􀀂􀀟􀀍􀀆 􀀂􀀖􀀍􀀋 The iPad and computing

People are always talking about whether the iPad is a “computer”, or a “real computer”, or maybe its a “baby computer”, or a “computer for babies”. There was once a tweet from @stroughtonsmith (who is now posting elsewhere instead) about whether the iPad is an “app console”.

Let’s take a step back. What is a computer? It’s tempting to default to some sort of technical answer, for example:

A computer is a machine that can be programmed to automatically carry out sequences of arithmetic or logical operations (computation).
Computer - Wikipedia

I mean. Sure. But I think that when people are arguing about the iPad they aren’t arguing about computers, they’re arguing about computing. Are we computing every time we use a computer – really? Is texting, or in-vehicle GPS navigation, or “Hey Google”, computing? Surely watching Netflix doesn’t count as computing. I think that to a lot of people, including me, the iPad is not a computer because it is not used for computing.

Let’s get weirder. Using the same device can be computing depending on which side of it you’re looking at. Administrators responsible for an Asterisk PBX are definitely computing when they are at a terminal making sure calls are routed properly, but users on either end of the calls are clearly not.

This lets us square the iPad squircle. The 4 people who hate themselves enough to use Swift Playgrounds, anyone who uses Numbers, and the brave and physically attractive scholars who rock Blink + ssh + irssi + vim + an external monitor are all computing. People using the iPad to read an ebook are not computing. So the iPad actually is a computer – but only when it is facilitating the act of computing.

I think that this hints at a subtler differentiator between what is and isn’t a computer. When the previously-hypothesized Asterisk administrators are working, they have the full capabilities of the machine under their control, while their users are interacting with it through a limited interface and are very restricted in what they can ask it to do. A device is a computer to the degree that its users command total control over the device, and something else (I still like “app console”, or just “electronic device”) to the degree that users don’t. There’s something about user agency that is fundamental to computing.

It’s a gradient, and I think not useful to try to lawyer up a black and white definition. The iPad clearly restricts users more than macOS or Windows machines do, and is therefore less of a computer than those machines. By the same token, it imposes far fewer restrictions than Nest thermostats or the smart Zoom cameras that we have in the conference rooms at work, and is therefore more of a computer than those devices.

I’ll leave with one of my favorite quotes about computing:

But if we don’t have this power that is ours, then I don’t actually care about computers at all. It meant everything.
Brent Simmons


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