What's a 'Computer'?

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You might think this is a silly question. You know what a computer is. It's something found all over the place, from mobile phones to washing machines, writing messages, letting you see people abroad. And, it's maybe useful, maybe annoying.

But, what is it? Why is it so widely used? Why, like most tools, a fork, even a hammer, doesn't it do what you expect?

One problem is, you don't know what it is. You know a fork is for picking-up food to eat, maybe used in cooking, making holes so a sausage doesn't burst, certain sorts of mixing. A hammer is for hitting things, harder than you could with bare hands, knocking-in nails, sometimes for breaking stuff.

A computer isn't a tool for the hands, the body, it's a tool for the mind. But, that still doesn't say what it is.

One good way to look at a computer is that it's an office, that sits on a desk, even fits in your hand. That you can ask to do all sorts of things for you. Unfortunately, the office staff is 'stupid', so stupid they have no common sense at all, and, all they can do is follow the written book of office procedures. They can't even answer questions that aren't in that book.

If the 'office' is so stupid, why's it any use at all? That's because people have worked away, for decades, adding bits to the 'office procedures', trying to think of all the questions that might be asked, how things might possibly go wrong. And, the technology has improved, so the 'office' does things much faster, so the procedures can be more complex, and, the filing cabinets are bigger, even though the office as a whole is smaller and cheaper.

You might say, how is an 'office' like a washing machine? One with a computer in it has control of the water temperature, what's done in what order, how long various things take. A bit like having a specialist cleaner running things - but, if anything goes wrong, one unfortunately not smart enough to fish-out the paper hankie, forgotten in a sleeve or a pocket, before bits of it cover all your clothes.

So, what does that tell you? Well, as long as it's doing something regular, you can expect a computer to do useful things for you - you can forgive a lot for having the world's biggest encyclopedia, collection of music, sitting there, in front of you. Something which lets you share thoughts and ideas with other people, who share your interests.

But, you can't expect it to be 'sensible', to know how valuable that recipe you just found, or even wrote, is, and not loose it. And, you can expect, sooner or later, it will break. But, even when it does break, the "building it's in falls-down", the 'office' can be told to prepare to move to new premises, or keep a copy of everything important that it's done on something that's in your purse or pocket. So, you only loose the last work you were doing, and maybe not even that if it's done right.

So, now you know what a computer is. Or, a different way of looking at them. Does this help the way society uses them, all over the place, work any better for you? I hope so.

(c) ROMsys Ltd, July 2014, permission given to use for non-profit making purposes

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