Apple III and McLuhan

Sunday, March 9th, 2014 by contromal

This week I spent time in the lab working on Apple III and Lisa. I began by familiarizing myself with two of Apple III’s programs: business software and an excel-type, cell-based program. I consider myself a bit of an excel guru, so I was naturally drawn to the latter. However, failing access to an instruction manual, I soon exhausted what I imagined the actual purposes of this program might be (I could add two cells together!) and started to mimic the art of Riddell on a screen, rather than on a type-written page. The mechanically produced cells and spacing naturally reminded me of the geometric “sound poem” that we discussed last week in class. Since Apple III does not have a delete button (only an arrow over function, which would not delete the content of cell, only replace it), I found myself treating this new machine with near caution. I realized that one must exercise care similar to the care used when composing on a typewriter, when utilizing Apple III. To type in the wrong cell would mean that the my project was essentially flawed and that I would need to turn off the Apple III, restart the program, and start from scratch. Although I acknowledge that a linearity should not (according to several theorists’ instructions) be drawn, I found the progress of “delete” fascinating. Apple III was the last PC in the lab I saw without a delete or backspace key. I wondered if a culture of perceived permanence, but actual impermanence could find its origins in this moment. It was on the same machine that, without an additional disk inserted into an external drive, my composition would not save. No traces of it would exist (except on my camera’s memory), after I turned off the machine. So, during the process of composition I felt the pressure of permanence, in the end, I realized the possibility of impermanence in this early personal computer.

Marshall McLuhan, in Understanding Media, writes that “An abstract painting represents a direct manifestation of creative thought processes as they might appear in computer designs”(10). I used the above program (designed for mathematical purposes) for art, before I read McLuhan, but I think that my inclination to use the program for artistically creative purposes emphasizes his point. It is not so much what is produced as it is how the user utilizes the tool (at least, I think this is what McLuhan is saying). Perhaps an accountant would have sat down at the same computer and produced a sheet, which showed him how much money he spends each week on gas. Is a product, which manifests the content of an individual’s creative conceptions in a form particular to the media he uses McLuhan’s point? After all, he writes that man was not shaped by what was produced but the “restructuring of human work and association was shaped by the technique of fragmentation that is the essence of machine technology” (9). This fragmentation is just another form of representation of the medium of the mind.

-Renée

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