We’re halfway through the Three Pillars of the Digital programme, and yesterday we ran a workshop on hardware architecture emphasising the physicality and embodiedness of the digital world. Students began by dissecting some desktop PCs that were slated for recycling (kindly on loan from IT for the afternoon).

The point was in part to simply see what’s inside: modern consumer electronics devices strongly discourage you from such activities, at least if you want your warranty to stay intact. Furthermore, desktop PCs still have big enough components that you can dismantle them and identify the parts.

By the end everyone in the class could explain the differences between RAM and disk storage, the roles of the northgate and southgate on a motherboard and why even a desktop a computer needs a tiny battery inside (it’s to keep the CMOS ROM alive). One PC had a sophisticated graphics card (probably it came from a media lab) and quite a few groups managed to take their hard disks completely apart, discovering why they’re called “disks”.

We also spent some time looking at how software is built to run on a CPU’s instruction set, and the idea of high-level languages that provide a human interface to the bare metal. A few of the students in the class had recently completes our crash course in Processing; we hope a few more will be able to take it up next term.

There’s power in knowing the jargon and how it fits together even if you don’t intend to build your own computer. The “digital” and — even worse — the “virtual” can be obfuscatory terms, creating the sense of a mystical otherworld (“cyberspace”, as it used to be called) created and ruled over by a technocrat class whose secrets are incomprehensible to the uninitiated. It’s easy to foget that all this is mostly just electricity flowing through wire and silicon. And while there are engineering wonders in the humble desktop PC, there is nothing conceptually difficult about how it works.

This was the very first workshop we planned when we initially put the Three Pillars programme together, and it symbolises our whole approach this term: “opening the box” as a gesture of curiousity, playfulness but also a little bit of defiance. Many people feel disempowered by the opacity of contemporary technology and this approach is designed to lift the veil, if only a tiny bit, and encourage further peeking.

Three Pillars of the Digital is an experimental programme of one-off workshops for BA and MA students in the School of Fine Art, generously sponsored by the Teaching and Learning Fund. So far we’ve run sessions on data, networks and architecture open to all students and advanced sessions (with a programming prerequisite) on image manipulation, OO programming and twitter bots. Our final beginner session will cover algorithms and we have advanced sessions coming up on Arduino, video and maths for computer graphics.