Thoughts on the evolution of machine interfaces — Part 1: Conquering the space of numbers

Conquering the space of numbers - is the first part of a series I’m putting together about the evolution of machine interfaces and their design throughout time. It is based on notes collected during a research I did before starting to work in software development, studying social anthropology at Goethe University in Frankfurt (a. M.), Germany.

In its essence this first part describes early occurrences of machine-user interfaces and how technological innovation has resulted in certain cultural conventions surrounding modern computing tools and our concept and usage of numbers in our everyday life. The rest of the series will describe emerging GUIs (graphical user interfaces) and the future of digital computing devices. In addition things will get spicy once we start talking about a slowly dissolving barrier between the human body, its computational tools and its digital user profile — Cyborgs, in a world held together by binary information.

In this first part, however, I’ll start at “zero” discussing how humanity moved on from early tools to complex machines while developing systems of abstractions and continuously rediscovering the space of numbers on the way.

The products and tools (both physical and digital) that enhance human ability are in a way extensions of ourselves. Any task is a human task. Products address these tasks and help us carrying them out. Enhancement of human ability is the sole reason for a product’s or tool’s existence — Bert Brautigam

0/4 — Finding numbers

Before numbers started to play a role in society, humans had to learn to externalise meaning and collectively agree on common rulesets surrounding community, values and their immediate environment. Yuval Noah Harari beautifully describes the process on how and why humans started to connect through myths and how they initially started externalising value in currencies and goods in his book Sapiens — a must-read for everyone interested in the development of human society.

In short, collaboration allowed for innovation which in turn allowed for distribution of work-force along a variety of areas, and later on, industries. And in the world’s biggest incident of “that escalated quickly” the human race conquered the planet and soon its surrounding space. Let’s see how that happened.

About three million years ago early ancestors of Homo Sapiens² started banging rocks against each other to produce stone tools and later weapons to hunt their prey. These early tools allowed them to simplify every-day activities, optimise hunting routines and gave humans the ability to extend their biological body through the usage of external components. Wooden spears found in the south of Germany were dated to be around 380.000 to 400.000 years old. Homo Sapiens² — that’s us! — is around 200.000 years old. Using tools led early humans to develop machinery and generate value out of them. Inventions, such as the wheel allowed humans to carry greater amounts of produce across large distances, while the plow enabled them to use stronger mammals to increase the output of their agricultural endeavours revolutionising farming in the process and allowing for human civilisations to settle and humanity’s first massive shift to occur around 12.000 years ago.

Modern digitalisation is the second massive shift in human history.

Settlement and an abundance of food brought written language, the development of numeric systems and ceramics with it. Cultivation of produce above the extent of the individual’s needs resulted in an increase of complexity around trade and the movement of goods which in turn resulted in the division of various types of labor and (arguably) a shift away from the individual self towards the community.

Middlemen who themselves were not producing food were required to maintain order in the distribution of goods, creating value in the process of managing data. This economic system brought a shift in complexity and solidified prices, taxes and abstract numeric forms of value as numbers became a daily companion. Tools enhanced human activities, while numbers made them scalable. And this already before navigation across the oceans turned out to be the coolest thing since… well, before sliced bread.

1/4 — Storing numbers

Once humanity had discovered the space of numbers and scalability became the foundation of economic movement, people needed to find a way to store numbers. Currencies and clay writings became initial storage units of economic value. In fact, the oldest known writing is not poetry — it’s a shopping receipt. Humans had now figured out that they could store, share and reproduce knowledge across space and time.

An explosion of economic activities and an ongoing production of knowledge led to early programmable machines, which — at this point — were still complementing and accelerating human work. Two famous machines which translated static information into a predictable output were Johannes Gutenberg’s letter press (ca. 1450 AD) and Joseph Marie Jacquard’s automated loom (ca. 1804 AD) which used punched cards to store and weave textile patterns. These machines enabled humans to continuously expect a reliable outcome of whatever input they gave into them. Basically, what we would consider pure functional programming methods today.

Unfortunately with some exceptions.

A logic conclusion of the ability to store and move numbers was the combination of digital and mechanical tools. One more example of an attempt to do this can be found with the stepped reckoner, a digital mechanical calculator invented by german mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in the late 17th century.

Following up on these purely mechanical tools, electromechanical machines started to find use in processing and storing large amounts of data. An example for the early use of such a machine is the tabulating machine, designed to help evaluating data stored on punched cards. It was developed to process data for the U.S. census in the year 1890 collecting data on US-americans and determining the population of the USA to be more than 62 million citizens.

Punched cards set a path for binary information (01100011 01101100 01100001 01110000 00111111) to become the standard of data processing and storage and allowed for the digital revolution to take place. We have developed other forms of data storage by now, but still.

Money became another fascinating storage container for numbers. Its value — originally represented by the amount of gold, silver or other metals in circulation — has undergone various changes in its form and appearance by now. From metal coins to pieces of cloth carrying a predefined value, currencies have come in many shapes and sizes and have since kept their stable position as a storage unit for value. Its form however is still undergoing changes, as the digitalisation of the world’s economy is bringing the abstraction of money and monetary value to a whole new level. Consider your ever changing stock portfolio, cryptocurrencies or the fact that even time is money.

2/4 — Using numbers

Distribution of knowledge and the implementation of an even higher specialisation of work during the industrial revolution led to Ford’s assembly line production which in turn was improved upon by Toyota and other global players ever since. Industrial factories harboured machines and humans, the first bio-mechanical computers, generating certain and reliable output with highly specialised working steps — machine and human activity interwoven in one place surrounded by walls.

(In a future essay we’ll see what happens when this connection between human and machine work transcends those physical walls and enters a space of actual bio-mechanical unity. Here’s an example.)

At this point the global population as well as its economy demanded control mechanisms to tame the ongoing complexity of information. The growth of the global population and economy required control mechanisms to curb an emerging complexity of data. Once again, techniques had to be found to abstract and process this data. However, as the complexity of the data that could be generated began to exceed the mathematical limits of the abacus and the cognitive abilities of mathematicians, electronic support tools were used. The ability to manage targeted workflows with the help of these electronic machines paved the way for the first programmable multi-purpose computers. Electronic computers navigated man to the moon, optimized production processes, and increased society’s communicative potential. Computers and the accelerated execution of commands by programs shifted a large part of the global economy away from goods to the service sector, where, at the latest since the introduction of the personal computer (PC), they have broken through the meta-level in data technology and found their way to individual users.

3/4 — Becoming numbers

There are two things which need to be discussed here. Humans are slowly developing new physical bodies, extended by digital machinery, but they are also developing purely digital bodies as representations of themselves on the internet.

Let’s look at physical extension first

In his book Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, Max Tegmark describes three types of life which vary in their ways of adapting to external influences. He explains how life forms are made up of hardware (their physical attributes) and software (their behaviour) elements. These three forms of life differ from another as follows:

  1. Life 1.0: Primitive life forms, such as bacteria. Their hardware and software evolves through natural selection and hence adapts to new influences through the passing of various generations
  2. Life 2.0: Humans, for example, who are made up of evolved hardware (their bodies) but with a largely designed software (through their learning capabilities). Humans can aggregate knowledge and adapt to external influences by finding smart solutions through changing of their behaviour. What is culture, if not software?
  3. Life 3.0: Machines can change their software as well as their hardware. An android’s software could be updated and it’s physical abilities could be extended by adding hardware to its body.

Some humans are pushing themselves into a state which would probably best be defined as Life 2.5, since they start to physically change their evolved bodies by designing and implementing expansions for themselves. These expansions allow humans to add new senses to their catalogue and thus enable them to interact with their environment in a way which they were initially not created for.

And now let’s look at the digital bodies we’re developing for ourselves

An economy specialized in individuals required flexible data generation and processing. This requirement resulted in self-learning algorithms which — unlike the loom — find solutions to problems without having to enter known schemes in advance. They become actors themselves. These algorithms are used for medical research, they control drones in the sky, give web users the desired search results and tailor and deliver customised advertising experiences to the same users.

However, this shift towards a society enhanced by algorithms also has an effect on our understanding of human identity. Humans have many ways to show affiliation to certain groups, be it religious practices, citizenship or wearing the jersey of your favourite hockey team. All of these social systems require the presence of a physical body, but modern social communities are based on sets of digital profiles, which only show partial aspects of a human’s identity. Practitioners become users and biological bodies become data bodies.

Users develop digital data bodies under the spatial understanding of a digital world. The space of numbers is being translated into a calculated space of machines. From an early abstraction of language and number spaces we have moved to an algorithmisation of society. This includes the relocation of social and economic actions into digital space.

A particularly interesting field lies in the development of new user interfaces (e.g. voice assistants) and the blurring of the boundary between the analog and digital dimensions of social, economic and political activities.

4/4 — What’s next?

This article will be followed by an analysis of the technological progress of the 19th and 20th centuries, which resulted in a change of perspective around the direct physical environment of humans. The camera obscura for example triggered an epistemic paradigm shift by significantly changing human thinking about the “outside”. Paradigms about spatial distance and time were shaken by the development of the telegraph (Stephen Kern). The acceleration of communication and other infogenic processes led to an explosion of complexity on a social, economic and military level (Paul Virilio and consequently Douglas C. Engelbart).

Furthermore, the dissolution of the hard boundary between the organic body of the human being through the extension of its mechanical and digitized components is discussed. On the basis of examples, we will find out how digitized components expand the capabilities of the human body and its intellect in a person-bound way and how the model of the cyborg that emerges as a result is made socially acceptable.

The elaboration of these topics results in an evaluation of current problems and discourses on the role of the individual as a user in the midst of a social system guided by algorithms. The question arises whether the user in this system must be seen as an object guided by algorithms or as a system-generating component. Following the essays of the US-American programmer and software activist Richard M. Stallman, the influence the creation of software has on society will be discussed as more and more people move within systems controlled by software. It is not only the role of the programmer, but also the influence of political and legal factors that determines how the model of the user is constituted. Stallman’s concept of “free software” will be discussed to analyze whether the production process of software can be democratised and whether users can actively participate in determining how they use and are used in technogenic systems.

Human society is undergoing rapid change through digitalisation and we are part of a process which will have lasting effects on generations to come.

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