September 20, 2011

The Elegance of the PC

Print More

As many ponder the future of Apple in the wake of Steve Job’s resignation as CEO, it’s fitting that the Hartell Gallery should now be holding a retrospective on the personal computer. With the matter of fact title “Alison Nash and Shawn Reeves Exhibition: Museum of 20th-Century Information Technology,” this exhibit seeks to bring us back to a time before sleek MacBooks were the norm, and a portable computer was just a monitor with a handle on it.

The gallery is partly interactive and around the room there are computers running programs that make Microsoft Paint look like the latest iteration of Photoshop. One of the first setups you meet is a Commodore Amiga 3000 U/X from 1990, running a program called Design Works. Large, clunky and gray, the computer was apparently used for design and other computer intensive tasks in its heyday. Now its grid-based design software seems hopelessly inadequate so that even drawing a square required a bit of concentration of my part.

All the technology in the exhibit comes from between the years 1981-2000. The products come from the private collections of two “gen-Xers” and effectively demonstrate how drastically technology and our perception of it has changed in the last thirty years. While the timescale seems small, relative to the rapid pace of technology it is not. The original iMac, in all its sleek and candy colored glory, contrasts with the inelegant Amiga 3000 as though the two were a hundred years apart. And even the rainbow-shaded iMac is a world away from the cool, steel MacBook’s seen around campus today.

At times it feels inappropriate that computers some of us might actually remember using (as I remembered using the iMac) should already be up for display as museum pieces. Isn’t it an unnecessary bit of historicizing to place a computer barely more than a decade old on a white pedestal? By looking at the recent past as history fit for the museum, don’t we risk objectifying and denaturalizing it? But perhaps the exhibit knowingly calls attention to the way in which many of these devices are already a distant history to us. A review from Byte magazine of the original Macintosh computer reads “Mouse-window-desktop technology arrives for under $2500.” To us it’s amusing to imagine that $2500 was once a significantly lower price that normal for a personal computer, especially one as small and generally unimpressive as the original Macintosh looks in the gallery. Similarly, as I browsed through a bookshelf loaded with old software manuals and articles I came across a booklet for the 1989 game SimCity. On the cover it warns that the game requires 1 megabyte of RAM to run, about two thousand times less than most computers have today. From a modern perspective the discrepancy is laughable.

For those of us less familiar with the history of computing the exhibit makes an effort to enhance the sense of technological evolution through a series of written dialogues. Each computer is paired with a poster that presents technological information or relevant images, such as the iMac poster that presents five colorful computers in a ring above the words “YUM. Think Different.” At the bottom of the posters a brief conversation is presented, one held between a personification of a given computer and the two contributors behind the exhibit. The dialogue can range from the informative to the comical, like when a Powermac G4 declares matter-of-factly “I am shiny, smooth and pretty.” Often the conversation points out the advancements said machine presents.

All in all, considering that the exhibit has the word “museum” in its title, it is surprisingly fun. On one Commodore Amiga 500, a “low end” personal computer released in 1987, an arcade style game challenges us to take up the joystick and blast space rocks and enemy ships (hopefully you’ll fare better than I did). Even the guestbook is digital, a program appearing in static grays and whites on the small monitor of an Apple Macintosh SE. Though they might come from the Stone Age, all the computers appear novel, bragging about features that seem quaint to us today. So before you start thinking about upgrading to a MacBook Air or buying a new iPad, stop by the Hartell Galery in Sibley Hall. You’ll gain some meaningful perspective.

Original Author: Ian Walker Sperber