An Argument for Studying Past Platforms

I’m reading Barbara Tuchman’s Notes from China (Random House 2017) from her years studying in Asia in 1935 and again in 1972. In her introduction she makes a comment that strikes me as applicable to the work that many of us do in media archaeology labs. She says, “I like to suggest that if a historian understands the past [they] will have acquired in the process a feel for the future” (xiii).

This is the premise underpinning the way I have laid out my lab, with the hardware and software flow from the oldest (Apple II, 1977) to the most recent (my iMac, 2008) wrapping around the room. In this way when all of the computers are booted up, one can visually see the differences in the affordances and constraints of each before even inserting a work of e-lit in the drive.

From this perspective students can walk into the lab and, on the right hand side of the room, see computers associated with Steve Jobs’ early influence on Apple. First come the Apple IIs (II 1977, IIe 1983) with the green screen that Apple computers sported until the company moved on to the black and white screen of the Classic Macs, which in my lab is reflected by a GS (1986), Plus (1989), SE FDHD (1989), and Classic (1990). Students can also see firsthand the impetus to compact the experience of computing––the real estate of the screen shrank as did the size of the floppy disks; the system itself was an “all in one” experience that changed the look of computers from that of a clunky typewriter consisting of three pieces to one petite gray box.

Wrapping around the room on the far side come the computers produced by Apple after Jobs was fired. Color monitors are introduced. Screen real estate gets bigger. Memory improves. They are clunky again. They are still gray. The last one on the table, the PowerMac G3 All-In-One, is downright rococo, truly a sign that the end had indeed come.

Turning around to the computers on the left bank of the room, students see the colorful  iMac G3 (1998) we called “the bubble” that kicks off Apple’s success after Jobs returned to the company. Mine is the Bondi Blue, one of the 13 original colors. Others, like the Blue Dalmation that we called the “psychedelic Mac,” sit in reserve. Looking down the line at the other computers on that side of the room students see that Apple experimented with style as well as function from the late 1990s onward. There is the Cube (2000), the streamlined flat panel iMac G4s (2002) that we affectionately called the “lampshade Mac” or “mushroom Mac.” Real estate grows with the G4 line to 17″ to 20″ to 24″ and larger alongside the introduction the iPhone (2007) and iPad (2011). Eventually these mobile devices challenged the notion that bigger is better. What counts more today is constant connectivity.

Students ask me where the PCs are, and I show them the one running Windows 98 and explain that a great many electronic artists worked on Macs due to the authoring software available in the early pre-web days. Eastgate Systems, Inc., the main publisher of electronic literature even now, released works from the 1990s onward, first, for Apple computers and only later after Windows 95 was released for PCs. I explain to them that what may seem to be an Apple Museum is actually a Working Lab with computers carefully selected to fit the hardware and software needs of works of electronic literature in my collection. I tell them that the point of ELL is to allow people to experience the works on the computers the works were built on and for, that I am working to document works before the software and hardware deteriorate and none of this is available to the public anymore. At this point I show them the 288+ floppy disks, diskettes, and CD-ROMs in my e-lit library and let students read through some of the works on the computers they have just learned about.

At the end of this tour, I always ask students my Million Dollar Question: “Now that you have seen from where we have come, what do you think it ahead of us in terms of computer technology and electronic literature?”

Students respond with VR, games and consoles, Twine stories, mobile media, but these are our present. What I am interested in is the future. Tuchman suggests that we can discern it by studying the past. I’d like to think so. I want to know.