A few weeks ago i stumbled upon Scott Aaronson’s post called “The Toaster-enhanced Turing Machine”. As you might guess from my title, i misunderstood what it meant. But, actually, i really liked the thing i understood instead, so i’ll post my own version. Which is:
A Turing-machine enhanced toaster is just a Turing-machine.
Not that i think the original post is bad. It is part of a debate in the realm of computer science. They have this concept of a “Turing-machine”, which is any machine that can do basic logic and has infinite memory. It is a very, very basic CPU, one that can only do AND, OR, NOT. But the thing is: It has been proved that if something can be done by a computer, any computer, than this basic machine can do it, even if much slower. What this means is that every computer is equivalent (in a specific but important sense).
The argument that sparked Aaronson’s post states that Turing-machines have no concept of “input”, that they basically ignore any interaction with the outside world. Aaronson’s point is that is foolish, since any input will in the end be converted to ones and zeros, and thus be made into parts of the Turing-machine. In other words, the idea of the Turing-machine actually does encompass the idea of input|output in that it specifies how to convert those into computation (to put it crudely, if you want to compute it, you must make it into binary, deal with it).
That is the chimerical nature of the computer. It converts stuff to its own language. In a sense, it speaks all languages. That is why Manovich calls it the Universal Media Machine. And that is why it is useful.
But, in another sense, the computer makes everything else speak Computerese. Everything becomes digital.
Thus, if you plug a computer into a toaster, in a sense you have a smart-toaster, but it might be much more accurate to say you have a computer that also does toast bread.
When we describe a machine, we tend to focus on what it is good for. But is it a good measure? A computer that we mainly use to toast bread might be a toaster, to us. If we use the CD tray to hold cups, it certainly is a cup holder. But is this misleading?
Another way to talk about mixed machines could be number of pieces. A toaster has 2 resistances, some wiring, an insulating body, a bread-holder, a spring to make the toast fly. All in all, at most a hundred pieces. But a SoC that would go into our toaster could easily have tens of thousands of components. Does this change the game?
And that is not an academic question. This other post reminds us that behind the polemic of Apple ditching the earplug connector there is the fact that those earplugs now have whole computers inside them. Our cables have computers inside now.
The extreme take-it-too-far reductio ad absurdum outcome is that western culture ends up being straight-up all computer culture. We have absolutely no instrument that is not a computer. The CD tray itself is a computer. The foam cup is a computer. The table where it sits is a computer, and so is the carpet where it sits in turn. Our clothes become computers.
Part of the deal is everything becomes capable of abstract behaviour. So the toaster not only can be CRISP, RAW, or POWER DOWN, it exports all those as data. Everything becomes a program. And therefore, everything has bugs.
One possibility is to turn all this into a screed against surveillance — for this certainly makes Big Brother’s job much easier. But i don’t think this is the real big problem, as in Brave New World × 1984, by which i mean it is much more dangerous that we would really like being all watched over by machines of loving grace.
My worries are more in line with Flusser’s take, that when everything becomes a program, our previous culture that took everything to be a text stops making sense, and that this might even turn out to be a transition to a better future, but one way or the other it will be a difficult transition.
Also, there is also the point that when we had texts we were all the time fighting against misleading words to try and express our true selves, and when everything becomes a program we will all the time fighting against bugs to try and express our true selves. That is, everything changes so nothing changes.
If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like nails. If all you have is Turing-machines, what does everything look like?