New weekly series: Case studies from the Media Archaeology Lab

The Media Archaeology Lab, hosted at the University of Colorado at Boulder and founded by Lori Emerson, is a space for cross-disciplinary experimental research using still-functioning but obsolete tools from the past. Visit it here.

Assistant professor of English, as well as the founder and director of the Media Archaeology Lab, at the University of Colorado at Boulder

I’m very grateful to the University of Minnesota for this opportunity to blog, over the coming weeks, about machines housed in the Media Archaeology Lab (MAL)—ones important to the history of personal computing from the 1970s through the 1980s—that I find are particularly revealing. For, in fact, an implicit and foundational back-drop to Reading Writing Interfaces (RWI) is the MAL.

Founded in 2009—one year before I had even conceptualized the shape and scope of RWI—and part of the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Department of English, the MAL gives students, scholars, and members of the general public access to obsolete, functional media from the early twentieth century to the twenty-first century for hands-on research, teaching, and research creation. In this regard, the MAL is unique. Perhaps most importantly and broadly, the MAL turns the concepts of “archive” and “museum” inside out in the interests of disrupting two interrelated, cultural tendencies: a) the tendency to create neat teleological arcs of technological progress that extend from the past to the present and b) the tendency to represent such arcs through static exhibits that display the outside and surfaces of these artifacts rather than their unique, material, operational insides.

As I write in the introduction to RWI, without having the ability to directly discover what one might call the ‘variantology of early computing,’ without experiencing what it’s like to operate a computer that pre-dates standardized interfaces (working through, for example, the non-obvious differences between a Commodore key and Open-Apple and Closed-Apple keys) and whose target audience is the DIYer, the tinkerer, the curious, I would never have understood to the extent that I do now the (equally non-obvious) ideology of the user-friendly, which is a recurring concern throughout the book. The MAL, then, houses most of the computers I discuss throughout, including the Apple II, Apple Lisa, and Apple Macintosh, as well as many early works of digital literature. The Lisa and the Macintosh are particularly important for understanding the history of personal computing and computer-mediated writing for while they were both released in 1983, the shift in interface from the one to the other (and therefore the shift in the limits and possibilities for what one could create) is remarkable. The Apple II series of computers all used the command-line interface and they were also the first affordable, user-friendly, and so most popular personal computers. The Apple Lisa, then, was the first commercial computer to use a Graphical User Interface.

The Apple Lisa, 1983, was the first personal computer to offer
a graphical user interface. Photo by Diane Lynn Bullock.

However, I have come to recognize this sort of research is only one of the practices the MAL affords its interlocutors. I have come to understand it as a sort of “variontological” space in its own right, a place where, depending on your approach, you will find opportunities for research and teaching in myriad configurations as well as a host of other less clearly defined activities made possible by a collection that is both object and tool. The MAL is an archive for original works of digital art/literature along with their original platforms. It is an archive for media objects. It a site for artistic interventions, experiments, and projects via MALpractices (residencies for artists and writers to, first, work and experiment directly with our materials, and second, exhibit or perform their work either in the MAL or at a Colorado-based museum or gallery), MALware (our on-demand publication that documents events, MALpractices, and interdisciplinary thought taking place in and through the lab), and MALfunctions (monthly events for entrepreneurs, hackers, activists, academics, artists and designers that act equally as a hackerspace, makerspace, or straightforward venue space as a way to express the MAL’s extraordinary configurability). From the perspective of the university, it is a flexible, fluid space for practice-based research from a range of disciplines including literature, art, media studies, history of technology, computer science, library science, and archives, and it is an apparatus through which we come to understand a complex history and the consequences of that history. From the perspective of the private sector and local tech/startup companies, the MAL offers a range of past solutions for present problems. It also offers these companies a compelling argument against planned obsolescence, as many of the machines in the lab are more than 35 years old and not only function perfectly, but also make possible certain modes of interaction and creation that are not possible with contemporary digital computers.

Stay tuned for next week’s blog post, which will be on our oldest, still functioning computer in the lab, the Altair 8800b from 1976, and its incredible capacity to give us access to the machine at the level of 1s and 0s.

[UPDATE] See all case studies in this series:
#2: The Altair 8800b from 1976.
#3: The Vectrex Gaming Console from 1982.
#4: George R. R. Martin, WordStar, and Media Archaeology in the Media.
#5: On OTHER NETWORKS and “the internet.”

Lori Emerson is author of Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound, soon forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press. She is assistant professor of English, as well as the founder and director of the Media Archaeology Lab, at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“This is the first book to bridge the fields of media archaeology and literary studies, specifically poetry and poetics. It offers new readings—and sometimes a first reading—of important texts, it performs historical spadework that adds to the existing narratives of how the personal computer has evolved, and it contributes to current critical conversations by making the category of interface central to its explorations of textual materiality.”—Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, author of Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination

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