It’s always interesting to see how yesterday’s imagined futures compare to today’s realities. At a time when the digital sphere merges so seamlessly with the physical one, that sentiment may be especially true when it comes to the history of the computer. How did those past utopian visions of the computer, a technology that promised to make us happier and more productive, really pan out?
It’s this question that makes a new book, Do You Compute?, so compelling. Compiled, art directed, and designed by cultural anthropologist and designer Ryan Mungia, the book showcases the way that technology was sold and advertised in the years between 1950 and 1999. Seen together, this compendium of computer ads also reveals broader societal shifts around the nature of the workplace, changing gender roles, and emerging fears of robots taking over (which continue to this day with the emergence of AI). It also traces the computer’s trajectory from an enormous, expensive, purely big-business tool to a personal commodity—and hints at the future of computational technology that we recognize today.
Looking back on 20th-century perceptions of computer technology is both fascinating and amusing, satisfying a nostalgia for the quainter, at times almost sci-fi, visions of a future that we now know as the past. In the book, these ads are ordered chronologically and broken into sections that serve to show certain trends or the advent of various technologies over the years. These categories include ads during computing’s initial uses in aerospace and accounting in the ’50s; the proliferation of personal computers that was in its naissance in the ’70s; and finally what’s dubbed the “cybernetic meadow” of the ’90s, the decade when computer tech found its way into every aspect of life—from self expression in platforms like Blogger and LiveJournal to 1992’s launch of the jpg file format. It’s also interesting to learn how different many of our lives could have been without a certain investment deal that was struck in 1997. As told in the book’s introduction, Apple was facing financial ruin at the time, until Bill Gates pumped a whopping $150 million into the company to save it.
Mungia first discovered the strangeness and beauty of old tech ads around four years ago when, while researching for a different project, he found himself in a collector’s barn-based storage facility packed “floor to ceiling” with old magazines. In a Fortune magazine from the 1950s, he found a Remington Rand UNIVAC ad with classic, mid-century design and an image of a massive mainframe computer. “It was probably the first computer ad that I ever saw, and I was immediately taken with it,” he says.
After that, he became obsessed with the idea of old computer ads and began looking through more old copies of Fortune, which turned out to be a goldmine. “Fortune is a trade magazine geared towards business people, and back then computers were only really aimed at big businesses and corporations,” says Mungia.
As such, the ads of the era fall into a few broad camps. There are the straightforward, no-nonsense typographic campaigns that contain a product’s name and a slick but gently futuristic strapline (IBM’s 1958 ad simply reads “electrons at work”). There are also photo- or illustration-heavy posters demonstrating the use of computers in the modern workplace (“a person standing next to a big computer and turning some knobs,” as Mungia adroitly sums it up), and the sci-fi-esque approaches that feel a bit like movie posters. Finally, there are the ads that use dense copy to explain to those holding the corporation purse strings how vital computing power could be for them.
“As the business machine field evolved from producing analog calculating machines to mainframes for voluminous data processing… computer companies were more dependent on strong brand strategies and design to help earn success.”
While today products like iPhones are marketed to all, back in the ’50s and ’60s there was no point whatsoever in appealing to the everyman. Computing was about investing in your company’s future, or advancing highly scientific fields like aerospace: as Steven Heller notes his introduction to the book, the huge investment of buying a computer in the 1950s meant selling them was a challenge for agencies and marketers. “As the business machine field evolved from producing analog calculating machines to mainframes for voluminous data processing, the small handful of computer companies were more dependent on strong brand strategies and design to help earn their own recognition and success.”
One of the things that most interested Mungia as he was putting together the book was the relationship between design approaches and the pop culture and cinema references to computing, tech, and robots during the decades the book examines. Mungia says that the ways these “aesthetics merged” really starts to show in the ’70s and ’80s when ads, like movies, began using an approach that was “sort of pixelated, Atari-esque. The colors are very acidic, and while there’s lots of different typefaces, they all have a certain look—sort of a ‘computer’ typeface that you would see on an old arcade game.”
Heller, for his part, states that “the sexiest” computer ad he’s seen wasn’t actually for computers, but rather about them. The movie poster for Fritz Lang’s 1927 movie Metropolis features “an arresting graphic of the Maschinemensch (‘machine-person’ or robot), a shiny, metallic automaton shaped like a woman.” This figure became “the archetype for all the movie androids that followed—yet what is most important is that the Maschinemensch is by any other name a computer.”
This observation could be seen to prefigure the sort of computers-but-not-computers that are a seamless part of many people’s lives today (and often anthropomorphized as women, like Siri and Alexa). But while it would be easy to assume the ads of yesterday would play into the misogyny of the past, too, there’s not actually too much evidence of this. Mungia’s aim in curating the images—which he cut own from an initial selection of 1000 to around 350—was to have a narrative, “so it wasn’t just a collection of cool images: I really wanted it to tell a story.” Design-wise, this meant letting the images do the talking for the most part, accompanied by simple text captions set in Surveyor by Hoefler&Co.
The main thread of this narrative, according to Mungia, was how the invention of the microchip saw computers and the ads that sold them “shift from business people to regular consumers.” This led to designs being “a lot more freewheeling, with more off color humor,” he says, which paralleled how advertising in general changed in the ’80s and ’90s. “The earlier images with just a picture of a computer became much less common,” says Mungia. “They no longer needed to show the machine, it was more about conveying an idea. Graphics-wise, that freed up designers to explore other ideas.”
As Mungia points out, the ads become increasingly slick over the years. However, I found the spreads showing images from around the late ’70s, with designs created in-house, to be some of the most compelling. Perhaps that’s because I’m a sucker for “ugly design,” and many of the ads in this category were either hilarious, terrible, or embarrassing, but there’s a ton of charm in the sheer absurdity of an ad in which a trio of computers sit together in a verdant field. Or a thoroughly baffling, very trippy poster from 1979 with the slogan “cast a spell. Win a sorcerer” as a terrifying man hovers over a keyboard, with multiple hands and maniacal grin on his face.
Such designs make today’s tech ads seem incredibly vanilla and dry, but then again, tech in 2020 is so seamlessly integrated into our lives as to go almost unnoticed. Even the Y2K panic of just 20 years ago seems sweetly daft. “The seismic shift that occurred in our collective consciousness during this time period is significant,” writes Mungia in the introduction of the book. “What we initially understood computers to be—e.g. benign devices on which to do your homework, play video games, or keep track of payroll—suddenly morphed into something much more nebulous and nefarious.”