The Purpose of Computers

“The purpose of a computer is to help you do something else.”
— Mark Weiser

What do you use computers for? Catching up with your friends via email or chat? Finding the nearest ice cream shop? Taking photos of your daughter blowing out her birthday candles? (Smartphones are computers too, of course.)

The point of using a computer is not to use a computer; it’s to augment our abilities. (Steve Jobs use the analogy of “a bicycle for the mind.”) Email and chat augment the range of our social interactions. Digital maps augment our ability to interact with the physical environment. Photos augment our memory.


My work consists of concretizing possible connections — and establishing distinctions — between things. When I look beyond the basics (communicating with others, keeping track of my schedule and commitments) I judge the usefulness of software on the degree to which it augments my ability to see patterns and making them tangible.

Social media — systems such as Facebook and Twitter — have a role in my personal information environment: they provide fodder for pattern matching, an ambient understanding of what’s going on. But they can also be enormously distracting. I sometimes find myself scrolling through my various feeds looking for… what, exactly? This is the opposite of augmentation.

Many of these systems have been designed to keep us engaged; to hijack our attention for commercial purposes. Some people today argue that quitting social media entirely is the only solution. But there are potentially good uses of social media. Rather than quitting cold turkey, I aspire to a more disciplined, conscious approach to the use of these systems.