February 8, 2011
“Where do we stand today, and how shall we proceed in the future?” asks a 1950s marketing film for Remington Rand’s Univac computer. “No matter what our field of activity… basic questions such as these have to be asked — and answered. So that we may know where we stand and how to advance, our every effort is recorded in constantly-growing files…” In a 1956 advertising spot for the machine, its qualities culminate in control — perhaps over the weather, certainly over the torrents of data inundating modern life…
…but it’s self-control above all that’s celebrated, the machine’s check-digits constituting a cybernetic superego, a super-fast fastidiousness.
The Univac was big, noisy, complex; it lived in different appliances in different rooms. And it was a strange machine, knitted together from technologies out of a future that didn’t happen, quite; its memory for instance consisted of a tube-studded brain sloshing with hot mercury, through which sonic impulses transduced electrical signals from the processors, to trap pulsing, moving data in a quicksilver delay. But for all its strangeness, the Univac was an individual: it was a machine, it had a back and a front, an inside and an outside, a beginning and an end. Forty years later, a knotted and perplexed Bryant Gumbel would exclaim his dudgeon at the prospect of a network of networks, limitless and invisible:
It’s easy to laugh at the befuddled personalities as they wonder how to pronounce the @ symbol and fret over how it sounds to say “violence at NBC.” But they were right to be dismayed — and their puzzlement reminds us what a strange prodigy it is, this network that lives amongst us and within us. Its ubiquity, its transcendent omnipresence, its incoherent and uncanny misprision of words and puncuation, our language, our signs — giving rein to another pattern of the cybernetic personality spectrum: a shadowy presence, voracious and dull, hungering to be filled with us. It’s native, this shadow; it has its place and its powers. The question is, how to integrate the cybernetic superego and the technological id?