Computers and Cultural Transformation
Jaishree K. Odin
University of Hawaii at Manoa

Computers have come a long way since the fifties when they were essentially tools for information processing and logical calculations. The first electronic computer ENIAC was so large that it occupied most of the room; it had 18,000 vacuum tubes and had to be operated by physical manipulation of thousands of wires and switches. As integrated circuit technology was developed and vacuum tubes were replaced by transistors, followed by silicon chips, the size of the computers became smaller and their computing abilities magnified. With Intel's development of Random Access Memory (RAM) and its invention of microprocessors, the personal computer industry took off in the seventies. The research and development of the networking potential of computers started as a project of the Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) which led into the creation of ARPANET with the intention of transmission and sharing of data among different ARPA sites. The ARPANET was transformed into the governed sponsored Internet in the eighties

The computer entered the field of networked communication and information processing when visionaries like Doug Engelbart started thinking in terms of information sharing through networked computers so that people separated by distance could have access to the same information which will be displayed on their computer screens..

As personal computers became popular in the eighties, they began to be seen as word processors, however, with the addition of networking potential this meaning was subject to yet another transformation. Whereas in the eighties we primarily saw computers as word processors, in the nineties we see them as integrally involved in the field of knowledge making. The effective interaction that today's computers allow makes it possible for the user to switch back and forth among various roles of creator, transformer, communicator as well as receiver of knowledge. The information that just a decade ago involved effort and time to get together to finally work with is now literally at our finger tips. The time and effort spent on gathering information can now be spent on using it in creative ways. One can even say that the computer has become an active part of our creative endeavors and has genuine potential for "augmenting our intellect."

The use of computers is rising in all fields ranging from business, scientific research, entertainment industry, journalistic media to academic institutions. With this are coming new modes of communication as well as expression which were nonexistent just a couple of decades ago. People are turning to online resources for information, communication, as well as recreation. The virtual interactive spaces created on the internet through IRCs (Internet Relay Chat Rooms), MUDs (MultiUser Domain/Dimension or Dungeons), bulletin boards, and electronic mailing lists has put traditional notions of identity as unitary and singular into question and are promoting notions of multiplicity, heterogeneity and difference. When programs are being created that can mimic humans in behavior as well as intelligence, even the concept of humanness needs to be rethought. The cyborg technology focusing on human-machine interface either to repair dysfunctional organs or in the future to augment human body raises interesting questions about the nature of humanity itself.

The networked computers are changing our lives in more than one way. We no longer have to wait for scheduling town meetings that would get people together to discuss controversial or not so controversial issues that call for broad public participation; now through computer conferencing all participants can engage in meaningful exchange of ideas on a virtual podium. The network paradigm is increasingly taking over in the operation and management of business organizations, too, where horizontal organizational arrangement is beginning to replace earlier extremely top heavy vertical organization that constituted the top and middle management. The corporations are beginning to realize that business is better if they emphasize cooperation, shared responsibility and networking both at the interorganizational and intraorganizational level. The networked organization is flexible like the internet itself. It is capable of both centralization of information and the same time decentralization of the operation so that networks work efficiently to reach the goals of the organization. The alienation of the industrial labor can to some extent be overcome if the workers feel that can creatively engage in their work through access to information and a sense of ownership in the organization's output.

A History of Computers

 5000 B.C  The ancient Babylonians used abacus for calculations. The abacus found its way to Europe where it was widely used until it was replaced by mechanical calculators.
 1614  John Napier introduces logarithms which was a great advancement in numerical calculation. He also invents multiplication tables with movable columns.
 1623  Wilhelm Schickard invents the Calculating Clock
 1642  Blaise Pascal invents the first mechanical calculator.
 1801  Joseph Marie Jacquard invents a device with punched cards for controlling a machine's operation. The device, attached to the loom, controlled the selection of threads to create a pattern in the cloth.

 Charles Babbage designs the first prototype computer bringing together the idea of the punched card and mechanical calculator. He used his mechanical calculator Difference Engine for constructing tables.

Difference Engine was followed by his invention of another related device called Analytical Engine which was a problem solving machine.


 George Boole publishes his paper "The Mathematical Analysis of Logic" which brought logic out of the realm of philosophy into that of mathematics. Boolean algebra was further developed by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell into Symbolic Logic. Boole found that the structure of truth functions can be expressed in an algebraic form in which conjunction is very similar to ordinary multiplication and disjunction corresponds to addition, with the exception that 1+1=2 in ordinary algebra must be replaced by the rule 1+1=1. The internal working of computers is governed by Boolean algebra that includes binary operations to calculate or perform other logical processes. Boolean algebra deals with sets. If '0' represents false and '1' represents true, then we have the relations:

0 + 0 = 0

0 + 1 = 1

1 + 0 = 1

1 + 1 = 1

Since switching circuits--which form the elements of a computer---can be ``on'' or ``off'' (which is analogous to true and false), Boolean algebra helps us analyze their functioning and so it is fundamental to a study of computers.


 Gottfried Leibniz invents a calculator capable of multiplication, addition,

subtraction, and division.


 Herman Hollerith develops an electrical tabulator and sorter that used

punch cards to process the 1890 U.S. census.

 1930  Vannevar Bush assembles his Differential Analyzer which is based on analog computing. Analog computing is based on real number as opposed to digital computing where all information is converted into binary strings of 0's and 1's.
 1937  Alan Turing publishes "On Computable Numbers" where he demonstrates the inadequacy of logic to determine the truth or falsity of certain paradoxical statements. The incompleteness and inconsistency of logic was shown earlier by the Austrian mathematician Kurt Godel. The Turing machine is the model for a general purpose computer. Such a machine can solve any logical operations but is unable to judge the truth or falsity of certain statements.
 1938  Z1-- the first binary calculating machine developed by Konrad Zuse
 1938  A seminal paper on the application of symbolic logic to relay circuits, "A symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits", published by Claude E. Shannon, a student of Vannevar Bush at MIT.
 1941  Z3, the first elecromechanical general -purpose program-controlled calculator assembled by Zuse and his team
 1943-1946  ENIAC (Electronic Numerator, Integrator, Analyzer and Computer)
was the first electronic computer. It occupied a large space, used 18,000 vacuum tubes, but lacked the capacity to store a program that could give it instructions to perform various operations. It was physically operated by the manipulation of thousands of wires and switches.
 1951  UNIVAC I (Universal Automatic Computer)ófirst commercially available computer
 1954  IBM designs the 650 medium-size computer
 1956  The word 'artificial intelligence' coined by John McCarthy of MIT.
 1959  Kurt Lehovec and Robert Noyce pave the way for Integrated Circuit technology. Integrated circuit technology allows etching many electrical switches, perhaps thousands, on a single semiconductor element.
 1961  The first computer time-sharing system designed by MIT
 1961  The first IC computer built by Texas Instruments
 1963  The minicomputer developed by the Digital Equipment Corporation
 1968  Intel develops the first 1K random access memory
 1971  The microprocessor developed by Intel
 1975  The Altair computer kicks off the personal computer industry
 1977  The Apple II is introduced in the personal computer market
 1981  IBM enters the personal computer market with the PC
 1960's & 70's   U.S. Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
sponsors research which results in networked computers called ARPANET. In the eighties ARPANET develops into the government sponsored Internet.
 1989-1991  Tim Berners-Lee of CERN (Geneva European Particle Physics Laboratory) develops the World Wide Web project.

A Brief History of Internet

(This compilation is based on the chronology presented in Stan Augarten's Bit by Bit Donald H. Sanders Computers in Society and my discussions with Avi Kak and Subhash Kak, professors of Electrical and Computer Engineering.)

Cultural Formations In the Age of Internet

Theorists point out that postmodern trend in our culture can be located in the changes in modes of communication in information-based advanced capitalist societies which have given rise to new cultural formations and new modes of interaction both at the material as well as virtual level. Advanced technology has affected our experience of how we move through space and time, and also how we experience them. Through air travel, it is possible to be in an entirely different time and culture zone within hours. Telephone, television, and now electronic communication has made possible instantaneous exchange of information around the world. As images from around the world from the past, present and future materialize on our television screens, our sense of history as well as time is altered. From our living room, it is possible to experience the occurrences around the world, even though it is not reality we experience but its representation. Images presented by the media have become an integral part of our world--there is already a blurring of the boundaries between reality and its representation in that representation itself has achieved a reality of its own.

Jean Baudrillard describes our media inundated culture as a culture of simulation where the images of the real that cross our television screens have come to stand for the real. We trust the constructed images that we encounter through the media as reality itself, forgetting that there is a direct world of experience out there. Baudrillard describes the media as "intangible, diffuse and diffracted in the real." It is like the invisible "genetic code which controls the mutation of the real into the hyperreal." (365 ). The pessimistic representation of postmodern culture by the well known cultural theorist reflects that as technology advances the traditional neat distinctions between reality and its representation are becoming increasingly problematic. The poststructuralist theorists have blown asunder the metaphysical assumptions of the modernists--historical, philosophical, psychological and even scientific narratives have been shown to be stamped by the historical location of their creators. As the metaphysical foundation on which our systems were built gets pulled from underneath our feet, the stability and fixity of grand narratives that have been comforting to so many of us leaves us, too. With it comes a need for new metaphors to describe the experience of living in postmodern times. It is in this context that we should look at computer mediated communication as a potential source of empowerment in terms of giving us new ways of expression as well as interaction and at the same time provide us new metaphors to describe our quickly changing world where, as some have pointed out, future has already happened.

The digitalization of data and its instant transmission over the network has extended human senses beyond what has been possible through just television and radio. Computers have made it possible for us to create simulated realities right on our desktops might that be the reality of a virtual document that magically emerges in front of our eyes, even though physically present on a remote computer or virtual environments entered through the computer screen where people come together and interact in synchronous or asynchronous setting. Our perception is perspectival in the real world which means our position determines what we see. In the virtual realm, however, our perception becomes multiperspectival which represents an extension of our senses so that we can metaphorically be at many places at almost the same time by just clicking our mouse. We can have different windows to different virtual environments open simultaneously on our computer screen. We no longer have to depend on physical positioning or mobility alone for viewing and experiencing the world. The unitary eye of the television screen peering into our living rooms has turned into the multiple eyes of the viewers of the computer screens looking outwards into vast virtual spaces, crafting their own scenes. The computer screens indeed have become doors to invisible and intangible virtual spaces that only materialize in the moment of interaction.

The blurring of the boundary between the real and the virtual has led to claims that experience in virtual spaces leads to disembodiment. Several recent studies on cyberspace describe electronic nirvana over data lines of global networks leading to an alternate space which exists apart and outside the material world where people live embodied existence. Promoters of cyberspace thus set up a dichotomy between the virtual and the material world, describing it in terms of literally emptying mind from the body into invisible virtual spaces. The increasing conversion of atoms into bits, as Nicholas Negroponte points out in Being Digital, might be true, but we still need atoms to interact with the bits. If Being Digital is a state of being hooked to the network with one's point of view flying through empty space, then it is Being Material that makes that connection a reality. Even though the experience of time and space has radically changed through the proliferation of information technologies, our experience is nonetheless located in time and is dependent on the body for the acts of perception both in the real and the virtual realm to materialize themselves.

Virtual Geographies

Until a decade or two ago, virtual geography was confined to individual imagination that found its way into media images that were accessible to the public, but the experience of these images was once again an isolated affair. Net-worked computers and development of multiuser programs has brought a different geography into existence--cyberspace. William Gibson envisioned cyberspace in the eighties as "a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data" (51). The romantic visualization of otherwise dull corporate data makes it intriguing and inviting for hackers whose euphoria reaches its climax in the matrix. In the nineties cyberspace has become more than just a dangerous play ground for fictional console cowboys who are engaged in international espionage hacking away the firewalls of major corporations--it is now increasingly becoming an extended tangible space for business transactions, a resource for reliable information, socialization and recreation--cyberspace has indeed entered the imaginary as well as the reality of the popular culture.

Virtual geographies have become an exciting aspect of popular culture because of the development of multiuser programs on networked computers which have made it possible to have mutual interaction in real time. Bulletin boards, electronic mailing lists, as well as usenet newsgroups that started in the eighties have become an important forum for interest based virtual communities that provide an extended space for discussion or exchange of information to its members as is illustrated by Brian Rheingold's experiences with the San Francisco Bay area based virtual community WELL.

However, the interaction in these electronic communities is always asynchronous as members do not usually interact through this medium in real time. The use of multiuser programs have created a new species of interaction which is synchronous when a number of users are connected to the same database at the same time and hence can have interaction in real time. The best example of these virtual spaces that involve real time interaction amongst users are MUDs (Multiuser Dimension/Dungeon/ Domain), chat lines, or 3-D virtual worlds on the internet which has brought about a communications revolution in itself. MUDs (includes MOOs, MUSHes and MUCKs) and chat channels are all text-based virtual spaces whereas virtual worlds have visual graphics that makes it possible to dispense with text completely when the users are engaged in virtual building activities or partially when they are socializing. Chat rooms are a genre in themselves and can be compared to bars where people drop in to have a chat. There are thousands of chat rooms on the internet--each with its own theme which, however, does not mean that the conversation within the chat room is always based on the theme. Anyone can start a chat channel. Different IRC servers have their own list of chat channels. Think of an IRC server as a convention center with many rooms where different panels are in progress simultaneously. In the chat room each person chooses a name which is called a handle. You can have different handles in different chat rooms. The anonymity of the chat rooms allows people to be uninhibited in their interaction--an interaction which as a rule, to a transient chatter like me, seems to be very superficial. It is possible, however, to participate in an interesting exchange occasionally. On a chat channel called Writers Forum on one of the IRC servers a bunch of hack writers discuss their experience with writing romances and confessions. They patiently explain to me the ins and outs of the confession genre of hack writing--even details about the plots and the payment by publishers. One of the writers confesses that s/he reads magazine articles and creates imaginary confessions. There is of course no way for me to tell if the confessions about writing imaginary confessions are themselves imaginary in nature. It is this ambiguity that the anonymity of chat channels creates that makes it hard to pin down any online exchange of this kind as fact or fiction. Because of the brevity that this medium forces upon you, the ephermerality of the conversations (no logs are created), anonymity that enables role playing (any gender, size, shape, and form), and also the open door nature of the chat lines (anyone can walk in or out of these rooms)--transience rules here. Many regular chatters however, point out that the chat rooms are places for more than ephemeral conversations--they can become places for virtual friendships, exchange of real information, occasional romances or adolescent/adult virtual experimentation with the other/same sex.

In chat rooms the focus is on the interaction and it is in that interaction that the virtual space of the chat room is created . MUDs, on the other hand, add another dimension to this online exchange because here the space in itself acquires significance. The MUD virtualscape is literally written into existence which engulfs players as they engage in online exchange. Mudding does not only involve interaction with other players, but also with the space itself as players add new objects and thus extend the MUD space outwards or enrich its dimensions from within. This focus on the creation of a virtual space that mimics the physical place results in the creation of a virtual world with its own rules, conventions, and sometimes politics. The original MUDs were conceived in the form of Dragons and Dungeons adventure games. In these MUDs the players went on adventures, killed monsters and retrieved treasures for which they got points--accumulation of points determined the level of the player. These MUDs are marked by competitiveness and need for constant alertness and online presence to keep your character from being killed. Some Mud theorists have sharply distinguished these Muds from more socially oriented Muds where the purpose of the play is not to compete to get to higher levels but just to relax, create objects and spend time interacting with other players. This neat distinction between social and adventure style Muds has been contested by others like Richard Bartel who believes that player killing is disguised as other forms of aggression and is present in all MUDs. Based on a study of the bulletin board discussion among an experienced group of Mudplayers in a commercial MUD--Bartel concluded that based on their motivation to play, the players could be divided into four categories--achievers, explorers, socializers, and killers. Achievers focused on the game itself and tried to reach the highest level as soon as possible, the explores got involved with the topology and physics of the MUD itself, the socializers were taken up with social interaction with other players whereas killers just got immense pleasure in killing monsters or in MUDs with no player killing in causing distress to other players. Bartel notes that each player has a little of each characteristic, but shows a predominant tendency towards one or the other.

These MUDs are virtual worlds in themselves with their rules and laws and prominent virizens who are active socially as well as imaginatively as they create new objects to extend the MUD space and enrich it with more variety. The players are thus actively engaged in contributing toward the ongoing narrative of the MUD. In the absence of physical cues that is an important part of face to face or even telephone conversation, the users must rely exclusively on the text they are writing. Each player who gets seriously involved in Mudding must contribute textually to communicate their ideas, feelings, as well impressions. In a MUD you are what you write and what you write is what you are capable of thinking and imagining. The MUD narratives thus are open multiauthored narratives which are always in making--never finished.

The virtual bodies of the MUD are literally written into existence. Entering a MUD or a chatroom involves picking a name and creating a character. On the MUD the user can give a detailed self description of the character she is playing and create her own space which would once again appears as a textual description. In 3-D virtual worlds, for example, WorldsAway, AlphaWorld, The Palace among others, it is possible to choose your own on-line persona called avatar which the users can see on the screen. Avatar is a word used in Sanskrit to describe the physical incarnation of a pantheon of gods in Hindu mythology who descend into this world to remove the injustices performed by humans or demons. In an ironic metatwist, avatars of cyberspace want to leave their physical bodies and choose their incarnation to experience themselves as Gods while they build new virtual worlds.

The difference between text based virtual realities and three dimensional graphic virtual reality is that extensive textual descriptions can be completely dispensed with to interact with these worlds. In a great many such worlds, building kits are provided to build objects, some even have persistent objects that stay there in exactly the way you leave them until you come back. World Inc.'s AlphaWorld is an example of a blank virtual world which was given over to the users to settle and colonize in any way they wanted by building three dimensional structures in virtual spaces. It is even described as "a brave new frontier." There seems to be no other purpose here but just to build indiscriminately. Time Warner's The Palace is a simple metaworld of chatting with two dimensional avatars who are mobile and interact with other players. The avatars can be custom made using any picture and animation is possible to enhance social interaction. Fujitsu's WorldsAway is a world unto itself, with three dimensional mobile and persistent objects.

As several studies on MUDs have shown, most recent by Sherry Turkle, people who are regular MUD or virtual world players begin to strongly identify with the particular character or characters that they have chosen to play. In MUDs it is possible to change one's character anytime and even have multiple characters. The users develop strong emotional bonds with other characters which to them become as real as reality itself. Many insist that it is not a game for them--they have real friends on the MUDs. Many describe multiple role playing as a way to express different parts of themselves which in real life is not possible since they are expected to follow the socio-cultural norms of their place in society. But in virtual spaces, they can be what they want to be or what they have always wanted to be but cannot in the real life.

The initial euphoria about the freedom from gendered and raced body in cyberspace due to the multiple role playing possible have abated as we realize that we might be free from limitation imposed by our physical bodies, but not from the conditioning that it has lived through which shows in our virtual bodies. As Pavel Curtis, the designer of LambdaMOO notes that "[s}ocial behavior on MUDs is in some ways a direct mirror of behavior in real life, with mechanisms being drawn nearly unchanged from real life, and in some ways very new and different, taking root in the new opportunities that MUDs provide over real life". As we look at the development of virtual worlds that use 3-D objects and makes extensive use of textual information superfluous, it is easy to imagine the next stage in the evolution of virtual worlds that uses CUSEEME type of technology which would make possible to transmit live video and audio to the multiuser databases of these virtual worlds. Are we then going to create a mirror image of our real world, with all the injustices and racial prejudices reproduced there?

Sherry Turkle in a psychological study of the MUDs points out that there are two approaches to look at Mudder's experience--either as psychological compensation or political resistance. Since most of the mudders until recently where students in educational institutions with free internet access or people from above average income with access to the internet, the extreme popularity of the new medium reflects social problems in contemporary culture. With disintegrating family life and lack of empowerment in the political arena, young people turn to virtual interaction for compensation of the experiences that they lack in the real life--experiences of love, caring, or even power. Sometimes these compensatory experiences, Turkle concludes, become a prison which the players feel unable to leave--living in an imaginary world divorced from reality. In other cases, the experiences do have a potential for leading to self knowledge when lessons learned through role playing in the virtual arena become sources of self knowledge and enhance real life experiences.

Anybody who has visited a social MOO or any of the hundreds of IRC chat channels realizes soon that we might be free to adopt a persona, but the nature of the persona is determined by regulatory gender norms. If cyberspace is seen as an extension of the material world, the performativity of material bodies in virtual spaces cannot suddenly be conceived as free of markings of race, gender, and class. These specificities are not simply masks that we take off as we traverse cyberspace instead these markings constitute the very materiality of our existence and hence, color our thinking and our imagination. Not only are role playing cybernauts operating from their bodies, but also the personas they assume conform to the regulatory gender norms, so that even though crossdressing is common, they nonetheless preserve the stereotypical gender distinctions.

©1997 Jaishree K. Odin