Particulate arising from study

Month: November, 2014

The Insufficiency of “It’s Political”

Here’s an important alt review Biella Coleman’s new book Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous, particularly if you, like me, have been a little vexed by internet scholarship that stops with “it’s political.” Thanks Adrian Chen!

(There’s also a bit of an ad hominem rebuttal going round attacking Chen, which is never a classy way to argue your point, and really fails to address Chen’s critique.)


From Your Valentine, the SSEC

curiouser and curiouser

Popular sources, including Columbia who were so intimately involved with the history of the device, identify the SSEC as the titanic computer in the February 11th 1961 New Yorker cover. I’m not so sure; by this time the SSEC had been long decomissioned to make way for faster IBM machines in the company showroom. The proportunes of the calculator, its colour scheme, and the architecture of the interior, moreover, are off. If there’s anything SSEC-ish about the image, it’s the visual vocabulary-cum-hyperbole that the device seemed to set into motion for cartoonists and set designers across the country.

Behemouth towers of tapes, blinking lights, and reels filled the popular imagination of the American 1950s and 60s, and the SSEC was arguably a primary source for this aesthetic. In addition to the sleek photographs that followed it successful media debut, IBM consented to cameo the computer in the 1952 noir film Walk East on Beacon!, a cold war spy-thriller that I’m very much looking forward to watching. A further appearence of a sort can be found in Desk Set, a Katherine Hepburn rom com from 1954 that reportedly used the SSEC as a model from which to design the film’s major plot device, the EMERAC: a corporate computer set to productivize a broadcast company and antagonize all its employees in the process.

It’s curious, then, that the New Yorker selected such an intimate moment to display between the giant, futuristic machine and its aged worker (the rest of the office presumably made redundant in its wake?). Young women were far more germane to the promotional imagery of the computer, moreover, such as Betsy Stewart’s deft handling of the SSEC in secretary-like fashion during its public debut.


The New Yorker cover, conversely, seems to take us into the future of this image. The computer secretary, now wizened with age, receives a token of affection back from the machine that she has attended to for so long. In contrast to the vivid anxieties at play at the time concerning the thinking power and autonomy of the emerging technology, one in which through sheer rationality and super-human speed electronic calculators would come to subordinate their keepers, the valentine shows a rather different capacity for thoughtfulness. The warmth of the woman’s desk lamp and smile do much to humanize the electronic brain. IBM, however, would not begin to realize the importance of such gestures until later in the decade.

The Aesthetics of Early Computing- Object 2

ssec- columns edited out

The IBM Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator

IBM probably built the Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator (SSEC) in part due to revenge. Their lack of control over the public relations generated by the ASCC soured T. J. Watson to Harvard, and soon after the debacle he ordered that a better, more electric calculator to be built within a year. The resulting machine, fusing experiments with vacuum tube and mechanical relays, made its debut in 1948 under tightly controlled conditions.

The SSEC was housed next to the IBM headquarters in New York, taking over a building that had formally housed a shoe store. The renovated show room, visible from the street, was designed to cultivate the curiosity of chance spectators, who were wholly welcome to enter and engage with the behemoth through a ever-present tour guide. The press, moreover, was given no room for chance reaction. A carefully crafted press-release, pamphlet, and news conference supplied the papers with the correct superlative quotes and figures to frame the machine and the company.

Strangely enough, IBM seemed to cultivate the brain metaphor in this coverage, acting antithetical to the non-corporate actors of the early American computers. The IBM tour guide, while giving caveats as to the limits of the machine’s cognitive autonomy, nevertheless referred to it as a brain and would walk individuals through its surprisingly human-like thought process while they circled the room.

Like the ACSS, the SSEC’s aesthetics served to reinforce the futurity and otherworldlyness of the science-fictional calculator. Extraneously streamlined peripherals and corners graced the exterior of the device, giving its a future-modern appearance, while much of its machinery remained hidden unseen behind the quasi-nave of the device’s U-shaped architecture. Conversely, the SSEC’s colourful lights and knobs, dancing in quadrants behind its lengthy glass panels, might suggest the stained glass windows of a Gothic cathedral. The computer was designed to simultaneously be seen without being fully present to understanding; a raised floor concealed the wiring between different components, while the moving patterns of tape and switches provided clear auditory and visual signs of life, if not in a meaning.

Perhaps the most evocative aspect of the calculator was the set of problems selected to debut the machine, both as a test of its capacities and as a key component of the image it would present in the news cycle of its release. In a highly poetic vein, the SECC set about determining the exact position of the moon, every six hours, 100 years in the past and 100 years in the present. This cosmic beginning, out-doing the scope of a human lifetime in its span and exceeding the globe in its reach, further enmeshed the computer in a strange untimelyness. Beneath the incomprehensible flight of lights and paper tape, the public was told, lay the movements of celestial bodies. Yet this too concealed much: after the lunar cycles came simulations of the hydrogen-bomb. Added to the mystique and menace of the computer, then, we can add the role of mediator over mass death, oblivion made available with devestating scale and ease. As a super brain, and the gateway to the incomprehensible terror of the atomic age, the computer was indeed a Gothic space to bottle anxiety and ambition in equal measure.