make certain things possible that wouldn’t be otherwise.

an example of a simple tool is a hammer. it uses properties of physics (leverage and gravity) to enable one to hit things, typically nails, with great force. it is very difficult to nail an object otherwise. the basic hammer has not changed in a while, as there are not many concievable ways to improve the object. any changes that could be made to the design are more likely to make it worse at inserting nails into objects rather than making it better.

“ah!!” I say, “but I beg to differ! I have the most swell improvement that I could make to the hammer. it will fundamentally ‘disrupt’ the hammer industry. you see, I have designed the most advanced hammer ever made, that you may have the privilege of paying a nominal monthly fee to use. it has a sleek and trendy design, and it can determine optimal nail placement for you, based on your previous nail placement behavior.” I then go on to disclaim that I get to know exactly when and what you hammer, and if you break a window with the hammer, it may call the police.

this hammer has many buyers. the target “consumer” of this “product” is attracted to the “smart” features of this hammer. they appreciate how it can determine nail placement for them. wanting to not regret their investment, they ignore how often the feature doesn’t actually work.

the reality is this: the complexity of the hammer has been vastly increased. but everyone is so used to this, however, that they’ve lost the ability to concieve the consequences of vastly increasing the complexity of something. the price increases. the supply chain grows ever cancerous appendages. engineers have to spend day and night researching improvements to the “advanced” technology. and after a year, it stops working.

and for whom did the complexity increase? for the user? this is most certainly not the case. sure, many appreciated the new features. but those features only existed to attract a potential buyer. no, the complexity increased for the sake of the vendor of the hammer, who feeds on the many sources of wealth they have shoehorned into the advanced hammer.

this is the story of many things in our world, but it very much applies to the increasingly necessary tool of computers. their hardware and software have seemingly no bounds for the maximization of bullshit.

the real life counterpart to my advanced hammer is the telephone. what a telephone used to be is a tool that enabled the user, via a numerical identifier, to transmit and recieve audio to and from somewhere else. however, now, a “phone” is a very portable kind of computer, which would be quite nice to have, except that it is designed to be as user-hostile as possible. it ranges from inconvenient to impossible to change the software it runs, and the software it runs is horribly dubious. no information you give the device can you be sure is not being transmitted to some remote entity. the generally poorly-maintained software is of ever-increasing and unmanagable complexity, requiring more and more processing power to do the exact same things. consequently, the hardware must increase in capability, requiring more and more rare minerals and precise (worker-exploitative) manufacturing processes. but of course, this is endemic to all of computing, not just to smartphones.

so, what should the purpose of a computer be? well, it should be the same as any tool: to do what it is told, do it well, and do nothing else. when you hit a nail with a hammer, it should cause the nail to enter the object and do nothing else, and when you write a text document on a computer, it should retain the text and do nothing else. when you put dishes into the dishwasher, it should wash the dishes and do nothing else, and when you send someone an internet message, the computer should send the message to that person and do nothing else.

this is not how the vast majority of people’s computers work. the typical person’s experience of a computer is a pandora’s box that can communicate to anyone anywhere and do anything at all when they touch it. it can share any information they give it and manipulate and browbeat them into the whims of the corporations who exercise full control over its behavior at any given time.

despite what is now considered normal, a computer should not initiate a network connection or do anything else unless it is absolutely necessary to perform the task that the user instructed it to perform. the amount of acceptable telemetry, advertising, nagging, DRM, or any other coercive scheme to exploit the user of a piece of software is and always will be zero.

it is possible, though sometimes quite difficult, to be free of software that exploits you. the solution exists in open source, community-maintained software. it is often incomplete and not without flaw, but the more people who care about their rights and privacy and who use and create open source software, the more it will improve, and the better it will be for everyone. and hopefully, the real purpose of a computer will never be forgotten.