Tuesday, November 09, 2021

The computer as a tool: a prelude to hardware specifications

Being a digital media artist, the computer is my primary tool, quite unlike other tools, being general-purpose machines that require modification and configuration before they are fit for purpose. It's easy to buy a hammer to hammer, a toaster to toast. It's somewhat more involved to buy paints to paint, paper on which to print, and so on. But it's definitively a non-trivial matter to buy and configure a computer... at least for anyone who wishes to deeply engage with their working process.

This is why the common comparisons of the computer to a car is facile. Yes, an automobile is fairly complicated under the hood. But we don't have the option to buy a car in components and assemble it into the form we wish. We don't customise the software and spend hours in a detailed mental transactional space with a car. Our interactions are standardised, in a limited affordance space: accelerator, break, clutch, gear, steering wheel. Each single action is linked to a single function.

Granted, there are subcultures that hack and rebuild cars. Their interactions when actually using the car are nonetheless tightly constrained. We can compare such automobile enthusiasts with the computer enthusiasts who show off the internals of their computer with RGB lighting and complex water-cooling systems. This has become such a popular activity that it's now difficult to buy a computer case without a glass side-panel. Both groups are essentially fetishizing the hardware, using their finished build as a way to highlight their accomplishments and purchasing power. It's a competitive game.

While these subcultures are intriguing as social phenomena, I am not personally interested in such activities. Building a computer is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Nonetheless I am hardly going to say, in the manner popular in online discussions, that the tool doesn't matter. Quite the opposite. The specifics of hardware and software matter a great deal.

As a teacher of digital media (video, sound, graphics) I encourage students to develop their own deep and involved engagement with their tools, shaping their digital environment to suit their desired outcomes and working process. Today, that's easy, since we have a profusion of software applications at our fingertips: all different, many quite idiosyncratic.

Hence I prefer to focus on what my tools can do for me, less on what they are. Nonetheless, there are those times when I find my computer holding me back, when I need to upgrade components to accomplish some new task. Then I am happy to dig deep into hardware specifications, to locate optimum components.

That time is now. In the article(s) to follow, I will outline my decision-making processes, in the hopes that this might help others. There will be lots of talk of megabytes and motherboards. Let's keep that in context!


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