The Physical Infrastructure of Human Computing


If you cannot calculate, you cannot speculate on future pleasure and your life will not be that of a human, but that of an oyster or a jellyfish.
– Plato in Philebus

There is considerable evidence of the mainframe era, the rise of the PC, and the early internet, but the more mundane details of computing history are often lost to software updates and hardware trends. The era before digital computers, when “computer” meant a human performing calculation, has left considerable records of the “how” of this work: where it was done, for what purpose, and by whom. The work of scholars studying human computing, notably Grier and Campbell-Kelly, focuses on the social, political, and scientific aspects. We know the details of William Samuel Stratford’s Nautical Almanac in England and the long narrative of the Mathematical Tables Project in New York City, but little has been written on the physical infrastructures of human computing such as office layouts and furniture, or the ephemera like the worksheets used to complete calculations. Because most of the physical infrastructure exists only in snippets of written material or in the background of photographs, I will only sketch some of the physical objects used in human computing, and mostly focus on 20th-century projects.

This account omits discussion of mechanical, electronic, and digital computing aides for human computers. Those devices are well researched, and many artifacts and detailed descriptions exist. Instead, this essay focuses on the lost fragments of physical infrastructure, namely worksheets, offices and furniture, and posters and other ephemera.

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Computers I’ve Owned

While working on a piece, I made a list of every computer I’ve owned or used regularly. I thought that we be 5-6, but the list kept growing and is not at 18.

1988-96Apple IIGSUsed in elementary and middle school, mostly to play Number Munchers and Oregon Trail
1994-96486 of some kindUsed at home for DOS games (didn't really know how to do anything else)
1996-98Compaq Presario 5140Used at home, used for games, going on AOL, graphics programs - all with that distinctive power/sleep button
1998-2000Some kind of eMachines desktopUsed at home for games, going on the real internet, using a cracked version of Corel Draw that Steve gave me, building webistes using hand-written HTML and launching on Tripod
2000-2004Apple Power Macintosh G3 (Blue & White)Used at college (I'm pretty sure this is the kind we had), used mostly for Photoshop, Illustrator, and writing papers
2002-2004Toshiba Tecra 8000 laptopUsed while in college (passed down from my dad's office), recorded some crappy little songs using the built-in sound recording app and a plastic mic
2004-2006Gateway laptop (still unidentified)Also used in late college and in early grad school, used for recording music on a cracked version of Cakewalk, making art using cracked versions of all kinds of software
2006-2009Mac PowerBook 12" laptopUsed during grad school and after for EVERYTHING, mostly on cracked software, too :)
2009-11iPhone 3GSMy first smartphone, bought after I lost the charger to my crappy cellphone, played lots of Scrabble on this
2009-13MacBook Pro 15" (2x)Used at first teaching job with NO cracked software! (2 different computers of the same model)
2011-13iPhone 4Replaced my previous smartphone, donated the old one to Angeles, played lots of Angry Birds on this
2012-presentRaspberry Pi Model BBought very early on, now runs all my bots
2013-preseNexus 10 tabletBought using a grant, mostly to run Processing sketches
2013-presentMacBook Pro 15" w Retina DisplayCurrent workhorse
2014-presentMac MiniAlso bought using a grant, mostly for installations (and formerly for and running bots)
2014-presentiPhone 5sCurrent smartphone, mostly use for email and directions/maps

* A note: by computer I mean anything that can do significant processing, like a smartphone, not anything that does computation or runs programs. I’m also excluding computers that I’ve used but don’t work here, like supercomputers :)


Every File My Computer Has Open Right Now

Using the command lsof, below is part of the list of all 4,962 files that my computer has open right now.

The full list is available here (about a 300k text file).