Like a Pizza, or maybe a Theremin?


Last wednesday’s class kept me thinking well into the evening. (Yes, this post has been in the works for a while.  I’m thinking of this as an elastic week.)  I loved how Janine and Nathan framed our discussion — there was just the right balance between supplementary / explanatory nuggets and open exchange. And thinking about representation and the ways in which humans, as highly visual creatures, developed abstract recordings of language (writing) from pictograms made me appreciate the kind of assumptions and expectations we bring to the computer, nascent even in the amazing vision of Kay and Goldberg’s Dynabook.  (That letters such as A, C, H, L and I come from our pastoral past is important too, but that’s the class I’m teaching, not the one I’m taking…)  But what I really found compelling was the computer as pizza metaphor.  Like pizzas, computers share some things: crust = memory/hard drive; sauce =processor; cheese =screen on which the bubbles and waves of input and the icons (toppings) of applications appear?  You can choose your toppings and your apps and your components.  If you need skype or mushrooms you can have them. And if you hate anchovies you can leave them (or the DVD drive) off.  You can also have just a piece of a pizza – or a tablet instead of a laptop.

Unless you have celiac disease.  In that case you can’t have pizza (unless it has a gluten-free crust, which most people will tell you is as close to the real deal as a slot machine is to a real computer.)  But you can still have a computer.  And while the Dynabook’s creators thought about flutes, I’m wondering if they might also have known about the Theremin, an early electronic instrument named after its Russian inventor, Leon Theremin, and known to most of us as the signature special effect of the Beach Boys’ hit, Good Vibrations and many bad horror movies.  Unlike the flute, which is animated by the breath, the Theremin responds to hand gestures.  Although it’s composition is less plastic than a pizza’s, it responds to the subtlest and most varied inputs.  Children, rock stars, and spies that came in from the cold could all play it. And as this video of a Theremin performance indicates, the results could be quite elegant.