Analyzing effects of computation

[Note: In the latest CS Principles Framework this practice is called “Connecting Computing”.]

Computation is everywhere. From search engines that help us find information, to cash registers in stores, to software used for designing bridges, we live in a world built on the effects of computation.

Computation is not just another word for technology. For example, a cellular phone contains many different technologies: a radio transmitter and receiver, a processor, memory, and electro-mechnical parts like buttons and touch screens. When studying the effects of computation, we aren’t trying to learn how physics governs these technologies. Analyzing the effects of computation means specifically looking at what happens when we collect, store, and process data.

The computation done by a cell phone involves recording your voice as data, compressing and transmitting that data, and interacting with a larger system that routes your call’s data to its destination. This same computational process is done in reverse so your conversation partner can talk back to you. That sounds like a lot of computational work for your cell phone to do, but that’s only part of what happens when you make a call.

All the sending and receiving of data happens via radio waves. When the technology for radio communication was first invented by Nikola Tesla, it could only be used for mass communication in the form of broadcasts. It takes computation to transform that raw technological capacity into the more refined form we use today in our cell phones. One effect of computation is that radio can now be used for person-to-person communication, with many simultaneous conversations happening in the same physical area.

When we analyze the effects of computation, we take note of data is transformed. We look at how information is processed and what is accomplished by that processing. We can think about what we might do if such computational power wasn’t available. That can also help us start to imagine new things we can strive to accomplish using computation.

A major part of the work in analyzing the effects of computation is careful observation, as Blaze, Ada, Charles, Alan, and Grace are doing in this illustration. In their world, as in ours, computation is everywhere. By looking closely, we can start to see what computation — not just raw technology — does for us.

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