Magical Computers

1 minute read

I read a lot of texts on computers and games from the humanities and social sciences perspectives. They are usually non-technical papers that deal with the human side of computing. Because of the context, there is still a lot of discussion on computation, data, digital systems and other more technical aspects.

While reading those papers, I’ve noticed an unfortunate tendency to treat computers as black boxes with unknown or magical operations within, especially among the humanities scholars.1

In these approaches, words like ‘algorithm’ or ‘process’ are used as tokens for some mystical operations that the computer performs, with little regard to what the words actually mean. This is not simply a linguistic complaint: I don’t mind if computer science words are used in more informal manner, if that manner happens to be useful.

The problem I have with this is how these forms of expression cover up what is actually going on within computers – how they obscure rather than clarify. Computers are well understood and governed by processes that may be complicated, but entirely possible to understand. Obscuring this with unclear language can be actively harmful, if the goal is to explain computers and how they affect our lives. How trustworthy is an explanation of computers’ role in society, if the explanation gets computers wrong?

Not everyone needs to be a computer scientist, but just because you don’t understand how computers work doesn’t mean that you should get away with describing their operations as magical.

There are at least two solutions to this problem: Either have a more computer-literate colleague read your papers, if you suspect that you might writing about computers in a way that mystifies them. Or even better, learn a bit about computers. After all, you’re already writing about them, so maybe knowing a bit more would help.

  1. I have specific examples in mind, but I’m not naming them because it seems unfair to call out a few examples for something that I think is more wide-spread. This is not about those few stupid researchers who do things wrong, but about a tendency in the humanities approach to computers.