I’ve been thinking a lot about computers.
Today was a rainy morning in Toronto. Recently the song Early Morning Rain by Gordon Lightfoot came back into my consciousness. At church the song was mentioned as part of the sermon. He wrote this song when he was based in Los Angeles. The song is about wanting to go somewhere else, of being able to take off on a plane though being “stuck” in a place. Overall I think Lightfoot captured the feeling of wanting to be somewhere else even if the place you are current at is fine and good. This year, around May 1, 2023, Lightfoot passed away at the age of 84, leaving behind a legacy of excellent songwriting such as Early Morning Rain.
What does story have to do with computers? Early Morning Rain was recorded in 1966. UNIX, the highly influential style of operating systems for computers, was created around 1969 at the earliest. The graphic user interface (GUI) appeared on the Xerox Alto in 1973.
UNIX and the GUI are mainstays of modern computing. Both gave us concepts for interacting with a computer that to this day are the main methods that both programmers and non-programmers interact computers of all kinds. The idea of using a computer without an operating system, without a command line or terminal, or without some kind of graphic interface is either an quaint notion from yesteryear or an exotic computational scenario for highly specialized technologists.
Yet both UNIX and GUIs are younger than a classic Canadian pop song.
My career has been built on computers. My Master’s degree involved some simulation programming, and my first job out of school included working with a custom built piece of software for analyzing electroencephalogram (commonly known as EEG) data. Eventually I found my way into software development and became a software developer in test specialist. Mostly I’ve seen software used for professional purposes by folks in various professions including accounting, software development and scientific research. A computer, in other words, is a tool that people use to accomplish a task.
Popular culture echoes this view. One of the most famous television programs of all time is Dallas, the prime time drama set in the city of the same name. This show was one of the most popular of the 1980s, with a dramatic peak based on the famous Who Shot JR? cliffhanger ending of season 3 in 1980. Dallas was watched (and continues to be watched) by people all over the world.
Dallas is premised around the Ewings, a prestigious family whose wealth comes from the oil business (what we may refer to as a the resource extraction industry in the future). In season 6, we see that executives at Ewing Oil as well as their administrative assistants have dedicated computer workstations at their desks. We even see JR Ewing himself using a computer on occasion. Computers in this light are positioned as professional devices, machines used for business purposes to accomplish high level organizational tasks. This is mostly how I’ve seen computers in my life: a device for accomplishing concrete tasks, a tool like most others. Overtime, computers have become more and more commonplace in popular culture, appearing in teen bedrooms, academic libraries and eventually into pockets and purses of main characters.
However this is not the only way to view computers.
Around the same time as UNIX and the GUI were in active development, artists were also engaging with the computer but from a completely different vantage point: for aesthetic creation.
I had the absolute privilege of seeing the exhibit Coded: Art Enters the Computer Age at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art a few weeks ago. This exhibit showed examples of computers used to create art from the same era that yielded UNIX and GUI as well as Apple and the Atari. This exhibit combined art based on computers, mathematical constructs and digital outputs but all of which was created from the point of view of making art. This is in complete contrast to the computer as tool instead imagining the computer as creative machine. Artists such as Rebecca Allen and Stephen Willat are featured with their digital artwork. What I found extremely moving was how the digital was represented in the artwork: there were patterns, colours, shapes and emotions in each piece but these shapes and patterns were fundamentally different from a text editor output or a spreadsheet document. The forms were different but still computational.
The computer of JR Ewing’s desk is that of a device for being productive in commerce. The computer of Rebecca Allen’s studio was that of being creative and artistic. The two are not the same. It took me, someone who’s worked with computers regularly for almost two decades, a trip across the continent and a happenstance on a trip to see that computers as art and computers as commercial tools are different. I could’ve gone to the Getty, after all.