Images of computers: a prehistory - hopes and fears realised?
John van Dyk
dr Samuel Mann
School of Information Technology and Electrotechnology
Faculty of Art and Technology
Otago Polytechnic, Dunedin, NZ
The computer has become since the 80's, a ubiquitous image both pictorially and in text. The pseudo technical language of the IT world pervades modern idioms, marketing type and analogies. But in a world
without computers, this digital overlay would be absent from all forms of art, literature, entertainment and common parlance. This paper explores the intrusion of computing and related technical devices into various media over the centuries since records were first kept. Some changes in attitudes towards computing are explored and themes associated with dehumanization and post life machines, are presented as embodied messages inserted with varying consciousness by artists of all persuasions.
The computer has featured as a subject in the arts for many years. While the portrayal of the computer in popular films is well known, the extent to which computers appear in other forms of the arts such as painting, literature, and music is less well understood. As with all art, depictions of the computer can be assumed to communicate some meaning or message from artist to viewer. Starting with artistic representations of the computer's forerunners, and then focusing on more recent examples, this study surveys the corpus of relevant images, and examines the historical issues that artists have deemed to be of importance. It is proposed that images of the computer convey an underlying meaning, or meanings, and that those meanings have changed over time.
The primary research for this paper was by way of locating and evaluating visual art, performing art and literature. Techniques of literary and artistic criticism were used to reflectively explore possible meanings contained in images.
The term "computer" here goes beyond the conventional desktop computer, and even midrange, mainframe and supercomputer equipment. The overwhelming proportion of computers in existence today are in fact microprocessors, the units that control all manner of devices, from toasters to car engines, ventilation systems to heart monitors, and, of course, robots. In addition, to put the modern-day computer into a chronological perspective, certain forerunners of the computer, such as automata and industrial machines - particularly where programmable, are included where appropriate in their historical contexts. This paper aims to include a representative balance of images, not only chronologically, but also between different art forms and media and between famous and lesser-known works.
There are many photographic images-such as those documenting Pascal's calculator, Babbage's analytical and difference engines, and early electromechanical and electronic computers-which, over time, have acquired an iconic status. Associated more with recording the history of the computer, these images have been considered outside the scope of this research. So too the majority of early technological developments such as time-keeping devices, sextants,
and manual calculators, although of great historical importance, are not considered here.
In recent years the computer has enjoyed a place as a tool in the creation of art, as evidenced by works that are computer-enhanced, computer-manipulated, or computer-generated. As interesting and meritorious a studies on the use of the computer in the creation of art are (indeed this spawns a whole new subject matter - "New Media" - see Manovich 2001), this study is concerned only with the computer as it appears as a subject in works of art.
2.1 Literature review
While there are many discussions of the impact of computing on art, indeed this may be considered a central theme of much art theory, there is little published work on the icon itself.
Hurt (1997) presents a history of computers and artificial intelligence in film with a decade-by-decade historical analysis tracing the cinematic development of the genre. The various themes that Hurt identifies are also to be found in other media, and attention will be paid to a number of these themes in the findings and conclusions of this report.
Springer (1996) observes that, when humans compare themselves with machines, a shift has occurred over time. Once considered inferior, machines are increasingly being described as superior to the human body. From Victorian times, workers and machines have often been characterised as interchangeable. The new hybrid entity of the cyborg pushes this interchangeability even further. As the cyborg is perceived to represent a triumph of reason over emotion, of mind over body, the prospect is raised of human obsolescence.
The goal for this paper is to explore a range of images to examine their meanings, and to plot these meanings over time. It is hoped that this work will provide material for further understanding of our relationships with computers. This paper considers the `prehistory' of computing, finishing in 1985 as the PC became prevalent.
From its earliest beginnings to the present day, the computer has captured the collective imagination of our time. To build on the existing mechanical technology that had been able to imitate our physical processes, and progress to a new electronic technology that might somehow imitate our mental processes, has been a development variously welcomed with awe, adulation and suspicion. There
is an undoubted and justified pride in the technological accomplishments of twentieth and twenty-first-century humankind. However, because computers are made to simulate some kind of human decision-making activity, there has always been an uneasy tension towards the machine by its creator. The possibility arises, of humans, being placed alongside machines, and found wanting. Of the machine outperforming humans in all spheres of their endeavour. Of humans becoming obsolete.
That practitioners of the arts would use the computer as a subject in their work, therefore, was inevitable and necessary. For artists, together with academics, professionals and journalists, play an indispensable part in communicating the issues of the day to the public at large. However, the extent to which computers have been depicted in the arts is not great and, as a theme, appears to be in its infancy. As the level of associated research on the topic has been meagre at best, an excellent opportunity presents itself to gain some small insight into a field of interest and relevance, not only to devotees of information technology or the arts, but to all watchers of present-day social developments.
3.1 Fantastic machines conceived (-1900)
The fantasy of fantastic machines is not new. Contained in the ancient Greek text of Homer's epic poem, The Iliad (c.800 BC) is one of the earliest known literary reference to a computer, more specifically a simple robot. The writing describes the arrival of Thetis
Figure 1 (opposite): Clockwise (from top left):
Top left: A simple sketch by Leonardo Da Vinci may be the first pictorial representation of a computer.
Top right: The Time Machine, novel by T.G. Wells
Middle right: The Computer's First Christmas Card, a poem by Edwin Morgan, 1969
Bottom right: Keith Haring's figure exploits the impending posthuman ambiguity between man and and machine, 1984
Bottom left: 'TRON' pioneered the use of computer-generated special effects in representing a virtual-reality world inside a computer by Lisberger, 1982
Lower middle left: Robert Wise's classic movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still", 1951
Lower middle: Kubrick's HAL : "A Space Odyssey", 2001
Upper middle: An early portrayal of a machine simulating the workings of the human brain is evident in "Tatlin at Home" by the Berlin Dadaist, Raoul Hausmann
Upper middle left: Capek's play, Rossum's Universal Robots (RUR) coined the universally recognised word "Robot", 1921
The Computer's First Christmas Card
of almost all modern technology...the origins of today's machines can be traced back to the elaborate mechanical toys that flourished in the eighteenth century. As the first complex machines produced by man, automata represented a proving ground for technology that would later be harvested in the industrial revolution". The manufacture of automata reached its peak with the construction, by the Frenchman Jacques de Vaucanson, of three astonishing works: a flutist, a boy and a duck. The flute playing automaton, completed in 1737, was a mechanical flute player capable of producing airflows air at low, medium and high pressures through three sets of bellows. The regulation of air, tonguing, together with lip and finger movement were governed by a system of levers actuated by studs on a rotating drum - in effect a program.
Not all new technology was to be received with the same acclaim as the automaton playthings. Another set of programmable machines - automated weaving looms were soon being introduced to England's textile factories. Ned Ludd, an outspoken campaigner for the retention of traditional methods, mobilised his `Army of Redressers', or `Luddites' to break into Nottingham factories at night to destroy the new machines. An anonymously executed painting of the period shows the violence and depth of feeling against the new innovation. Under cover of darkness, angry men armed with pitchforks and sickles hurl broken pieces of machinery into the flames.
3.2 Useful machines anticipated (1850-1950)
By the end of the Victorian era, the machine was gaining wider acceptance and new possibilities where it could be used were starting to be identified. The focus though was on transport rather than intelligence. Whereas robots and computers feature extensively in Asimov's and in Clarke's novels, T.G. Wells's machines are ones of transportation - through space and time, as in The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine. To realise the concept in Wells's day was to draw on the best of the industrial technology available. This involved the creation of "a glittering metallic framework ... and very delicately made". Although not strictly a computer, this description is one of the last of the machine as an object in itself, from then on the computer as an icon is used to convey other meanings, predominantly the consequences of our interaction with the technology. So, while the images become somewhat nondescript boxlike cabinets, the meanings get more complex.
The `photodynamism' of Bragaglia (1911) gives a message of speed, but also of human effort to service
at the workshop of the god Hephaistos where she finds him busy finishing a set of twenty wheeled tripods on which cauldrons have been mounted. The mobile cauldrons are to be placed around the walls of the gods' banqueting hall and will be of assistance in serving the fare. Of particular interest is that these devices are self-controlling (l. 376, "áõôïìáôïé ", i. e. "automatic"). As Reck (1994, p. 343) perceptively translates, "they could scurry of their own accord to the gods' gatherings".
It is unlikely that these appliances, as envisaged by Homer, are truly robots or computers. While their external fabric could be viewed as hardware, they lack an internal software element. The implication is that, being created by a god, they will operate by some supernatural agency. Yet, functionally, the mobile cauldrons do have much in common with pre-programmed machines. Both are characterised by deterministic behaviour and some measure of utility. Like much of today's technology, the success of the Homeric `robots' confers a certain status and prestige on their maker. To Thetis these roving maître-ds are "a wondrous sight" and give her confidence in Hephaistos's craftsmanship.
Homer's implied view that the creation of life-or even of artificial intelligence-is not the domain of mere men is a view shared by the Biblical tradition. Man was created by God: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." (Genesis 1:27) and God reduced man to mortality: "for dust you are and to dust you will return." (Genesis 3:19). In contrast are man's efforts at idol making, roundly ridiculed by the prophet Isaiah (44:9-22 c. 700-680 BC).
Turning to the time of the Renaissance, a simple sketch by Leonardo da Vinci may be the first pictorial representation computer of a computer. Kaplan (1996) notes that the device is designed to operate as an adding machine; after the crank is turned the appropriate number of times for each addend, the result is indicated on the dials of the registering wheels. While little is known of the sketch, it is clear that Leonardo did foresee the prospect of human thought processes being reproduced by a machine. Such machines were not now exclusively the domain of the gods. Like Leonardo's flying machines, the adding machine is a grand vision of the future, a manifesto of an empowered humanity.
The century from 1650 to 1750 is recognised as the The Age of Reason or The Enlightenment. During this time the nations were keen to exhibit both their artistic and scientific prowess, these came together in the construction of automata. Standage (2002, p. 2) argues that "automata are the forgotten ancestors
the machine. The prolonged exposure of hands actuating the keys on a typewriter here, underscore the movement, speed and activity necessary for successful typewriting. The actions of keystroke entry and character impact printing, so fundamental to computing, have their origins in the humble typewriter. Likewise, artistic representations of electronic technologies are foreshadowed in images such as these.
For the two hundred years to 1921, a mechanical human figure was known as an automaton. Capek's play, Rossum's Universal Robots (RUR), changed that at a stroke. Drawing from his native Czech language, in which robota means `drudgery' or `servitude' and robotnik means `peasant' or `serf', Capek coined the universally recognised word, `robot'. Jerz (2002) describes the action as taking place in a remote island factory where robots are constructed according to the formula of the departed mad inventor Old Rossum. While the original Robots were painstakingly constructed human reproductions, under Young Rossum's commercially orientated management, Robots have become a stripped-down version to be sold as cheap labour. Helena Glory, a representative from a humanitarian organisation and wanting to liberate the Robots, arrives on the island and persuades scientists to modify some of their charges so that their souls might develop more fully. Soon mayhem occurs when a mutated Robot issues a decree: "Robots of the world, you are ordered to exterminate the human race... Work must not cease!" Helena, unaware of the plot but nevertheless having come to the conclusion that Robots spell economic and political collapse, burns the formula for their production. The Robots invade the stage killing all the humans, sparing only one manual worker - Alquist. When it becomes apparent to the Robots that they do not have the means to manufacture more of themselves, they turn to Alquist to help them discover "the secret of life". The Robots' leader, Damon, offering himself up for study, can only scream as Alquist vainly works on him at a dissection table. Eventually nature triumphs as two Robots fall in love. The play ends on an uplifting, religious note as Alquist blesses the two lovers, renames them Adam and Eve, and sends them forth to avoid the downfall of their predecessors.
In R.U.R., Capek develops the theme of an artificial humanity begun with Mary Shelley's fictional Dr. Victor Frankenstein as he too created an organic being racked by uncontrollable malevolent tendencies. Capek's Robots are biological rather than mechanical, being concocted from a process akin to genetic engineering. "Kneading troughs" and "vats" appear in the play for processing a synthetic protoplasm, and a "stamping mill" forms the Robot bodies. Over time a
shift occurs in their portrayal; initially fleshly, ultimately they appear as metal.
A very early portrayal of a machine simulating the workings of the human brain is evident in `Tatlin at Home' by the Berlin Dadaist, Raoul Hausmann. Supposedly a joke against the Russian Constructivist founder, as Bann (1990, p. 215) states, the image makes no attempt to reproduce an exact likeness of the man himself. The significance of the title lies with the skull having been split open to reveal the inner workings of a motorcar: steering wheel, transmission and other mechanical paraphernalia. The well-dressed figure with out-turned pockets standing in front of the map in the background suggests the bankruptcy of the bourgeois nation-state. The image, rather than depicting the usual Futurist infatuation with the motorcar and speed, is a comment on the mechanical calculation within the artist's brain.
This tension between man and machine is echoed in Isaac Asimov's I, Robot, a collection of nine short stories, published in various science-fiction annuals between 1940 and 1950. The stories take the form of a retrospective interview with a Dr. Susan Calvin, head `robopsychologist' of U. S. Robot and Mechanical Men, Inc. Looking back over a career in robotics that spanned the years 1996 to 2052, Dr. Calvin describes the staggering changes she has witnessed. Through his imaginative writing, Asimov was able to create a fascination with the subject of robots in the minds of many readers of science fiction and, consequently, to secure his own niche in the genre.
Each of the stories draws heavily from Asimov's stated "Three Laws of Robotics", viz:
1-A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2-A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3-A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. (Asimov, 1967, p. 11).
The formula used in most of the stories is essentially a study in ethics that arise from the application of the three robotic laws. When a robot starts to exhibit some form of inexplicable behaviour, its superiors must determine and overcome the cause - invariably some ethical dilemma. For example, in Runaround, set on the planet Mercury, a robot is instructed to retrieve one kilogram of selenium from a natural pool. On reaching the pool it encounters potentially corrosive emissions near the source. Torn between preserving its own existence under the third law and obeying its orders under the second, it maintains an unhappy
embracing the computer itself as a new and valid source of inspiration for their work.
Robert Wise's 1951 classic movie `The Day the Earth Stood Still', contains images of the computer that are simple and powerful. Arriving from a planet 250 million miles away is Klaatu, an emissary come to save the earth from imminent destruction. In order to prove his credibility Klaatu, with the aid of his computer causes all the world's machinery to grind to a halt for a half-hour period. The computer seen in the film is quite unlike any machine made in the 1950s or since. Keyboards are collections of short transparent acrylic sticks over which Klaatu waves a hand. The main input device is a large circular screen which, for Klaatu, has powers of voice recognition, and for Gort, his robot, receives communications by electromagnetic waves. In contrast with so many interpretations of the time, the advanced nature of the computer is shown by its outward simplicity.
3.3 Computers built and commercialised (1951-1985)
Autonomous machines figure in Salomon's 1958 poem, `Univac to Univac', which has two early computers discussing the merits and capabilities of their human creators. Compared to their electronic counterparts, humans are found to be inefficient and unreliable: they have no electronic circuitry (ll. 10-11) and their computing mechanism, the brain, is absurdly small in comparison to the rest of their bodies (l. 14). The Univacs review their own functions at which they excel: extreme calculations, predicting election results, computations for nuclear physics, polygraphic lie detection (ll. 17-21). The Univacs then turn to humans and examine their unique qualities. They observe that our thinking is not restricted to a two-state logic (ll. 23-25), our capacity for algebraic abstraction (ll. 26-27), the differences between the sexes (ll. 28-31) and the seemingly irrational love emotion that develops between individuals (ll. 37-42). Yet, in spite of these perceived oddities, the machine not only depends on people for its immediate survival, but to ensure its continuing success the computer must learn to transcend human unpredictability (ll. 32-39). As an alternative to conforming to human expectation, the Univacs consider imposing their own code on their creators. But, as they observe, machines, while excellent at computation, lack skills of interpretation and are therefore unlikely to sense the depth of feeling of their opposition (ll. 50-54). So the computers analyse the situation, and make their surprise prediction: "Men may take over the world!".
Of course no informed person in 1958 honestly believed that the computer ruled the world. The purpose
equilibrium by endlessly circling the pool at a safe distance.
All of Asimov's robots are humanoid in conception and are controlled by a human-size `positronic' brain. Although robots become increasing complex and capable over time, the corresponding miniaturisation required is not alluded to. Nor is the software element. Asimov's robots, by virtue of their futuristic hardware (albeit comprised of condensers, coils and relays), are somehow imbued with powers of comprehension, deduction and creativity far in excess of our own.
While I, Robot is more entertainment than prophecy, themes emerge in the last two stories that would appear consistently throughout the ensuing corpus of science fiction. In the short story, Evidence, a mayor is elected of whom it is uncertain whether he is man or machine, begging the question: can a machine impersonate a human, and then do the job better than its living counterpart? This appears to be answered in The Evitable Conflict where the world's entire political and economic systems are controlled by four all-powerful machines. Wars, famines, overproduction, shortages and unemployment are all averted because, not only are machines capable of exercising complete control, but a subservient humanity gives them total sway.
George Orwell also speaks of workers who are under domination. His hugely influential satire, Nineteen Eighty-Four, first published in 1949 at the dawn of the computer age describes a loss of individual freedom in an omnipresent information age. By and large, Orwell chooses not to speculate on the potential advances of technology and the computer. In industry, commerce, education and the home, the computer is notable for its absence. Orwell's vision of the future, technologically, is largely unchanged from his own time. The most famous exception is the ubiquitous telescreen, a television-like device which not only transmits Party propaganda, but also is capable of receiving images and sounds for monitoring the individual. As Orwell (1972, p.6) says, "There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment." It must be remembered that Nineteen Eighty-Four is a politically motivated work. It does not seek to conjecture or comment on the societal implications of advancing technology per se. Its outlook on technology is wholly neutral. Whether the machine is applied in a benign way, or sinister, is a matter of choice for the user.
As the computer's existence started to become known, the public began to speculate as to its nature, capabilities and implications. Artists, writers and filmmakers, too, joined in this conjecture, largely abandoning the machine images of the past and
of the conclusion is to cause the reader to consider whether there might come a day when the machine could actually reign supreme. That such sentiments were being expressed within a decade of the computer's commercialisation showed a remarkable insight into its future all-encompassing potential, and signalled the beginning of an uneasy relationship between it and the thinking artist.
Computers had been marketed to a growing number of government and industry users during the fifteen years to 1964. With the advent of the minicomputer, the next fifteen years would see an intensified penetration into society. As computers became more and more common, those in the arts gained a better understating of the new technology and began to respond with greater realism.
A prime example was the commission by the IBM World Trade Corporation in 1969 to capture a photographic collection showing the continuing dialogue with machines. The recipient, Cartier-Bresson had long been credited with the ability to capture the meaning beneath outward appearance in his humane, spontaneous photography. For IBM, Cartier-Bresson created a portfolio of work in which the theme, according to Mackenzie (1972), was "the mastery by man over his electronic and mechanical creations". In meeting his brief Cartier-Bresson captured images of people contentedly working, playing and learning alongside machines.
As a poem, Edwin Morgan's 1969 `The Computer's First Christmas Card' conveys meaning in its shape as well as in the words. Typeset in a widely spaced fixed-width font, the eye immediately discerns a series of uniform columns forming a rectangular block in the middle of the page - reminiscent of a computer printout. Some words (e. g. merry, happy, holly) are seasonally appropriate; others (belly, marry) are not. Names (Molly, Jerry) could indicate intended recipients. Some words (heppy, jorry) are simply nonsensical. Up to the fifth-to-last line, each line of the card contains two two-syllable words, each word formed in the same way (first consonant, vowel, second consonant doubled, letter `y'). The computer, while `wishing' to enter into the festive spirit, is obviously tied to a constraining formula in its mode of expression. Yet it does `know' a thing or two about written communication, as in putting the punch line at the end and building up to it. Sadly though, the ending is where the greeting goes most seriously awry. The unintelligible "Merry Chris am merry as a Chris merry as", is then followed by the machine's malapropism "Merry Chrysanthemum", completely missing the mark.
In his poem, Morgan gently pokes fun not so much at the computer, but at a society expecting great (or
inappropriate) things from the new technology. While the computer may have been useful, perhaps mainly for scientists, bankers and bureaucrats of the day, Morgan demonstrates how ill equipped it is to perform more imaginative tasks at a human level of competence.
Nothing could be further from Morgan's simple computer than Kubrick's HAL in `2001: A Space Odyssey'. When humans become sufficiently advanced, they go on a voyage through interplanetary space to a Jovian moon to make contact. Thrown into the scenario is a marauding computer, HAL, apparently doing its utmost to exterminate the crew, although the sequel suggests HAL was responding to the mission's true purpose and was testing the crew. An interesting comparison arises between Kubrick's artificial intelligence (HAL), and the Asimov robots. Both have in-built ethical priorities. Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics" make humans' welfare, humans' orders and, finally, robots' welfare the priorities. Kubrick's HAL clearly has allegiance to its mission objectives and/or its own self-preservation. But, regardless of the view one holds of HAL, the protection of human life does not appear to part of its equation. In programming an artificial intelligence, Kubrick suggests, we must go beyond a loose concept of optimalisation and embed strong ethical behaviours.
As computers became more accepted, their image began appearing in a wider range of artist genres. In Russcol and Banai's (1973) novel, `Philharmonic' the perceived superhuman attributes are used as a metaphor. When the perfectionist conductor, Paul Klange, suffers a mental block on the podium is described thus:
"His mind went blank. His baton hung limp at his side. It lasted less than sixty seconds, but in those terrible long moments he stood helplessly before the musicians, gaping at Dorothea. The men were stunned. It was as though somebody just threw a paper clip into Univac". (Russcol & Banai, 1973, p.225).
The implication is that Klange is enormously capable, reliable and precise, but that his absolute self-control can be overridden by a seemingly innocuous external influence. A similar passage appears, this time with regard to the orchestra's virtuoso concertmaster. "He still seemed magnificently imperturbable, the critics still wrote of Halkin's perfection - `as fast as lighting and as accurate as a computer circuit.'" (Russcol & Banai, 1973, p. 241). A little too bathetic to qualify as great prose, the metaphors nevertheless point to a perception of some of the computer's unique characteristics, those of
reliability and accuracy yet with some element of vulnerability.
Already, in 1978, the computer has assumed the role of scapegoat. In Maxwell's 1978 thriller novel, `The Insanity Machine' the hero discusses a flawed feasibility study with a scientist:
"Somehow the computer got its sums wrong; the programming for the actual ingredients must have been faulty. It gave us figures based on production of millilitres instead of gallons."
"But that's virtually impossible," Ledermann protested.
Meadows shrugged. "Yes, one would think so," he admitted. "But it happened, so there you are. Some idiot must have punched the wrong button, or the computer lost a couple of bits somewhere along the line. These things happen Mr. Ledermann. They're happening more and more. We're all so totally committed to the computer age now that we trust the damned things blindly. They remain nothing more than a complicated abacus, which needs human fingers to push the beads. The fingers haven't become any more clever over the years. The greatest mathematician in the world is still basically no smarter than a twelfth-century Chinaman." (Maxwell, 1978, p.54).
Fiction reflects reality where mistakes by systems analysts, programmers and users are overlooked; it is so much easier to blame the defenceless computer or the poor operator who "punches the buttons.".
Lisberger's 1982, `TRON' pioneered the use of computer-generated special effects in representing a virtual-reality world inside a computer. As the Master Control Program (MCP) of ENCOM's mainframe computer grows in power and threatens to take total control, the hero Flynn breaks into the ENCOM in an attempt to expose the truth. As he sits unsuspectingly at his monitor, Flynn is dematerialised by the MCP and transported into the computer's internal world. There Flynn finds human-like programs, entities which correspond to their users. The MCP is busy forcing subjection from the programs - those which refuse to yield must engage in gladiatorial bouts to the death. In order to overcome the MCP, and return to his own world, Flynn must enlist the aid of a system security program, TRON.
Also unashamedly a computer movie is Badham's 1983 `WarGames'. The plot centres on computers, and images of the computer abound in the fabric of the film and brought hacking to public attention. In a secret exercise it was found that many nuclear warheads failed to be launched, and at the crucial moment the men, in conscience, were not prepared
to follow computer-generated orders and send millions to their deaths. The decision is made to "get the men out of the loop", and replace them with the The War Operation Plan and Response (WOPR). Enter David Lightman, an inquisitive teenage computer whiz who uses his home computer, hooked up to the telephone, to gain access to large institutional databases. David stumbles across the war games computer, obtains `backdoor' entry and then engages the computer in a game of `global thermonuclear war', except the computer takes it for real. A race against time ensues to somehow to persuade the computer to abandon the `game'. However it is then discovered that the WOPR is not responding to commands and is set on retaliation at its own instigation. David alone is able to penetrate WOPR's defences, and by initiating an endless series of Tic-Tac-Toe games with itself, he is able to teach the computer that some games are always lose-lose.
There is a great deal of hardware on display, all hopelessly dated to today's audiences. David Lightman's home computer now appears delightfully quaint with its eight-inch floppy disks and acoustic coupler. The government's installations are cavernous, full of whirring tapes and a myriad of separate units. The WOPR itself is a genuine period piece, its sculpted lines reminiscent of the cars of the 1950s. Flashing lights on all sides imply a level of esoterica accessible to only the most exceptional of minds.
Although WarGames's underlying anti-war message is by far its strongest, the viewer is also challenged to assess the computer's role in society, especially the extent to which key decisions should be automated.
Taking science fiction to a higher level than the WarGames style of film was Gibson's 1984 landmark novel, Neuromancer. Dodge & Kitchin (2001) note part of its significance lies in the fact that it is the source of the word `cyberspace'.
Cyberspace. "A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts... A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding ..." (Gibson, 1994, p. 51)
In what was the first (and according to Brians , the best) example of the cyberpunk genre, Gibson gives the computer, its peripherals, and its communications environment a highly imaginative and
futuristic treatment. The Matrix is the future internet where the hero steals a piece of software that is a recording of a person's mind and acts as an advanced user interface to the Matrix, accepting and executing natural language commands, as well as offering the expertise of its progenitor. Much of the action occurs with the hero "jacked in" to the Matrix by means of "dermatrodes" - electrodes attached to the skin. On jacking in, users, largely unaware of their immediate surroundings, enter a virtual reality world consisting of images of cyberspace. On two occasions, when jacked in, the hero has his consciousness usurped by artificial intelligences and, while clinically dead ("flatlined") for a matter of seconds, he experiences extended periods of time in worlds even more removed in virtual reality.
While Neuromancer portrays the computer in many new and different guises, there are two distinct themes that run through the novel. The first is the abasement of man as seen in the future society's scant regard for person and property and an indifference to the physical self, as evidenced in the relentless process of bodily modifications, shows man in an inferior light. The second theme, in contrast, is the elevation of the machine.
Post human ambiguity is a common theme. For example Haring's (1984) figure exploits the impending posthuman ambiguity between man and machine. Haring leapfrogs our stage of development, in which we are only beginning to contemplate electronic cranial implants, and foresees a time when our consciousnesses will reside within machines. The brain, as outdated intelligence receptacle, will be irrelevant - represented on-screen for illustrative purposes only.
With IBM's launch of the PC in 1981, the computer was no longer the preserve of big business or eccentric devotees. By 1986 a deluge had begun that was to bring the computer into many, many offices and homes. Gibson's recently published Neuromancer, responding to speculation and research of the day, irrevocably changed the techno-artistic landscape. These issues will be explored in a future paper.
Druckrey (1993) notes the growing exhibition of interactive art raises a number of interesting issues for the viewer (or user). One is the duality of roles of an active computer monitor in an
installation - an integral part of the work, as well as something more incidental like the frame of a painting (although see Penny 1995 who suggests the rhetoric implied by the technological approach can not be benign). Another issue is the extent to which the user collaborates with the artist, becoming co-creator, in determining the state of the work at a particular moment.
In analysing the findings it is apparent that artists been embodying certain messages in their works. Their meanings conveyed in the earliest works, such as the eager expectation of an empowered future through new technology, remained current for a time before running their course. However, from the 1920s new themes emerged periodically and became current alongside existing ones, and together they have all endured to the present day. Among the themes identified were:
¨ The dehumanizing effect of the machine
¨ Computer revolt
¨ Excessive obligation to the machine
¨ The computer as an enabling technology
¨ World domination by the computer
¨ Unrealistic expectations by the technology
¨ Cyberpunk issues
¨ Implications of post-human life
¨ Dislocation of human consciousness in time and space
¨ Technology a factor in an apocalyptic downfall.
These themes will be further explored in future research. The growing artistic treatment of the computer is a sign of its coming of age. The ways in which the computer has entered the public's consciousness through the arts have been made apparent in this study. Computers are a subset of machines and so their treatment is that of technological development, but with the added complexity of links to intelligence. The binding thread is that the computer demands our notice, for it is the only object we know of that is at all like we are ourselves.
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