Nearly all digital media labs are conceived of as places for experimental research using the most up-to-date, cutting-edge tools available. However, the MAL – which is, as far as we know, the largest of its kind in North America – is a place for hands-on, cross-disciplinary experimental research, teaching and artistic practice using still-functioning but obsolete tools, software, hardware, platforms from the late nineteenth century through the twenty first century.
What the MAL does best is provide direct access to defining moments in the history of computing and digital literature. Just in terms of our collection of digital devices, we currently have 35 portables/laptops, 73 desktop computers, 22 handheld devices, 8 other computing devices, and 10 game consoles. In addition to landmark computers such as the Commodore 64 from 1982, the Vectrex Gaming Console also from 1982, the Compaq III portable laptop from 1987, the NeXT Cube from 1990, the lab also houses working Apple IIe’s and a rare Apple Lisa. These last two computers are particularly important for understanding the history of personal computing and computer-mediated writing; 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 ever while the Apple Lisa was the first commercial computer to use a Graphical User Interface.
The MAL is also a kind of thinking device in that providing access to the utterly unique, material specificity of these computers, their interfaces, platforms, and software makes it possible to defamiliarize or make visible for critique contemporary, invisible interfaces and platforms. It’s an approach to media of the present via media of the past that aligns the lab with the vibrant field of “media archaeology.” In part influenced by the so-called “Berlin school of media studies” that has grown out of Friedrich Kittler’s new media approach, which is invested in both recovering the analog ancestors of the digital and reading the digital back into the analog, media archaeology teaches us that one can use older writing interfaces as a way to bring the digital back into view once again. One example of the invisibility of contemporary computing that I like to use comes in a well-known TED.com unveiling of a multitouch interface, during which creator Jeff Han proudly declares that “there’s no instruction manual, the interface just sort of disappears.” Another example comes from the Natural User Interface Group who define NUI as “an emerging concept in Human/Computer Interaction that refers to a interface that is effectively invisible, or becomes invisible to its user with successive learned interactions;” and they use “natural” to mean “organic, unthinking, prompted by instinct.” But just whose instinct is directing the shape of these interfaces? Or, more to the point, why would we – as users as much as creators or writers – want our interactions with interfaces to be “unthinking” so that we have no sense of how the interface works on us, delimiting reading, writing, even thinking?
In a sense, then, the reconfigured media archaeology approach we are trying to take up in the lab is a reconfigured media archaeology applied both to computing’s past and to a constantly receding present that masquerades as the near future. Without reading early computing devices and interfaces against their contemporary off-spring and vice-versa, the present slips from view for the contemporary computing industry – which is accelerating its drive to achieve perfect invisibility through multi-touch, Natural User Interfaces, and ubiquitous computing devices – desires nothing more than to efface the interface altogether and so also efface our ability to read let alone write the interface. By contrast, it’s the combination of the strangeness and the vague familiarity of artifacts such as the black and green command-line interface that remind us of what our computing devices can do, of what we can do to and with them.