Build a Human Computer

Investigate Computer Engineering via Metaphor and Art

Photo of Charles Shryock, IV
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I think it would be fun (and challenging!) to build a human-powered computer, as John Maeda did for his performance art piece "Human Powered Computer Experiment" (1993).  

Watch the video, and see for yourself. This piece dramatically displays the work of computer processing. As a work of art, I find it fascinating – weird, unexpected, and provocative. I wonder about all kinds of creative choices, like his choice of music, the use of multiple alphabets, the cast of actors.  

In his TED Talk on creative leadership, Maeda narrates part of the project and says: "When I realized how slow this computer was compared to how fast a computer is, it made me wonder about computers and technology in general." 

I suspect that if students built their own metaphoric computers, they would wonder about the same things. Through the process of designing and planning this project, they would acquire knowledge about computer engineering, while practicing and applying knowledge and skills from arts & humanities (yay SHTEAM!). 

More questions I have: 

  • How much prompting would advanced computer engineering students need to recognize what's going on in this video? 
  • What other systematic processes could learners illustrate in this way? 

Note: Image is from this website, no attribution given. 

How does this idea help to spark student curiosity?

1) Exposes the mysterious inner workings of computer processing, to empower those who are curious about computing but find the technical side imposing. 2) Models and provides opportunities for the creative unity of arts and technology.

What grade level is this idea most appropriate for?

  • High School (9-12)


Join the conversation:

Photo of Margaret Powers

Great idea! I saw this in a talk by John Maeda last year and was very intrigued - I think it would be fun to do with teachers too!

Photo of Charles Shryock, IV

Right on! Extending it to teachers is great. I wonder what systems we could illustrate this way.