Chapter 2: The Anatomy of the Computer

The concepts and ideas with which you should be familiar are contained in the chapter 2 checklist. Print out the checklist to use as a study guide while working through the chapter.

GUI Culture
The lifetime of the current generation of college students coincides with what might be called the "GUI Era of Computing." The rise of the graphical user interface (or GUI)—the "windowed" interfaces made popular by the Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows over the decades since the mid-1980s—has had an enormous impact on the culture of information technology.

In the era prior to the rise of the GUI, the term user was a synonym for computer programmer, because using a computer typically required the kind of understanding of information technology that we now associate with computer programmers. Thus, the human and computer interface was a very difficult one. This is largely attributable to the computer’s origin as a mathematical machine or "number cruncher": it was assumed that people with the knowledge necessary to understand the mathematical problems that computers were solving were capable of working with cryptic interfaces.

In contrast, graphical user interfaces have made it possible to use information technology without learning cryptic commands or even having any understanding of how computers work. The result has been an unprecedented diversity in the use of information technology. Around the world, people from all walks of life now use computers in a wonderful variety of ways.

Thus the change in the user interface has produced a change both in computer use and also in the meaning of the term computer user. Whereas "user" and "programmer" were once synonymous, we now distinguish the two. In fact, the computer industry has introduced the term end user to refer to the typical computer user, because this person is at the end of the process of producing information technology, uninvolved in its design, and typically oblivious to how these technologies operate beyond and “beneath” the graphical user interface that is presented. The end user is expected to look no further than the illusion on the screen.

Thus, largely because of the graphical user interface, the information technology industry promotes the division of computer users into at least two groups, each with its own perspective on information technology:

  1. end users, who are not expected—and, in some cases, not allowed—to have any understanding of how information technologies operate beneath the interface, and
  2. experts, such as programmers and computer system administrators, who do understand the underlying operations and design of information technologies.

In a very real sense, one of the objectives of this course is to produce an intermediate category: a knowledgeable end user (a “KEU,” if you will), who interfaces with information technology as an end user but also has some substantive understanding of what computers really are and how they do what they do.

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These pages were written by Steven H. VanderLeest and Jeffrey Nyhoff and edited by Nancy Zylstra
©2005 Calvin College, All Rights Reserved

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