The Monitor

Today I’ve been thinking about the computer monitor. You’re probably looking at one right now; you might be looking at a phone, though, in which case you may call it a screen. I want to talk about these etymologies, and etymology in general in the context of, uh, cyberpunk.

(Not about ‘screen’ though, that one’s boring: people called the front of a television a ‘screen’ because in cinemas the film was projected onto a reflective ‘screen.’ See? Dull; let’s move on.)

I don’t know if you ever thought about why we call the display on a PC a “monitor.” Many of my friends also probably haven’t, but will figure it out after a moment of thought because they’re familiar with the deep history of computers. If you aren’t, here’s the story:

In (say) 1960, if you had a computer, it wasn’t what you’d call “interactive.” You in fact didn’t do anything to it directly. You created a program on a mechanical device (a cardpunch,) and eventually this was called “off-line” entry because it was completely separated from the actual computer. When you were done programming you had a stack of punch cards, which you fed into the computer. It chugged away for some indefinite amount of time, and then you got your result on new punch cards or a line printer.

During the intermediate time, the computer wasn’t producing output. The only output was the final output. Hard copy was expensive and a continuous running output was a waste of paper, so a computer wouldn’t typically tell you much until the job was done.

That doesn’t cut it however, because programs crash, CPUs fault, and software gets stuck in infinite loops, so you had to do something else to check up on things. In addition, some kind of interactive investigation of the computer had to be possible, because otherwise diagnostics on the CPU itself would be impossible. The solution to this was a bank of lights which represented, in on-and-off values, the ‘state’ of every part of the computer — was register 1 set or unset? What instruction was being executed? Was the master clock ticking?

This bank of lights was given many names in retrospect, but the correct contemporary name was ‘monitor’, because you used it to monitor the internal state of the computer.

This is what interests me. Look at the shift in tone: in 1960, “monitor” meant a supervisory mechanism, a device used rarely and in crises, design-time or edge cases; a way for an architect to look deep into the machine and find the most fundamental truths when the normal methods of interaction fail. In 2016, it’s an off-the-cuff term for the primary interface to a computer, and you can have one for $4 used.

From an expert computer scientists diagnostic instrument to a commodity that is common and utterly ignored — yet we kept the word, and everyone forgot what it meant.

Something I think about a lot is the DOS videogame Traffic Department 2192. It’s barely a game in all honesty — the actual gameplay amounts to what would have been one of the most boring arcade games ever produced, hardly a quarter-eater — and really, I feel, it’s an artifact of the earliest glimmering of a big part of the modern indie scene: people who wanted to tell stories, didn’t want to do it entirely in words, but couldn’t get into Hollywood or felt it was a poor fit for their stories.

The gameplay hardly mattered. The game was really about the between-mission cutscenes, which, in another blatant indicator of how early these folks were to the “games as storytelling medium” scene, were told entirely in scrolling text popping back and forth between static painted avatars. This was, nonetheless, fantastic. The game holds up; play it.

The best part of the story, in my opinion, isn’t in the game at all but in the manual (or maybe even the box blurb, I’ve never read this in its original context.) The backstory of this game is that a planet, Vulthaven, has been overrun by a militant enemy, the Vultures. It’s unclear if they’re aliens. Having presumably wiped out all proper military forces, the only people left with armed vehicles to fight back with are the traffic cops.

I love this premise more than anything I’ve ever read. It actually makes me cry to think about sometimes; it is flawless to me. It’s dystopian, it’s an underdog tale, it’s sci-fi, it has scarred and damaged characters hurting others because of their emotional wounds, I die for this stuff. But my favorite part is the complete inappropriateness of the fighting force you’re a member of.

You can see how it happened. The invaders probably blew up the anti aircraft sites first; bombed navy runways; torpedoed ships, strafed platoons and the whole bit. Why care about the cops? They’re just citizens. But then when the Vultures moved in to try to effect their rule, the police kept fighting because who else should do it? They still had guns in their hands. The SWAT teams would have moved out first; then the beat cops; then the detectives and brass. And then nobody was left but the traffic cops.

(I’m well off-canon at this point but bear with me)

At first this is a group of rebels fighting a hopeless battle. Running panicked through the hallways, people shouting orders with little chain of command — has the captain ever given a single order in anger? who needs to pull rank in a team of meter maids? — and mechanics frantically bolting extra guns to their ailing fleet of pursuit hoverskids, patching them into the fusion engine directly, who cares, we aren’t gonna survive this even if the proton exciters don’t overheat and detonate, now go, go, go, god damnit, they’re coming.

That’s the first battle. And the second, and tenth. And then a year passes, and people slowly die in combat. The already-few defenders dwindle and as the crisis outside ramps up in response, new rebels crawl in from the alleys, fed up, ready to die before they submit. They get a badge and six hours of training and then they’re getting shot at and fighting for their lives.

They were never meter maids. They probably never saw the traffic department building before the bombs fell. Some of them weren’t even old enough to drive, and nobody hands out speeding tickets during a war. The first time they saw a “traffic cop” she was standing over them with a hissing plasma gun in her hand, the only thing that had stood between them and certain death at the hands of the enemy.

“Traffic Department” was finally in their lexicon; it meant “saviors,” and then later, “comrades-in-arms.”

For the third story I’ll tell you, pick up any cyberpunk novel and find a mention of drugs. They’ll have an interesting new word for sure. There’s a good chance it’ll be “stims.”

I don’t even need to explain the origin of that one, but just so we’re looking at this from the same angle: “stimulant” is a very clinical term. A word you might hear from a doctor, but more likely a diagnostician, but even more likely a coroner, but even more likely a research scientist, but almost certainly a cyberpunk alley kid first heard it in the recitation of their charges in a crumbling courtroom in Habitation Center 92 as they started to enter the justice system for the first time, at the age of sixteen, in the fifth year of their drug habit.

You get my drift? These terms filtered down from highly technical origins to the masses:

If the computer hadn’t leaked out of academia into home life relatively unnoticed, it would have gotten a “proper” moniker — Video Display Unit might have stuck, or “display.”

If the Traffic Department had been sworn in as the new military they would have been called Vulthaven Provisional Defense Force.

If the gutter punk had even known the origin of the drugs he started taking to enter the coma state needed to deck, he might have called them by their chemical name or, at least, the pharma giants brand name.

But these things didn’t enter the popular conscious through a carefully planned deployment. They were just there, and people needed to talk about them, so they used the words they had, even though that’s not what those words necessarily were intended to mean. And those words slowly lost meaning, until they became nothing more than sounds that trigger a feeling and an image to more people than not.

My story is not useful to you; you don’t need to remember what “monitor” once meant; this is what it means now, and I like that.

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