Computers and the Internet have vastly expanded the human capacity to generate, process, and communicate information. At the same time, these technologies have altered us in more subtle ways, changing our attention spans, aesthetic sensibilities, and even the way we conceive of our own minds. This summer, the Internet Archive offers a rare opportunity to look back at this metamorphosis through its artist-in-residency program. In a concluding gallery show at Ever Gold [Projects] in San Francisco, Internet Archive artists-in-residence Jenny Odell and Jeremiah Jenkins investigate the changes in human nature wrought by computers and the Internet. Artworks by Jenkins and Odell picture the parts of us that have been shaped by these technologies and embody the fear of their loss.
Odell’s Neo-Surreal presents a series of found advertisements from Byte magazine, a computer hobbyist journal published from the late 1970s into the early 1980s. The images in Neo-Surreal combine people and computers in startling and unexpected cyborg forms. These strange advertisements expose the commercial engine which transformed the way people thought about the mind after World War II. In the early 20th century, popular psychology relied overwhelmingly on Freudian ideas of internal conflict and repression, sex drive and death instinct. During World War II, scientists working on anti-aircraft systems departed from the Freudian approach to the human mind. These scientists began instead to model humans as information-processing machines. In this computational metaphor, the mind became a program running on the brain’s hardware. In the 1970s, the availability of personal computing helped spread the computational metaphor for the human mind. And as computing spread, the metaphor of mind as machine came to supplement and displace the older Freudian ideas in popular culture.
In a 1984 book on Computers and the Human Spirit, anthropologist Sherry Turkle argues that the computational metaphor reflects only one side of a two-way exchange of ideas. She observes that people speak of themselves as programs and of their computers as minds with desires and intentions. Looking at Odell’s collection of images from Byte magazine, I am struck by the eerie sense of déja vu that comes from being outflanked by a profound truth. Turkle doesn’t discuss computer advertising in her book, but I can imagine no more forceful illustration of the exchange of computational metaphors than the images in Byte magazine.
Visual puns in the Byte ads establish an equivalence between human and machine. One ad shows a man inside a tie working simultaneously on computers running DOS and UNIX. The text of the ad puns on operating systems as personalities and promotes a software antidote to this “personality problem.” Elsewhere, the floppy disk is a popular motif: there is a woman with a floppy disk torso and a board meeting where humanoid robot board members are served floppy disks (computers as people, data as food). The editors of Byte used the computational metaphor playfully alongside the earnest advertisements. A full-page “Technology Update,” on a “Touring Machine,” bicycle puns self-consciously on the notion of the cyborg human as an information-processing machine. Even the most oblivious reader could hardly miss the elision of thought and data in an image of a brain with a floppy disk half-inserted.
The analogy between mind and computer helped consumers grasp the novel capabilities of the computer. At the same time, this metaphor gave voice to newfound anxieties about the human self as a machine: predictable, interchangeable, and easily manipulated. Historically, these anxieties manifested as early as 1964 in protests at UC Berkeley. Marching against a university administration which was perceived as uncaring and bureaucratic, students declared that, “At Cal, you’re little more than an IBM card,” and carried signs announcing: “I am a UC student. Please do not fold, bend, spindle, or mutilate me.” These fears have broadened and intensified in recent years as advances in machine intelligence have enabled computers to perform increasingly sophisticated cognitive tasks. The decades-old images in Neo-Surreal capture the dystopian side of the computational metaphor with surprising freshness and relevance. In one ad, the rows of identical men with computers for faces suggest that we are becoming homogenized and controlled by our devices. The image of a desktop computer giving a press conference (“I’ll only use my exceptional powers for the good of mankind,”) celebrates an inversion of control, a world in which humans hang back while robots run the show. The prospect of job automation is palpable too in the robot board meeting.
Yet, in the dark absurdity of Neo-Surreal, there is also a strange element of humor. I first encountered the images in Neo-Surreal on Odell’s Twitter and Facebook feeds. There, accompanied by Odell’s pithy and irreverent captions, the images made me laugh out loud. In the gallery, packed into a tight grid on the wall, the images became dry and humorless. Odell’s work has long embraced the surreal. Working with aerial photographs, YouTube videos, and old maps, she defamiliarizes ordinary objects and situations by stripping away their context. In other works, like her Bureau of Suspended Objects, Odell reinvests discarded objects with meaning by assembling the lost information of their production, provenance, and use. In the Bureau, the isolation and distance of the gallery focus attention and heighten awareness of banal, everyday objects. By contrast, the images in Neo-Surreal are less surprising and interesting in the gallery than on social media. Perhaps the artistic nature of the commercial illustrations makes them more at home in the gallery setting. Interleaved instead with the everyday contents of social media, the images are unexpected, uncomfortable, and comical. To laugh at Odell’s images is to recognize the uncomfortable truth that the strange world they depict — of cyborg confusion, of technological promise and obsolescence — has become our own.
In another piece in the Internet Archive artist-in-residency exhibition, called Browser History, Jenkins shows a series of clay tablets impressed with web pages representing “trade, lifestyle, art, government, and other aspects of our society that are similar to the kinds of information that we have about ancient civilizations.” Where Odell’s images from Byte depict the present by way of the recent past, Jenkins’ clay tablets look at contemporary culture and society from a distant, post-apocalyptic future. Clay tablets covered in cuneiform script are some of the earliest known records of civilization; the oldest such tablets date back to around 3000 BC. After the exhibition, the tablets in Browser History will be scattered across California: hidden in caves, buried underground, and submerged underwater. Jenkins speculates that these tablets could last for as many as 40,000 years. Clay tablets are the most primitive of recording technologies. They are low-tech and low-res, the antithesis of the colossal data centers which host the Internet Archive. To create such a time capsule is to imagine the possibility of its necessity. To view it is to inhabit a time in which the clay tablets are not simply a record of the year 2017 AD, but the only surviving record. Browser History draws viewers imperceptibly into the far future and invites them to look back 40,000 years and decipher our contemporary culture through the Internet.
Gazing across the gulf of years that separates me from the freshly fired clay tablets in front of my nose, I observe how little they convey of the Internet and of our contemporary culture. The unique formal qualities of the Internet are utterly lost: its hyperlink structure, movement and interaction, the color and resolution of videos and images, and everything “below the fold.” The tablets bear tantalizing traces of a depth and complexity that exceeds them. The Wikipedia page on “Internet” describes “inter-linked hypertext documents,” and contains affordances to discover “What links here” and obtain a “Permanent link.” In another instance of recursive self-reference (a favorite trope of computer culture since the ‘80s), Porn.com declares itself “The biggest thing to happen to porn since ‘The Internet.’” The tablets in Browser History are more like screenshots than webpages. I knew as soon as I saw the tablets that they depicted different sites on the Internet. It is precisely this unstated unifying theme which will be most invisible to our distant descendants. Will our distant descendants understand that these tablets are mere representations of another medium? Or will they declare confidently that primitive humans in the year 2017 AD communicated by exchanging clay tablets stamped with words and images?
Clay tablets are just as inadequate for conveying the collective hopes and tragedies of our culture as they are for capturing the formal qualities of the Internet. Numbers impressed in clay without context give little sense of their meaning. My descendants will feel none of my dismay in looking at the craigslist and CareerBuilder tablets, which show rental prices in San Francisco (too high!) and salaries for teachers in the Bay Area (too low!). The tablets of Donald Trump’s Twitter profile and Philando Castile’s Facebook wall are the most fraught, and most heavily freighted with meaning. A meagre three tweets give no hint of the racism, misogyny, and transphobia Trump has expressed in his eight months in office, of the disgust and adoration he inspires — or of the role that his vast Twitter following played in launching him to the Presidency. The photo on Castile’s wall, “hidden because…of mature content, such as graphic violence,” obscures the terrible injustice of his death, and the chilling pathos of the Facebook Live video (briefly censored by Facebook) that broadcast to millions of Americans his death at the hands of police. Browser History is eloquent in its austerity.
Jenkins and Odell are complementary media archaeologists, and the placement of Neo-Surreal and Browser History side-by-side in the gallery enriches both pieces. The images that Odell gathers in Neo-Surreal existed a mere 40 years ago in (almost) exactly the same form under the paintbrush or pencil of a commercial illustrator. Those originals are inaccessible today, having been forgotten or discarded long ago. Today, they exist only in the pages of Byte magazine. Like an archaeologist for the digital age, Odell brushes away the crust of words to recover pure images. The strangeness of Odell’s forty-year-old images heightens the vertigo of Jenkins’ 40,000-year retrospective on the present. Browser History is an act of reverse archaeology, an artifact for Odell’s someday-successors to discover and decipher.
Both artworks express a sense of anxiety that, in gaining mastery over our world, we are losing control of ourselves. Browser History clings protectively to Internet culture and our Internet selves, while Neo-Surreal embodies the fear that computers will automate human jobs and replace organic human consciousness. Though the technologies are new, these are ancient anxieties, experienced many times over the millennia with the invention of writing, the printing press, photography, and radio (to name a few). Freud observed that rational fear or “real fear” arises from ignorance. The fear of of technology is surely as real as any other, for we have not yet managed to understand the way that technology transfigures us (though many scholars and critics have tried: Mumford, McLuhan, Borgmann). Only when we grasp the pattern of technology in its entirety will we be able to work through the fear of losing ourselves in it.
Magic and Loss: The Internet As Art (Virginia Heffernan, 2017)
Alone Together (Sherry Turkle, 2011)
The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (Sherry Turkle, 1984)
From Counterculture to Cyberculture (Fred Turner, 2006)