Assignment 6 - Machine or Medium

Compare and contrast the computer as machine or medium. Which view is most important for digital libraries?

Computers are machines capable of performing fast and accurate computations, data processing, and storage and retrieval of information. These simple and powerful abilities have evolved into the ability to create sophisticated "cognitive artifacts" (Norman, 1993) - tools that serve to enhance our cognitive abilities through abstraction and representation. The machine capabilities of computers to quickly and accurately process and present large amounts of data in multiple ways afford the discovery of relationships and patterns previously beyond the abilities of the unaided person.

With the introduction of computer networks, more specifically the use of standard communication protocols allowing for consistent interoperability between machines, the value of cognitive artifacts has been increased. Computers became a vehicle for comparing and sharing these cognitive artifacts, i.e. a communication medium.

While it is true that what makes computers most valuable as a medium are the machine aspects of the technology, this does not eclipse the importance of the medium itself. All media consist of an underlying technology that define them. Paper, printing, and symbol systems are all technologies that are important in their own rights, but have become largely invisible to the medium they facilitate. As computers as a medium continue to evolve, the machine aspects will also continue to become more transparent while at the same time remaining an important component in discovering what new capabilities are possible.

The view of computer as medium over computer as machine is particularly important when considering digital libraries. The presence of the word "digital" places an emphasis on the machine, implying that being on a computer is a defining characteristic of digital libraries. While this may or may not be the case depending on one's perspective, the main purpose of a digital library is the same as any library - "to serve the research needs of its constituents" (Levy & Marshal, 1995). To this end, the machine is just a tool to be used in the enhancement of the medium.


Levy, D. M. & Marshal, C. C. (1995). Going Digital: A look at assumptions underlying digital libraries. Communications of the ACM. 38(4) pp. 77-84.

Licklider, J.C.R. (1960). Man-Computer Symbiosis. Reprinted from IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics, HFE(1) pp. 4-11.

Licklider, J.C.R. (1968). The Computer as a Communication Device. Reprinted from Science and Technology, April.

Norman, D. (1993). Things that make us smart: Defending human attributes in the age of the machine. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company. pp. 43-75.

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