Renée (Human) vs. The Machine (Altair 8800b)

Friday, January 24th, 2014 by contromal

I spent a good chunk of Thursday evening trying to program the Altair 8800b to execute a simple addition equation: 1+2=3. Before or during every set of long and obfuscated operational information and instructions, the manual would inform me that “the procedure is both simple and fast” (12) and “that the CPU is only as intelligent as the programmer” – rude (21). After reading for about forty-five minutes, I bolstered my courage and turned on the machine. Now, it took me only about five minutes to input the addition program from the manual (about twenty lines of binary) and, although three red lights lit at the conclusion, the whole process left me feeling unsatisfied and confused.

First of all, why invest so much time to have a machine reveal something I already know? I remember learning addition back in first grade. 1+2 is obviously 3. Throughout the experiment, I felt a bit like a mad scientist. Like Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, I hoped to animate the inanimate. Perhaps, man’s obsession with technology spawns from a desire to create and control. In Truth and Juridical Forms, Foucault illustrates contemporary culture’s reliance on the institution of the prison to justify social constructs: “This is what society is. You can’t criticize me since I only do what you do every day at the factory and the school… I’m only the expression of a social consensus” and “The best proof that you’re not in prison is that I exist as a special institution, separated from the others…” (85). Man needs prison, because it 1) parallels his own actions in society and 2) proves that he is not in a prison. I wonder if man’s reliance on technology resembles this relationship. Is man’s dependence on exploitation (maybe that word is a little strong) of technology a reflection of his own social exploitation? Does technology exist to remind man that he may exert (relatively) unmediated control over an object, thereby proving that man is, in fact, not the object of subjugation?

Second, what is “user friendly”? The manual explains again and again that the processes it explains are “simple.” Shouldn’t that be self-evident? This repetition actually distracted me from the content, as it attempted to convince me of its transparency. Most frustrating to me was trying to interpret the results. Although three lights glowed at the end, I possessed no way of deciphering whether this meant “3.” I failed to locate instructions for pairing the array of lights with some sort of meaning. I cleared the system and started over. 2+2= random assortment of lights. Maybe that was too big. 1+1 = random assortment of lights. So, in spite of my seemingly successful first trial, I left not knowing whether I had ever manipulated the machine. Furthermore, I would not know how to subtract, multiply, or even add large numbers. I certainly could not conceive of how to program something else or even read the results. Although I am not certain how to define user-friendly, I would certainly not list this as one of Altair 8800b’s attributes.

Conclusion: I fought the machine and the machine won.

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2 comments on “Renée (Human) vs. The Machine (Altair 8800b)

  1. Renée, I sympathize with your battle with the machine. I just returned from a little spat with the Osborne 1, after trying to use WordStar, an ancient word-processor that is anything but “user-friendly.” Like yourself, I’m wondering about the definition or theory behind the “user-friendly,” and I hope to tackle this in my response for next week. I initially think that these obsolete machines are certainly not “user-friendly” to which we are accustomed. But these instruction manuals would disagree with me, as they are filled with the ideology of a harmonious relationship between user and machine. I imagine someone in the early 1980s trying to use these machines would be a bit more perturbed than we are since we’re possibly more inured to the malfunctioning machine that crashes when you least expect it (“save early, save often!”). I do think I conquered the Osborne, which is to say, I was finally able to delete words that I had mistyped.

  2. Lori Emerson says:

    Renee, I so admire your courage in tackling possibly one of the most mysterious machines in the lab! And as you probably already know, the notion of the “user-friendly” in relation to computing continues to fascinate me. iPads are continually touted as user-friendly but I’ve always found them mysterious and have a hard time understanding the how and why of the syncing that does or doesn’t take place. In some ways, I find the Altair profoundly more user-friendly because I’m as close to the actual workings of the computer, taking place at the level of on/off, as I’ve ever been. Yet, I agree – the output system for the Altair is also mysterious. Anyways, my point is whether there’s any such thing as user-friendly and whether it isn’t always a case that we have to adjust to new technologies?

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