What We Think About When We Think About Computers

You might think that writing on a computer, or a tablet for that matter, instead of using pen and paper is a mere switch from one tool to another. But then you haven’t considered that “the difference between the tool and the machine has never been clearly defined” as F. M. Feldhaus put it, and who says that a computer is a tool anyway? A tool is commonly seen as a hand-operated machine (so the tool is a machine?), while the machine denotes the aspect of an instrument that is not dependent on the human. Hegel, on his part, defined the machine as a “self-reliant tool” (so the machine is a tool?). What is the computer, a tool or a machine, and does it make any difference?

Let’s turn to Lewis Mumford’s 1934 definition to try and clear things up. Tools are “instruments operated manually that act to move or transform the material world … there are certainly tools of communication and scholarship (paper and pen) and such.” At least we’ve established that the pen is a tool. Machines, on the other hand, are “tools (!) that do not require human energy input because they have an external source of power (e.g. electricity) but do require human direction; devices that operate, under human direction, to perform work.” Does that feel like your laptop, a machine that performs work under your direction? Well…

Perhaps David P. Billington can be of assistance. The multiple manifestations of technology as objects, he argues, constitute no more than two basic types of entities: structures and machines, where machines contain artefacts such as cars, ships, television sets, and COMPUTERS. Jacques Lafitte calls ALL artefacts machines and distinguishes between three different kinds: passive, active, and reflexive machines, where the computer falls into the third category. So that’s all sorted out, then? Well, maybe. As the machine becomes more and more independent of human energy input, Carl Mitcham notices, it transforms from being a static object to becoming the bearer or initiator of operations or of electrical processes; it shifts from being a tool to becoming a machine.

So the issue is one of complexity? Or of usage? (It could also be a toy, of course, if you play games on it.) And a single laptop isn’t the same thing as a network of computers, und so weiter. Anyway, the whole thing is a bit more complicated than meets the eye, but at least we can agree that a tool is “a device or implement, especially one held in the hand, used to carry out a particular function,” whereas a machine is “a combination of resistant bodies so arranged that by their means the mechanical forces of nature can be compelled to do work accompanied by certain determinate motions.”

Let’s leave it at that, shall we?

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