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on cybernetics, Ferdinand de Saussure and communication

I have two laptops at home. Many people have several computers for various reasons; redundancy, because of operating system choices, leasing machine from work, a PC for children separate from parent’s. If you use the computers side-by-side, I think it’s a bit like riding a two-animal sled: you get security and power from these. But there’s a downside, too.

Often in computer world, we’d like to do something. This is our primitive, non-primed thought. The thought doesn’t yet consider the real-world – it’s just a naive wish. Then we take heuristics and approach a practical solution. Let’s take an exercise: “I want to bookmark this page on my browser”.

At first we may not recall how a particular kind of browser allows us bookmarking. Bookmarking means that we save the URL of a page, for easy future access. I found that recently bookmark buttons or menus have been quite cleverly hidden away, even too so. I’ve had many times problem remembering how a bookmarking mechanism works, and what kind of hierarchy the actions do – if any.

After a concrete path is found, we still might have certain details to be clarified; Like “It’s a whole page with all subpages that I want to save.”

What the heck does Ferdinand de Saussure to do with this? He was a very well-known, you might call, modern father of linguistics. His construct of a formal system in language is interesting in computer science, because computers are non-sentient and quite context-unaware machines. Saussure’s system had a triangular form, kind of. He separated our language from the real objects that our words or signs point to. This is very interesting, because as of now, 2011 we still use a lot of signs (buttons, displays, knobs, levers) in order to communicate with the computers all around us: cellphones, laptops, desktops, automata in the garage, parking house, at shops, amusement parks. The further we use those machines, the more natural the communication becomes. But, soon enough, the paradigm might change, and we are faced with more or less significantly different machines.

Saussure’s applications into cybernetics means that they must be controlled with a clear language, like turning things on, off, or setting values. This in despite approximately 60 years of development in the field. Cybernetics is a large field that researches exactly the core of communications and presentation between man and machine. There’s a lot that has happened during 1950-2010. First computers did not make much noise; they were programmed with much, much less obvious punch cards and levers. Today’s typical sentence, like print “Hello” required perhaps tens or a few hundred switches of a binary knob.

When you have those two computers side by side, take a look at one particularly curious thing: your attention is needed to control, change path, turn on and off things in the computers. It’s like playing curling, alone. You are doing your best to guide a disk into the goal. At best, you can jump into a nice flow of things: there’s proper music, you can concentrate on your work or whatever you’re doing; but then, sometime within an hour, a computer does something you didn’t anticipate. It might pop out some warning windows, tell you about updates to software – or the music may stop due to a list that didn’t last for longer. So there you go, have fun with the sled and keep your purring beasts happy! 🙂

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