Think Again: IBM, Eames, Informatics


While home with my family for Christmas, I read and thoroughly enjoyed John Harwood’s The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945 – 1976 (I also finished Rebecca Solnit’s Infinite City, Richard John’s Network Nation, and the new “Digital Art” special issue of October, none of which matched Harwood). As I was reading The Interface, I heard Reinhold Martin echoing all over the place — as he should’ve been; he was Harwood’s advisor. Harwood’s project focuses on IBM as a new kind of corporation — one that calls for a new kind of management — one for which design, in all varieties, is a critical management tool. In 1956 IBM’s president Thomas Watson, Jr., hired Eliot Noyes to serve as “consultant director of design,” and Noyes brought in a crack team of fellow designers — Edgar Kaufmann, Paul Rand, George Nelson, Mies, and Eero Saarinen among them — to design not only a multi-channelled “interface” between IBM and its markets, but also, perhaps more lastingly, an “organic,” “modular” interface between computers and people and architecture.

There’s lots of great stuff in the book — about logistics, ergonomics, the connections between management theory and cybernetics, the difficulties of enforcing consistent design throughout a far-flung multinational corporation, etc. — but I most enjoyed Harwood’s fourth chapter, where he talks about IBM’s use of exhibitions and films to “naturalize the computer” — to help a wary public become more comfortable with the machine’s inevitable integration into their workplaces, their schools, their everyday lives. And what struck me most within this chapter (perhaps it shouldn’t have been surprising) were the parallels between the Eames’s IBM exhibition designs and the THINK exhibition my students and I saw, and I wrote about, a couple months ago. After seeing the modern-day THINK at Lincoln Center, we immediately noted the similarities between the zooms and scalar variety in the multimedia presentations, and the Eameses’ Powers of Ten.

But what I didn’t know back in October was that the Eameses’ multiscreen projection inside the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair was also called “Think” (of course the “Think” slogan had been in use within IBM since the 20s). Nor did I realize, from simply looking at photos of the 1964 exhibition, just how similar its design and rhetorical strategies were to those employed in THINK 47 years later.

People Wall

1964 had the People Wall, which required visitors to prop themselves up awkwardly “in a pose of heightened attention and readiness” (Harwood 190), while 2011’s gallery required us to stand amidst pods of monolithic screens, wondering which of their many faces we should strive to see. The People Wall rose 53 feet into the interior of the “Information Machine,” whereas at THINK we descended a ramp, gathered in a foyer then were led into a pitch-black room; both were altitude-altering “rites of passage” leading to a disorienting space. And both offered multi-screen extravaganzas: The Information Machine featured 15 screens of various shapes and sizes mounted on the curved wall, while the 2011 gallery contained 40 seven-foot screens rising from the floor.


Harwood says that the Information Machine…

…displaced the spectator, several times over. First, deprived of any sense of direction by the labyrinth stairs, then set in bleachers without a point of reference, then lifted into the ovoid, and at last fragmenting and multiplying her points of view in a rapid succession of film segments and slides, the spectator has embarked on a kind of pilgrimage. She has quite clearly transcended three-dimensional (or even four-dimensional) space and has come to inhabit, however briefly, an entirely new medium (191).

One experienced a similar disorientation, as I described in my earlier post, in the Lincoln Center exhibition; we walked into a dark, subterranean space; found ourselves lost in a field of infinite regress; and divided our attention among the myriad screens and their reflections in the mirrored walls.

And in both exhibitions, visitors were (likely) simultaneously wowed and horrified by what they were seeing and hearing. At Lincoln Center, we couldn’t help but marvel at technology’s role in revolutionizing health care, finance, agriculture, etc., yet we couldn’t forget the promise, or threat, that these “systems are alive” — that there is potential danger in placing our basic needs for survival in the hands of sentient technologies. Similarly, the 1964 exhibition presented the computer as “wholly new and shocking, and [at the same time,] as a completely natural extension of everyday life” (194); “no effort was made to resolve this contradiction… The task of naturalizing the computer did not involve a true effort at ontology, of either human being or computer; rather, it involved a design logic of displacement and enclosure” (195).

History  Wall – via

Finally, the 1964 Pavilion and other Eames exhibitions sought to “posit [IBM’s] activities as the culmination of scientific and technological history” (196). The Eameses incorporated a History Wall into many of their exhibitions, showing the great traditions from which IBM’s work arises, and to which it represents a culmination, an apotheosis. Similarly, at Lincoln Center, we emerged from the multimedia gallery into an exit hallway featuring 100 iconic moments from IBM’s 100-year history. Once again, IBM finds itself “as the end of a great narrative of scientific and artistic achievement” (196).


Thinking Think

A group of my Urban Media Archaeology students organized a fieldtrip to the IBM Think exhibit at Lincoln Center this past weekend. We entered via a vamp bordered, along the east, by a series of panels enumerating the various ways that technology — particularly IBM’s technology, of course — can “mak[e] the world work better.”

Christo and I appreciated this mention of the city’s “legacy systems” — a Kittlerian reference to “city as computer

Along the west side of the entry ramp was a 123-foot “data visualization wall” that animated quite a few of the applications represented on the aforementioned panels. None of my photos do justice to the wall, but there’s a really lovely slideshow on Scientific American‘s website. At the bottom of the ramp we got our free tickets for the 12-minute “immersive film” inside the exhibition space.

Once we got inside — Holy Kubrick! Monoliths galore! We found ourselves sharing the space with 40 seven-foot screens enclosed within mirrored walls, trapping them — and us — in a reflective zone of infinite regress.

via Scientific American

The screens were organized into six-panel “pods,” and we were advised to stand either in the center of one of the pods (there seemed to be three or four separate clusters of screens), affording a view of multiple screens simultaneously; or along the mirrored walls, where we could experience the immersive effect via reflection. Once the show began, we were, as IBM would have it, “enveloped in a rich narrative about the pattern of progress, told through awe-inspiring stories of the past and present.” The imagery was distributed across the screens; we frequently found ourselves spinning around to capture the full dimensionality of the visuals. A train that approached from the south screen could be seen, seconds later, receding into the distance on the north screen. A field of rice — the ‘before” shot — visible on the southeast screen stood opposite a steaming bowl of cooked rice — the “after” — on the northwest screen. (What do trains and rice have to do with IBM, you ask? It should be obvious! Technology touches every aspect of “humankind’s quest for progress!”) Christo pointed out that even the backs of the screens, which faced interstitial spaces where no one was standing, featured unique imagery. The film was as much a kaleidoscopic as an immersive experience.

Once the formal show was over, the 40 screens turned into interactive touchscreens, “transforming the space into a forest of discovery” (!) Each screen featured one of five steps — Seeing, Mapping, Understanding, Believing, Acting — from IBM’s gerund-based “approach to making the world work better.” This, we understood, is the recipe for world-changing — a “distinct, repeatable pattern” for progress. [all quotations via Think website]

Interacting with the screens via a gestural language — swipe, poke, pinch, etc. — familiar to us thanks to our smartphone training, we explored the history of measurement and visualization tools (Seeing); we traced the history of mapping and data visualization (Mapping); we studied models, prototypes, calculations, and other tools that allow us to better understand the complexity of the world’s systems (Understanding); we traveled to various sites of progressive action — attempts to thwart credit card fraud or enhance telecommunications infrastructures or improve health care — around the world (Acting): and we met, via a dozen or so interviews, individuals who believe in the possibility of technological process (Believing).

The entire experience had been overwhelmingly object-oriented and techno-centric — agency implicitly lies with the technology and the techno-social systems they construct — until we got to Believing. Here’s where we heard the human stories, where we saw human faces and heard human voices. Believing: this is what humans do best. We believe in technology’s potential to actualize progress.

Change is easy. It happens by itself. Progress, on the other hand, is deliberate. It won’t take root until someone believes it’s possible and convinces others that action will be worth the effort (via Think).

It’s our belief that transforms change into progress. Yet “sustainable progress requires massive coordination, cooperation, perpetual monitoring and automation. It takes teamwork and technology to manage complexity.” We need to form alliances, assemblages, with IBM’s techno-actants to effect ongoing progress. “Acting is never over,” IBM reminds us, “because our systems are alive.” Yeow. Unpack that sentence.

Repeatable patterns, algorithms, perpetual monitoring, infinite regress. I see where this is going.

After 20 minutes or so of touch-screen interaction, we were guided by attendants in “Think-branded” polo shirts out of the exhibition space — our “forest of discovery” — to make room for the next group. The exit hallway featured an display of 100 iconic moments from IBM’s 100-year history. Paul Rand was very much alive here — as were all kinds of fantastic dead media. This “exit experience” was meant to leave us with the impression that IBM’s historical “faith in science,…[and the] pursuit of knowledge” have fostered a shared “belief that together we can make the world better” — but instead, we Media Archaeologists reconceived this space as an exciting excavation of the strata of media history.

After all that thinking, I needed something a little less intellectually taxing — so I wrapped up the afternoon with a lot of dumb metal at the Richard Serra show at Gagosian.