the definition of "computer"

in your mind, you probably have an idea of what a computer is. you can imagine what they look like, how they act, and all that. but if you had to put it in the simplest of words, how would you do that? what is the essence of being a "computer"? and in a world where more and more devices contain microprocessors, what draws the line between a computer, a smart appliance, a game console, etc?

if you asked me to define what a computer is, i'd say that a computer is a device that runs arbitrary software as programmed by the user. this definition, in my opinion, is one that most "techy" people would agree with. but to the average person, this definition probably feels a bit verbose. the average person would define a computer as any device that runs software. and while this definition may seem similar, there are a couple of important distinctions this makes.

to the techie, the programmable nature of a computer is its core feature. the ability to program your own software is what defines a computer and makes it more than just a glorified calculator. without being able to have full control over the system to do whatever you want with it, a device is not a computer. but for the average person, what a computer can do has nothing to do with its hardware specifications. to most people, the experience of using a computer is defined fully by the software that is already made for it.

this is how most people have seen computers ever since the first Personal Computer was released by IBM. nobody bought a PC because they could write their own programs in BASIC, they bought a PC because it could run Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect. and when most people care about buying a computer now, they don't care about the processor or the storage, they care about if they can use a word processor, spreadsheets, and web browser.

because of this, the definition of a computer in the eyes of the average user is rather vague. a Chromebook or iPad is just as good at doing those tasks as a traditional computer, but the Chromebook is cheaper and the iPad is slimmer. so, why not switch away? while power users and programmers complain about lack of full direct filesytem access on iOS and Android, most people have already switched to using cloud storage for everything, anyways. for most users, an iPad or a Chromebook is simply enough of a computer for their needs.

if we want to push greater digital freedom onto the masses, instead of trying to fight this philosophy, we need to embrace it. a basic installation of Linux Mint comes out of the box with LibreOffice and Firefox, enough to satisfy the needs of any casual user, and is much more intuitive and cohesive to use than whatever Microsoft Windows is up to these days. plus, it won't hog all your resources with spyware, demand payment for basic features, or suddenly change itself on you with a forced update.

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