What does a computer look like?

In the 1950s, soon after Univac, IBM, and other companies first began manufacturing computers, audiences saw computers in movies like Desk Set and Forbidden Planet. They recognized a computer when they saw an enormous cabinet decorated with blinking lights. The big machines buzzed, clattered, and beeped.

In the 1980s, soon after Apple, IBM, and other companies made personal computers practical, fictional heroes in movies like WarGames and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home discovered the power of smaller computers. In the Star Trek story, the crew of the starship Enterprise traveled back in time from the 23rd century to the 1980s. They landed in San Francisco. Scotty, the ship’s chief engineer, needed a computer. He found an early model of the Apple Macintosh. He mistook the mouse for a microphone. Movie-goers laughed when they saw him try to talk to the computer.

We no longer see toggle switches and spinning reels of magnetic tape on the front faces of our computers. Thin liquid crystal displays have replaced hot, bulky cathode ray tubes. Twenty years ago, we copied software from floppy disks. Ten years ago, we purchased software on CD-ROMS. Now we fetch new software from the Internet. The form and appearance of our computers have changed. The physical features of our computers do not define them.

If people from another planet came to us in a flying saucer or if people from our own future came to us in a time machine, would we be able to recognize their computers? Are you sure that you know what a computer is?