A Better Question

by on November 29, 2011

Essays Issue 1 Nonfiction
Sally Scopa

But perhaps the “how”–”what” divide is clearest not in nature, but in the instrumental objects of man: elevators, pencils, cell phones, refrigerators, and so on. These objects are created for their “whats.” They are meant to be used, not understood. Prying open a cell phone will even void its warranty—to interrogate its inner workings undermines the compact that brought it into being: “I will worry about how this works,” says its designer, “so that you don’t have to.”

As an object becomes more complicated the effect is only exacerbated. One is less and less able to ask “how?”, tempted, increasingly, to punt the question onto people paid to answer it.

Think, for example, of computers. As my college computer science professor put it, “Computers and computer networks are the most complex things human beings make (except for other human beings).” They’re built on a tower of abstractions whose depth and intricacy rivals that of the mammalian nervous system. The “hows” ought to be pouring out of us.

But they aren’t, really, and I think it’s because we are not so much concerned with how computers work as that they work. We want them to do stuff for us. Ours is a very “whatsy” relationship. Which is unfortunate, first because those “whats” no longer impress us all that much—we use these things daily; we have gotten used to them—and second, because the “hows” we care so little about are so much richer than we’d expect.

Take Microsoft Word. Word is like a typewriter with a handful of improvements: copying and pasting, fancy formatting, clean deleting. At the end of the day, it gives you a page of text.

It’s only natural to think that Word, which acts kind of like a typewriter, must work kind of like a typewriter. On a typewriter you strike a key attached by levers and springs (and sometimes an electric motor) to an arm, the end of which holds an inky letterform, which slams into a piece of paper and leaves a mark and turns a gear that notches the apparatus one character rightward. Perhaps something of that sort happens when you strike a computer keyboard?

If you thought so you wouldn’t be just the regular kind of wrong, but wrong like someone who thinks the world’s best paid billiards player is a sandwich. You’d be incredibly, incredibly wrong. And what’s worse is that you might stop thinking about it. You might conclude that a computer—at least the part of it that drives Microsoft Word—is about as exciting as a typewriter. You’d move on to other novelties.

In fact, the journey from keypress to computer screen is so wildly serpentine, and so unlike its mechanical counterpart, as to be nigh inscrutable. To get the details right would require at least one college course-worth of study; to really understand most of it would require years and years of professional mastery. And still no single person would be able to articulate the entire chain. It’s just too big. (And this is coming from someone who writes software for a living.)

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