The Tale of the Big Computer

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Our poets, especially those commonly called mystics, tend to regard the period immediately succeeding the formation of the Earth as a mighty effort on the part of nature to engender computers directly, without the help of any intermediary. They are alluding to the geological processes which crystallized out many of the substances of which a data machine consists. But the task of bringing forth computers from sterile soil proved too difficult. The tectonic forces which created mountains and differentiated minerals could not produce anything as subtle and complex as a computer. For this a lengthy, troublesome detour was required, and the greatest of all tasks had to be completed step by step. 

- Excerpt from The Tale of the Big Computer: A Vision by Olof Johannesson (Sagan om den stora Datamaskinen,) 1966

Triple Canopy's new issues includes a wonderful essay by artist Anna Lundh beginning with a look at a rare example of Swedish language science fiction, The Tale of the Big Computer, written by the prominent physicist Hannes Alfvén, (later a Nobel prize winner):

Sagan om den stora Datamaskinen was written at the very cusp of the computer age, but today’s perspective has shifted slightly, to that of a society already immersed in computer technology (a dependence that may obscure some of the technology’s implications). Though Alfvén’s story of humanity’s evolution, his ambivalence about technology, and his suspicion of politicians and bureaucrats are firmly rooted in 1960s Sweden, his tale has grown to encompass our 2011 present, exposing it from two directions. Alfvén’s future vision looks back past us but also stretches far beyond us, into the reaches of possibility. The borders between the past, the present, and the future are blurred and overlapping: a cross-contamination of time.

Researching whether The Tale of the Big Computer had been turned into an opera, as the British edition of the book said, Lundh found documentation of Swedish composer Karl-Birger Blomdahl's 1959 operatic adaptation of Harry Martinson’s epic sci-fi poem Aniara, "in which one of the leading roles was sung by the operator of the ingenious instrument Mima (a sort of mechanical brain and the soul of the spaceship), to an imaginative and energetic score that included musique concrête and even some electronic sounds."

Lundh's essay continues with an antic description of Blomdahl's plans to turn The Tale of the Big Computer into an opera. "It’s a rather idealistic and even paradoxical endeavor: to create an opera about future technology, using technology that inevitably belongs to the present."

 

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The Future and Modernity's White

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When conjuring up a reason why white is the dominant shade of Modernity one might think of the soon to be retired space shuttle Atlantis or the seminal architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (also known as Le Corbusier). Depending on your preference of medium you can view it as an additive or subtractive color, but the question remains: why is the color white linked to "hi-tech" gadgets, architecture, and visions of the future?

John Powers, a Brooklyn-based sculptor recently ruminated on this question and discovered it has an intriguing and complicated history and relationship with technology. Powers maps the trends of the color against various historical events, revealing along the way that Jacob Riis' 1890 flash photographs of lower Manhattan's tenements and Platex bra construction played surprisingly important roles. According to Powers' research, Modern white's psychological associations and aesthetic perceptions are driven by a mix of technological advancements in electric lights, the garment industry, and space travel.

Original Edison light bulb; Weissenhofsiedlung (1927) via Star Wars Modern

Seamstress Jane Butchin, Delma Domegy, Inspector Mary Todd, and others at ILC Plant (1967); Astronauts Charles Conrad and Alen Bean (1969) via Star Wars Modern

John Powers' ten-part essay titled White Walls:

 

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Virginia Heffernan Considers the Rise and Fall of Message Boards

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Online message boards were a mainstay of early web communities. Now they have the challenge of coexisting with Facebook, Tumblr, and numerous other social networking sites. So how has their presence changed? Virginia Heffernan, writing for the New York Times, offers a survey of the rise and fall of message boards from declining statistics to personal experience:

Not to get too misty, but the board format itself might deserve a nostalgic embrace. The Internet forum, that great old standby of Web 1.0., has become an endangered species.

Many boards are stagnant or in decline, if they even still exist. Several once-thriving boards on the women’s site iVillage have closed up shop. Big fiction-fan boards haven’t seen real action in years. Last month, a once-popular eight-old-year British board about mental health went dark with a note: “The Internet has changed significantly.”

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Put a Corinthian Column on It

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via justshutty, via greeknewmediashit

Hellenistic references in new media art might appear at first as a clumsy way to position digital work in the timeline of art history. But there seems to be more to it than that. As arguably the world's most famous sculpture, the Venus de Milo is from a moment in time that seems as abstract and far away as a future world of martian space colonies. The juxtaposition of antiquity with new technology often appears to disengage the former's historicity. In such context, the Venus de Milo is an icon as neutral as robot — it does not offend or politicize, but instead speaks only of its endearing beauty.

Recommended: Sterling Crispin's Tumblr collection Greek New Media Shit.

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Letter from Campbell Soup Product Manager to Andy Warhol (1964)

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In light of Andy Baio's settlement with Jay Maisel, this 1964 letter from the Campbell Soup product manager to Andy Warhol serves as the ideal way to respond to transformative works:

Transcript:

Campbell SOUP Company
CAMDEN 1, NEW JERSEY

May 19, 1964

Mr. A. Warhol
1342 Lexington Avenue
New York, New York

Dear Mr. Warhol:

I have followed your career for some time. Your work has evoked a great deal of interest here at Campbell Soup Company for obvious reasons.

At one time I had hoped to be able to acquire one of your Campbell Soup label paintings - but I'm afraid you have gotten much too expensive for me.

I did want to tell you, however, that we admired your work and I have since learned that you like Tomato Soup. I am taking the liberty of having a couple of cases of our Tomato Soup delivered to you at this address.

We wish you continued success and good fortune.

Cordially,

(Signed, 'William P. MacFarland')

William P. MacFarland
Product Marketing Manager

via Daniel Jalkut, Dan Abrams

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Max Mathews (1926–2011) Interview with Geeta Dayal for Frieze

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Max Mathews Radio Baton Demonstration


Rhizome contributor Geeta Dayal recently interviewed Max Mathews for Frieze magazine. Sadly the pioneer of digital music (creating MUSIC in 1957) passed away three weeks later. It's a fascinating conversation going over the history of computer music and Mathew's many high profile collaborations, while explaining the creative energy at Bell Labs at the time.

Your boss actually encouraged you to take time off from work to write MUSIC? Bell Labs sounds like it was an amazing place.

Bell Labs was a golden era. Golden for several things. One was that the research money to support it was gotten as a tax on the earnings or the profits of the telephone companies. We got it as a lump sum. The vice president in charge of research, William O. Baker, insisted that there be no strings attached to the money and that we could use it in the way we thought was best. So a lot of very important things were done with this support, or byproducts of things that were used in telephony. There were the radio telescopes, and the measurement of the background radiation with the very low-noise antennas that we developed that supported the Big Bang theory, and there was of course the transistor. And there were all sorts of speech codings that are still very important, and error correcting codes. The departments originally only hired Ph.D. physicists, mathematicians, and maybe a few chemists. Then they gradually let in some engineers. The whole research department, the position you took was a member of staff – MTS, member of technical staff. That was the highest position in the research department! [laughs]...

What’s your attitude about how difficult it was for you in the 1950s to make computer music, versus making computer music ...

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Publications from the Whole Earth Catalog at MoMA

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The Last Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog, 1971

Access to Tools: Publications from the Whole Earth Catalog, 1968–1974
April 18–July 26, 2011

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Stan Vanderbeek: The Computer Generation (1972)

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Documentary from 1972 by John Musilli.

Gygory Kepes’ dream for the new MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies was to create a thriving laboratory for the creation of new artworks and artistic research within the context of MIT. Established in 1967, the Center appointed several long-term fellows in its first decade, including the pioneering experimental filmmaker Stan VanDerBeek.

VanDerBeek became enthralled with MIT’s digital universe. Everywhere, he found computers and intensely creative engineers and scientists pushing the absolute limits of technology. VanDerBeek was as interested in how computers were shaping MIT and the larger society as he was in conducting his own experiments. The Computer Generation is a documentary that captures VanDerBeek’s expansive and fascinating ideas about computers and society and that features clips of his own investigations conducted largely at MIT. “What does an artist do with a machine?” he asks in the film. “Amplify the artist’s thought. And at last the artist is in the electronic matrix, no longer confined to his studio.” via Network Awesome

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Fairlight: "The Rolls Royce of synthesizers"

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Fairlight CMI on "This Week" ABC TV

The Register covers the history of Fairlight synthesizers. "An Australian-made music production system based on the Motorola 6800 processor, the Fairlight was - at well over £20,000 – a stupendously pricey piece of kit." Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel were early adopters...

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TV Segment on Pioneering Filmmaker Mary Ellen Bute

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In 1999, British TV series The Dope Show profiled experimental animator Mary Ellen Bute (1906—1983.) Film editor Thelma Schoonmaker (who has since collaborated with Martin Scorsese on dozens of films) is interviewed. Also look for a young "Ronnie Walken," who appeared in one of her live-action films before changing his name to Christopher.

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