In response to popular demand (at least among my Twitter followers) I'm sharing my syllabus and reading list for the senior seminar I'm teaching at New York University this fall semester. This is my first time teaching this course (so a work in progress), but reflects my efforts to produce an advanced undergraduate course grounding students in both the history of personal computing and historiographic practice. Course description below; reading list starts on page 4 of the PDF below.
How the Computer Became Personal
Across both academic and popular writing, the history of computing remains documented as a largely technological affair: the transformations in microprocessor technology that shrank machines from mainframes to desktops to mobile devices; the enhancements in storage capacity permitting ever more powerful digital tools; and the shifting graphical and audio capabilities that enable computers to render fully-realized 3D worlds and stunning special effects. The history of computing, by and large, has been a history of computers becoming smaller, faster and more powerful.
But technological change is only a small part of the drama of how we learned to live with computers. Focusing on the mid-1970s through the early-1990s—the period in which personal computing emerged as a dominant consumer medium in the Western world—this course approaches the history of computing from the orientation of cultural and social politics. In other words, how and in what ways did computers change everyday life?
To answer these questions, students will explore and report on computer enthusiast magazines from the 1980s; read several traditional “hagiographies” of early computing culture, including accounts from Xerox PARC, and the founding of Apple and Microsoft; practice challenging the methodological assumptions embedded in progressivist and teleological accounts of media; compile an annotated bibliography documenting their original archival research into everyday computing culture, including topics such as home productivity, telecommuting, portability, ergonomics, and peripherality; and experiment with alternative modes of historical representation in the course’s final project—an exhibition catalog for a hypothetical museum show that answers the course’s titular question: how did the computer become personal?
This year the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts converges in Atlanta, GA. I'll thrilled to be presenting with friends and colleagues Patrick LeMieux and Finn Brunton, for a historical methodologies panel Patrick organized. We'll be speaking Thursday, 11:45am-1:15pm.
As Patrick wrote in the panel proposal:
"For each presenter, 'doing history' offers an alternative mode of making, one which involves confrontation and collaboration with historical agents, the production of self-made archives, and the implementation of diverse technical and aesthetic practices. Although such techniques have their corollaries in more traditional disciplines—such as oral history, ethnographic interviewing, archival work, and art practice—the technological complexity of media historical research presents unique challenges that require an emergent vocabulary and the circulation of media-specific case studies. ."
Panel Title: Digging, Driving, Decoding, Describing: Media Historical Methodologies
Panel 1I, Peachtree 1 | Thursday 11:45am-1:15pm
Chair: Patrick LeMieux
Finn Brunton | New York University
Making Media Middens
Laine Nooney | Georgia Institute of Technology
On Footwork, or: How to Get People Talking in a Town that Wants to Forget
Patrick LeMieux | University of California at Davis
How to Lose: Forensic Reconstructions of How to Win "Super Mario Bros"
Making Media Middens (Finn Brunton)
We in the digital history community have a fantastic, lively conversation—and superb institutions—devoted to the questions of what it means to preserve, archive, and study digital and computational artifacts: think Brewster Kahle, Lori Emerson, Jason Scott, Katrin Weller, Matt Kirschenbaum, Megan Ankerson . . . On this panel, I will discuss the digital materials that we don't want to archive, or that don't want to be archived—the trash, cruft, detritus and intentionally opaque hoard of documents and artifacts that constitute our digital middens. I will focus on two from my own research: the archives of spam, which we'd all rather forget, and the records of the communities and marketplaces of the so-called “Dark Web,” which would prefer to be forgotten. How best to make them into and understand them as archives?
Middens are pits of domestic refuse filled with the discards and byproducts of material life: the gnawed bones, ashes, fruit stones and potsherds, shells and chips and hair and drippings—together, the photographic negative of a community in action and an invaluable record for archeologists. Along with presenting some practical tools and techniques for both finding and making the middens of our subject, I will discuss ways that we can think of digital historiography in terms of these accidental or unwanted archives. Finally, I'll pose some questions about doing research with other kinds of eccentric, troubling, or speculative archives, like blockchains and doxxes.
On Footwork, or: How to Get People Talking in a Town that Wants to Forget (Laine Nooney)
In 1982, journalist Steven Levy followed Route 41 into Oakhurst, CA and found a fiberglass talking grizzly bear mounted in the town center which would report local land prices at the touch of a button. This strange interaction opens the final third of Levy’s legendary book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, focusing on the early years of landmark computer game publisher Sierra On-Line. Thirty years later, the talking bear still stands, but now it recites the classic holiday poem, “T’was the Night Before Christmas.” Oakhurst’s Talking Bear is an analog for the complex and crosswired cultural memory the town holds for Sierra: things still stand, but nothing remains the same. Arriving at a time of economic depression, Sierra built Oakhurst’s largest buildings, employed hundreds of locals, and promised expansive opportunity—until Sierra closed its operations there in the early 2000s and Oakhurst slide back into recession.
Amidst these dense civic dynamics, I conduct my research on the social history of Sierra On-Line. This talk will document my methods for locating relevant interviewees, tracking the civic remains of Sierra On-Line’s presence, and making sense of the unspoken ways history “lives on” beneath the surface of rural American towns. While much video game history is conducted at a distance—from the haven of on-screen representation, bits on a disk image, or email interviews email—I suggest that closeness to landscape and attentiveness to regionalist interests offers an opportunity to expand the audit of video game history beyond the provenance of the games themselves.
How to Lose: Forensic Reconstructions of How to Win "Super Mario Bros" (Patrick LeMieux)
In 2003, Alexander Galloway videotaped his hands and sampled controller input while playing Super Mario Bros. After completing the game, he formatted the serial data as guitar tablature and hosted it alongside the tutorial videos on Whitney's Artport. Titled How to Win “Super Mario Bros” or RSG-SMB-TAB, Galloway’s ASCII satire of a Game FAQ walkthrough also operates as a conceptual artwork in which play is reduced to a single series of inputs and recast as an impossible guide for novice players—a not-so-user-friendly map that coincides with the territory of the Mushroom Kingdom. Despite and because of the exactitude of the historical documentation, the history of play is lost. But is the game over or is there some way to continue?
This talk documents the media archeological methods I used to try and learn How to Win “Super Mario Bros.” Starting from text files and camcorder footage I reverse engineered and remade RSG-SMB-TAB based on the technical operations of the Nintendo Entertainment System and the material practices of player communities. From tool-assisted simulations of nonexistent videos to real-time reenactments broadcasted on Twitch TV to a self-playing guitar that plays through Galloway’s tabs, in this presentation I demonstrate the role of play as a critical method for historicizing media art. Although some games are difficult to play or cannot be won, methodologies based on a deep material engagement not only reveal the complexity of computational media but also disrupt ahistorical ideologies of immateriality, completion, mastery, and even winning.
This year the Society for Cinema and Media Studies descends upon my new home turf of Atlanta, GA. I'm happy to be coming together with friends/colleagues Jacob Gaboury and Patrick LeMieux for a media history panel Patrick organized around the concept of the "lossy" and the "lossless." We'll be speaking Thursday, 5:00-6:45pm.
As Patrick wrote in the panel proposal:
"Increasingly digital media are stored and compressed in ways such that no data is lost. Such files are called lossless, an evocative term that points to the fantasies of total preservation and perfect reconstruction that reach back to the earliest days of 'new media.' [...] Indeed one might argue that losslessness is the principal fantasy of historical production, that is, the notion that we might reconstruct a perfect representation of the past through those objects that remain."
Henry Lowood will be serving as our respondent. We are also honored to be sponsored by the Media, Science & Technology Scholarly Interest Group.
Panel Title: Technologies of Losslessness Media History in Perpetuity
Panel Number: J14 | Thursday, 5:00-6:45pm
Chair: Patrick LeMieux • University of California, Davis
Jacob Gaboury | Stony Brook University
A Voice Uncoiled: Noise, Loss, and the Origins of Digital Sound
Patrick LeMieux | University of California, Davis
Losing Time: Microtemporal Histories of Speedrunning
Laine Nooney | Georgia Institute of Technology
What the Engine Can’t Reveal: The Other Lives of Sierra On-Line’s AGI Development Software
A Voice Uncoiled: Noise, Loss, and the Origins of Digital Sound (Jacob Gaboury)
According to the 2014 Nielsen Music Report last year in the United States over 9.2 million vinyl records were sold, a growth of 52% over the previous year. This trend is part of a growing interest in and preference for analog media over their digital counterparts. We might interpret this alternately as an investment in those sensible and material traces inscribed into physical media by analog signals, or as nostalgia for what we perceive as a more authentic form of mediation. Yet in the early-1970s when digital audio was first being developed and commercialized it was precisely these traces that engineers and computer scientists sought to silence or otherwise erase. Digital audio allowed for the fantasy of total abstraction, of a recording divorced from the medium or context in which it was produced. While analog media often leave traces of their material specificity in the signal they capture or record, digitization allows for the transformation of sound into information, uncoiled into its constitutive parts. In the 1970s this was cutting edge technology, yet its origins lie in an act of preservation and restoration, an attempt to recapture the past through digitization.
This paper traces the origins of digital audio in the 1960s and 70s with particular focus on the work of Thomas G. Stockham and his Salt Lake City-based company Soundstream Inc., the first digital audio recording studio in the United States. Its primary case study is the Caruso Project, an early attempt by Stockham to digitally restore a series of gramophone recordings made by opera singer Enrico Caruso for the Edison Company from 1902 to 1920. Developing a process known as “blind deconvolution,” Stockham was able to digitally clean the recordings of the noise of the acoustic horn that funneled the sound of Caruso’s voice to the recording mechanism. This work had wide reaching implications, as it allowed for the restoration of any signal without knowledge of the original conditions of its production. The Caruso Project would subsequently lead to the commercial development of digital audio and sound recording, real time digital editing, and the production and standardization of the compact disc format. Through an investigation of this early history this presentation looks at what is lost through the dual processes of restoration and digitization, and asks what place those messy artifacts that characterize analog media have in the history of technology.
Losing Time: Microtemporal Histories of Speedrunning (Patrick LeMieux)
Sitting alone in the bedroom of his childhood home in Quincy, Massachusetts and livestreaming Super Mario Bros. (1985) to a modest audience on Twitch TV in the middle of the night on July 1, 2013 Andrew Gardikis shouted, “Oh my gosh! I don’t even know! Oh my gosh. It’s gonna be like, it’s gonna be like 4:58.03 or something!” After all this time, could it actually be a 4:57? Gardikis does not know because, in that moment, he cannot know. The temporal precision of speedrunning far outpaces the manual dexterity necessary to accurately hit a split or stop a watch. Speedrunning is the practice of playing video games as quickly as possible. Super Mario Bros. - the 1985 platformer hit from Nintendo - is one of the earliest and perhaps most competitive games to speedrun. Between 2007 and 2014 the world record for Nintendo’s classic game dipped from 5:00.60 to 4:58.09, and with these incremental losses the figure 4:57 became the almost mythical horizon of possibility for human play and Gardikis’ ultimate goal--what he calls his “gaming masterpiece.” After each attempt to beat the world record Gardikis must decode and time his DVR recording frame by frame in order to uncover his time in retrospect. At this very moment when time is most important, it is simultaneously lost. Likewise, when the frames are finally counted, the act of play is lost.
The problem of loss--of the inability of record times to adequately represent the complex material practices of speedrunners--is highlighted by Gardikis’ plight and by speedrunning more generally. Related to both Henry Lowood’s (2006, 26) “high-performance play” (i.e., “play as performance, modification of content, and community-based tools and content development”) and James Newman’s (2008, 124) “superplay” (i.e., “the use of the knowledge and techniques uncovered and laid out in Game Guides, the exploitation of the structures, [non-] linearity and limitations of videogames as designs as well as the harnessing of glitches in game code”), speedrunning encourages players to adopt temporal constraints in order to convert single-player games into massively-multiplayer metagames in which time becomes the central rule governing play. As a result, a popular history of speedrunning is almost always represented as a series of numbers—an asymptotically plunging line graph reducing years of community research, races, and records to a single set of digits. This presentation details the microtemporal history of speedrunning Super Mario Bros. and theorizes the desire for and difficulty of reducing kinetic play to abstract numeral--what could be called a “lossy ideology.”
What the Engine Can’t Reveal: The Other Lives of Sierra On-Line’s AGI Development Software (Laine Nooney)
This paper is an archival and theoretical analysis of the Adventure Game Interpreter [AGI], a proprietary 1980s in-house game engine created by home entertainment software producer Sierra On-Line. The AGI engine was developed from 1982-1984 and was implemented as the company's standard game development platform throughout the 1980s. Accounts of this transition document the engine's significance as largely graphical and intrinsically progressive: it afforded the move from static image adventure games to an exploratory, interactive “2.5-D” game space. However, as this paper argues, adoption of the AGI engine was not simply an elegant programming maneuver; it was a critical infrastructure bound up in three specific realms beyond the immersive experience of the games themselves. First, the AGI engine fundamentally altered puzzle design; graphical space became a constitutive feature of an adventure game, and thus design practice itself at Sierra changed. Second, the engine became the backbone of financial strategy at Sierra On-Line, proprietary software allowing the company to limit development costs while increasing output. And third, it inadvertently unshackled programming from the necessity of mastery within the company's programming department, permitting “levels” of expertise to emerge and formalize.
In the context of this research, AGI is a case study challenging the reigning presumption within media archaeology and materialist media studies that code is the defining condition of a game object’s ontological status. Embedded in this analysis of the AGI engine is a methodological rejection of the theoretical fantasy of code and platform as inherently lossless, prior to and more material than the environment of its arrival. Underpinned by work in feminist science studies and feminist media archaeology, this presentation offers a case that critiques the concept of the supposedly self-evident programmatic layer of an artifact like a game engine, instead emphasizing the co-relational character of the engine. As I argue, code is often privileged precisely because it is merely a materiality problem; for all the unique preservation issues it creates, it is simpler to identify than the messier, entangled phenomena of people, affects and practices bound up within the engine’s own existence. Thus, this paper contributes both original archival research on game history and a methodological provocation concerning the status and boundary of a media object.