It has become clear to me that many small decisions made in Silicon Valley are made arbitrarily. In the “mother of all demos” Doug Engelbart laments that they kept the name of the mouse. He mentions during the demo that he’s not sure why they called it the mouse. What other decisions have been made like this?
When Engelbart first introduced the mouse he was using it with a text-based interface. Remember, this invention pre-dated the graphical user interface by 10 years. In addition to describing the mouse, with its two wheels, each attached to a potentiometer producing a voltage output which is then sampled by a converter. The mouse at the time could only move vertical and horizontally. He was also using a keyboard and chord set which apparently allowed him to edit text twice as fast as any system we have today. It costs $350 to build and had to be assembled by hand. When Bill English went to Xerox Parc he only took the mouse with him and replaced the wheels with a ball so that the mouse could move in any direction. What kinds of feeling does being able to move your mouse virtually anywhere on the screen produce? Perhaps it is here where we experience as computer programmers this illusion of power and as computer users this illusion of control.
And now, in 2019, 50 years later, I wonder where does the trackpad fit in? It is said that although the trackpad is perhaps more ubiquitous than the mouse it will never be as precise for pointing and clicking. People who work with three dimensional software or large spreadsheets or any kind of computational process that requires a lot of precise pointing and clicking prefer the mouse to the trackpad. Why exactly is it that the mouse, as an extension of our arm, allows us to be the most precise? Is it because we are holding something that has weight? Is it because we are moving parts of our arms as opposed to parts of our hand?
There is a sensuality and a softness associated with the mouse. Ali Na, in her paper “The fetish of the click: a small history of the computer mouse as vulva”, expands on this by re-claiming the history of the mouse through a feminist lens. The mouse is an technology that you hold and touch. It has a yonic shape. It does not look like its phallic predecessors and does not act as a repository or port of other things to go into. It is powerful because of its shape and forces the person holding it to handle it with care.
The mouse is a technology original meant for interactive computing. It was not invented for the GUI, rather he GUI needed the mouse. It was not invented for the metaphorical desk and the metaphorical filing of documents. The personal computer exploited the technology of the mouse and now instead of creating collaborative text documents we are hopelessly scrolling and clicking, our desires being capitalized on and changed by behavioral modifications systems like Google and Facebook. We are doing all of this at our desks, through our desktops, in our laps, on our laptops, with the mouse. Computation requires creativity. We are stuck with metaphors and abstraction and the extreme limitations of the screen. I don’t think making computing spatial, three dimensions or closer to reality will solve any of the philosophical problems we face. It will just create new ones. This is why the mouse is such an important vehicle for understanding the effects computation has on society.