Do You Compute? Selling Tech from the Atomic Age to the Y2K Bug 1950 -1999 (Hat and Beard Press) is a illuminating anthology of advertisements that helped promote and launch the computer revolution. Is written and edited by Ryan Mungia with an introduction by me. Like so many words and images, which in hindsight seem naif or clueless when they first appear, Mungia reveals the gradual evolution of a computer-triggered ad-viz vocabulary. Remember, these ads and promos were produced before Apple products became extension of the way we live now — and the current vernacular. The excerpt (below) is a portion of the intro text that expresses my own awe at the dawn of the new (and increasingly intrusive) age.
“Images of the future, as visualized on science fiction magazine covers, television and in films, triggered paroxysms of anticipation in many people like me. Computers were the cornerstone of this future yet in 1950s and 60s the early years of the Computer Revolution the visual delight never quite matched the physical reality. After all a computer is ostensibly a mundane machine and the advertisements for computers was equally conventional.
The sexiest computer advertisement I have ever seen was actually not an advertisement for a computer but rather about a computer – well, kind of what we’ve come to know as a computer: The famous film poster for Fritz Lang’s 1927 dystopian science fiction masterpiece “Metropolis” that prominently features in an arresting graphic of the Maschinenmensch (“machine-person” or robot), a shiny metallic automaton shaped like a woman.
Maschinenmensch is the archetype for (and the most familiar image of) all the movie androids that followed – yet what is most important Maschinenmensch is by any other name a computer. Prior to the early 1960s and the first Computer Revolution (we’re in the fourth now), robots (from the Czech word robata for forced labor) were not touted as computers per se but rather as fictional mechanical humanoid devices. Real computers in their early modern incarnation were, conversely, those behemoth mainframe “big brains” decked out with blinking lights, dials, perpetually rotating reels of magnetic tape and complex circuitry that were housed in large temperature controlled rooms and required several people to operate (not quite the Siri or Allegra of today). These machines were not like robots, which were the stuff of imagination, they were big metal boxes with keyboards.
But they were the future even if the ad styles used to sell and promote them were not very inventive. Advertising creatives avoided using metaphor and allegory lest they romanticize, mythologize, and in the process of doing so, trivialize them. Businesses saw their futures in terms of no nonsense functionality.”