What is a Computer?



What is a computer?

Most people would answer this question by pointing to a desktop personal computer gathering dust in an office at home or at work.

This gesture is informed by a very narrow definition of what a computer is. The truth is that computers are everywhere around us now.

We carry them in our pockets. They control advertisements in the street. Large, wealthy corporations and the government us computers to listen to us and in attempts to control us.

Computers only do what their name suggests, ``compute”, so why should there be so many computers around us in our everyday life?

Why do our televisions need computers equipped with microphones, or maybe even cameras? Why does the internet need to be on all the time? Why do the advertisements on our smartphones change after we have had a conversation?

Productivity and the Working Day

The answer is that computers have been introduced into society on a mass scale as part of an enormous effort to increase the rate of profit under capitalism. Computers enable humans to be more productive. They also require humans to be on average less skilled than they used to be fifty years ago. In place of a skilled tradesperson fifty years ago now stands a machine.

Labour and union struggles in the 1960s and 1970s fought over how hard and how long exactly people needed to work under capitalism. This system-wide struggle that workers waged against the ruling class tried to shorten the working day that people had to endure, so people could be free to develop themselves in creative and passionate ways.

But following the onset of neoliberalism, capitalists introduced computerised machinery, along with the offshoring of jobs, in order to claw back the time that people had for themselves, to attempt to push up the rate of profit. And for a time it worked.

A Tool for Production?

So one answer to the question ``what is a computer?” is that it is a tool for bosses to make profits.

But this is not the whole story. In fact computers are wonderful tool for ordinary humans to communicate and develop themselves creatively.

All over the world, people are taking back the power of computers to free themselves from the wage slavery of capitalism. One such example is the social media network Mastodon, which is a decentralised and federated network of servers that communicate independently and allow the flourishing of friendships and communities on the internet.

People in the US are constructing their own mesh networks of long range wireless computer communication. The same is happening in Catalonia.

People are freeing themselves of the chains of proprietary software by installing FreeBSD, Linux, or other Free operating systems. These operating systems are free to download and use for any purpose, unlike proprietary software, which you often have to continually pay for in order to keep using – a form of rent.

Most importantly people are learning to program their computers, as well as build their own computers at the microprocessor level. These efforts allow you to have the maximum control possible over your computer hardware, so that you can free yourself from surveillance and the arbitrary decisions of bosses.