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Views On Computers: Have We Come Full Circle On The Atomic Age?

It’s always interesting to see how yesterday’s imagined futures compare to today’s realities. At a time when the digital sphere merges so seamlessly with the physical one, that sentiment may be especially true when it comes to the history of the computer. How did those past utopian visions of the computer, a technology that promised to make us happier and more productive, really pan out?

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It’s this question that makes a new book Do You Compute? so compelling. Compiled, art directed, and designed by cultural anthropologist and designer Ryan Mungia, the book showcases the way that technology was sold and advertised in the years between 1950 and 1999. Seen together, this compendium of computer ads also reveals broader societal shifts around the nature of the workplace, changing gender roles, and emerging fears of robots taking over (which continue to this day with the emergence of AI). It also traces the computer’s trajectory from an enormous, expensive, purely big-business tool to a personal commodity—and hints at the future of computational technology that we recognise today.

Looking back on 20th-century perceptions of computer technology is both fascinating and amusing, satisfying a nostalgia for the quainter, at times almost sci-fi, visions of a future that we now know as the past. In the book, these ads are ordered chronologically and broken into sections that serve to show certain trends or the advent of various technologies over the years. These categories include ads during computing’s initial uses in aerospace and accounting in the ’50s; the proliferation of personal computers that was in its zenith in the ’70s; and finally what’s dubbed the “cybernetic meadow” of the ’90s, the decade when computer tech found its way into every aspect of everyday life — from self expression in platforms like Blogger and LiveJournal to 1992’s launch of the jpg file format.

It’s also interesting to learn how different many of our lives could have been without a certain investment deal that was struck in 1997. As told in the book’s introduction, Apple was facing financial ruin at the time, until Bill Gates pumped a whopping $150 million into the company to save it.

Whereas today products like iPhones are marketed to all, back in the ’50s and ’60s there was no point whatsoever in appealing to the everyman. Computing was about investing in your company’s future, or advancing highly scientific fields like aerospace. The huge investment of buying a computer in the 1950s meant selling them was a challenge for agencies and marketers.

The main thread of the book’s narrative is how the invention of the microchip saw computers, and the ads that sold them, shift from business people to regular consumers. This led to designs being a lot more freewheeling, with more off-colour humour. This paralleled how advertising in general changed in the ’80s and ’90s. The earlier images with just a picture of a computer became much less common. They no longer needed to show the machine, it was more about conveying an idea, graphics-wise, that freed up designers to explore other ideas.

The ads become increasingly slick over the years. The spreads showing images from around the late ’70s, with designs created in-house, were some of the most compelling.  Perhaps that’s because I’m a sucker for Crap Graffiti (“Crap-Graf”) and many of the ads in this category were either hilarious, terrible, or embarrassing, but there’s a ton of charm in the sheer absurdity of an ad in which a trio of computers sit together in a verdant field. Or a thoroughly baffling, very trippy poster from 1979 with the slogan “cast a spell. Win a sorcerer” as a terrifying man hovers over a keyboard, with multiple hands and maniacal grin on his face.

Such designs make today’s tech ads seem incredibly vanilla and dry, but then again, tech in 2020 is so seamlessly integrated into our lives as to go almost unnoticed. Even the Y2K panic of just 20 years ago seems sweetly daft. What we initially understood computers to be— e.g. benign devices on which to do your homework, play video games, or keep track of payroll — suddenly morphed into something much more nebulous and nefarious, once again.

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