Malleable Obfuscation

by Carson Reynolds

In Jean-Louis Gassee’s and Howard Rheingold’s article “The Evolution of Thinking Tools” in The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design there are some excellent quotes that reflect what I believe to be some of the best attributes of computers:

“In the popular mythology the computer is a mathematics machine: it is designed to do numerical calculations. Yet it is really a language machine: its fundamental power lies in its ability to manipulate linguistic tokens–symbols to which meaning has been assigned.”
-Terry Winograd (1984)

“The protean nature of the computer is such that it can act like a machine or like a language to be shaped and exploited. It is a medium that can dynamically simulate the details of any other medium, including media that cannot exist physically. It is not a tool, although it can act like many tools. It is the first metamedium, and as such it has degrees of freedom for representation and expression never before encountered and as yet barely investigated.”
-Alan Kay (1984)

In trying to make computers something understandable and usable, we may intentionally obscure the amorphous potential. Designing for consistent form means that the malleable aspect of computation, its reconfigurability, is hidden from us inside interface metaphors and artifacts.