Computers should expose their internal workings as a 6th sense

17.24, Friday 27 Aug 2021

I kinda miss the days when I could hear the hard drive of my computer. If it was taking a while to response (say, when opening a big file), there was a difference between the standard whirr chugga chugga ch-ch-ch chugga seek pattern, and a broken kik kik kik. And you’d have an idea how long loading a file from disk should take, versus the silent “thinking” time afterwards.

Likewise the fan: total silence would be a sign that the computer wasn’t working, but also the fan suddenly ramping up would be a sign for caution, maybe a rogue process had pegged the CPU.

LIKEWISE, in 1949, the first computer to allow for loadable programs: experienced users knew healthy and unhealthy sounds of programs, particularly programs ‘hung’ in a loop.

The point is not the sound. You barely noticed the sound.

The point is that you felt you like were in psychic communion with the workings of the computer.

You don’t get ambient awareness with solid state components, and you don’t get this ambient awareness with the cloud.

So with Google Docs, or YouTube, you don’t really get a sense of whether the wi-fi is janky or a tap is taking a while because it’s [robot voice] pro-cess-ing or because it’s broken.

It would be neat to have 6th sense amplifiers between our world and the world of computers.

What about a scarf or collar so the back of your neck prickles when somebody is talking about you on Twitter.

Or a dowsing rod – a pocket-based buzzer that would go off when virtual content is nearby, like geolocated augmented reality, or a QR code that leads to an app.

Or a ghost detector for homes, restaurants, etc that glows when someone is “visiting” in Google Maps/Facebook Pages or looking through a webcam? Maybe it would be better to control the air conditioning to produce a chill, or play barely audible infrasound, indications that there is a haunting in progress and the veil here is thin.

Practically I should like a little ring to clip on an ethernet cable, or a sticker to put on a wifi-connected device, and it would glow with active bandwidth. So if my “smart” TV stalls (which it does) I can tell with a glance whether the app has crashed, the wifi is down, or the internet is wonky.

Nokia phones, back in the day, caused a stuttering static noise to sound from any nearby speakers, just before you received a call or text: ba b b ba b b ba. Analogue electronics eh. Radio interference.

I used to think about it as reality buffering, the virtual clearing its throat before it manifests. Ahem. So here’s an old idea:

What your email program should do before you get an email in an empty inbox, or your phone before it rings… it should make a little cough. If you hear it, you can close your inbox before it gets the email, or switch off your phone before it actually rings. We’d implement this by having one big button that only works in the quarter of a second after the cough.

The person on the other end would just get a tone like you were unavailable – they’d never know your phone was actually on to begin with.

Here are the categories of information I’m thinking about:

  • the kind of stuff that shows up in Activity Manager or Task Manager or log files those kind of apps
  • the stages of the various progress bars that are happening on the cloud, behind the web browser
  • where a database, wherever it is, references a thing which is currently relevant, whether that’s somebody looking up your name on Google, or running a credit check on your bank account (the app on your phone should glow)
  • when an interrupt triggers deep in the stack, like a email comes in but it hasn’t downloaded yet
  • the rate of things: file access, bandwidth on the wire, the number of CPU cycles running on my behalf in the data centre – even if it isn’t local.

The workings of the machine before the interfaces updates.

Then I’m asking for these to be made continuously available to peripheral awareness, just below the level of consciousness, using sound, temperature, vibration, that kind of thing. Enough for unconscious pattern recognition to occur, and a sense of unheimlich or premonition to arise.

To put it another way:

Let’s build a new sense for humans, a data sense, which is synesthesiatically translated into our regular physical senses. And then see what happens, I guess.

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