Winning Hearts and Minds, from the Computer’s Perspective
When I was trying to come up with an image for the header of this site (which we call a “hero image” in the industry) I found two different pictures in my archive of people looking at screens that made a compelling contrast when placed side-by-side. The first picture shows an Air Force officer in the early 1960’s pointing a light gun at a weapons direction console. The second photo shows a woman in around 1970 wearing casual clothes sitting on a cushion on the floor using a prototype personal computer.
The first image feels like a relic of the Cold War. The weapons direction console in the photo is a terminal of the SAGE (Semi-Automated Ground Environment) computer network – a continent-sized weapons system designed to defend North America in the event of a nuclear attack by Soviet bombers. The terminal is angular and sterile and covered in mysterious buttons and switches (and includes a built-in cigarette lighter and ashtray on the left side). The officer’s gray uniform blends into the gray electronics that surround him and his stiff posture, his headset, and the light gun that he touches to the screen of his scope give them impression that he’s part of this machinery himself. Just glimpsed over the officer’s shoulder we can see the corner of another radar scope, and it’s not hard to imaging the entire underground bunker, filled with row after row of dozens of these identical consoles, each with its own identical officer wired in to the system.
Although it’s hard to see, this Air Force officer is using one of the first GUI (Graphical User Interface) computer systems. The light gun that the officer is holding to the screen was used to select targets on the readout. The screen itself, although it resembles a radar scope, is showing a digital representation surveillance data that has been collected from multiple sources and compiled by a computer. The Weapons Director Console is the first computer monitor. SAGE was both the first digital computer system and the first computer network. Before SAGE, computers were standalone systems which technicians interacted with indirectly, by feeding punch cards into the machine. But this changed with SAGE, as the demands of supersonic aerial combat necessitated rapid interaction and feedback between the “stakeholders” (Air Force officers) and the computer itself. These fire control officers, interacting directly with computer data in real time were the first “computer users” in the modern sense of the word.
The second photo, although only taken about a decade later, feels shockingly contemporary. The woman in the photo, a computer scientist at Stanford Research Institute (SRI), with her macrame sweater and chunky glasses wouldn’t look out of place in a startup or advertising agency today. The machine she’s using, although a little bulky, is clearly identifiable as a personal computer – she’s looking at a monitor, and holding a mouse in her right hand. The computer is on a low desk and the woman using it is sitting on a cushion on the floor. There’s even a coffee mug on the desk in front of her. Although working laptops and handheld computers were still years in the future, the designers of this system are working from a vision of ubiquitous informal computer usage.
What’s harder to see in this second photo is that we’re also looking at an Air Force contractor using Air Force technology developed as part of a Cold War program to defend America from Communism. The oN Line System project, run by Douglas Engelbart at SRI, was originally proposed to the Air Force as a plan to train helicopter pilots. The funding for this project came from the military thru the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Administration (ARPA), and SRI itself was so deeply involved in military research and strategic planning that Stanford Students for a Democratic Society shut it down via sit-ins multiple times in the 1960s.
During that same decade bracketed by these 2 photos, America’s primary military posture evolved from tactical nuclear warfare against the USSR to a counterinsurgency campaign in Southeast Asia. The Doomsday scenario was no longer Soviet nuclear bombs dropped on American cities, but the defeat of the American empire at home and abroad by anti-colonial, anti-racist, feminist liberation movements. Bombing campaigns were ineffective in suppressing resistance to US imperialism in Asia, so the US enacted a strategy of selective assassination combined with psychological warfare to win over the population: “Winning Hearts and Minds.”
Again, it’s easy to see this Cold War Armageddon-in-the-Stratosphere scenario informing the aesthetics of the first photo, but doesn’t the second photo also show an aesthetic of “Winning Hearts and Minds?” Look at that photo from the computer’s perspective – it’s winning the hearts and minds of the people who build and maintain its infrastructure.
So what if the transformation of the “computer user” shown between these two photos wasn’t just happenstance? What if it was an evolution guided by the market forces of capitalism and the operational needs of US military infrastructure? What if this doctrine of “Winning Hearts and Minds” informed the fundamental design of the technology?
Pretty much all of the major issues of contemporary hardware engineering and user-experience design were worked out in the decade between when these first 2 photos were taken. SAGE was the first implementation of digital processing, random-access memory, computer graphics, external storage media, networking. The NLS system was the first implementation of video chat, collaborative editing, hypertext, the mouse. The world of the second photo isn’t a break with the world of the first photo, it’s a continuation of it. Cold War hardware and strategic purpose encapsulated in the aesthetics and affect of California counterculture.
How would a computer engineer “friendliness” in a user? How could a population be encouraged to allow a computer to influence their behavior because they feel that they have the same relationship of mutual communication and emotional feedback with the machine that they would with another person? What hormonal or neurotransmitter responses could be trained in a human to establish feelings of affection for the machine? What about using these newly-developed capabilities for displaying images to form meaningful references to culture and history? What about appealing to the user’s sense of individualism?
The casual clothes and posture of the woman in the second photo, the way she sits on the floor, all expressions of individualism which at first would appear in defiance of the sterile military research laboratory where she works. But the laboratory tolerated these expressions of individualism, and even encouraged it. These engineers were carving out a space for individual expression within the Doomsday machinery of empire though a profusion of selfhood reminiscent of the group-therapy practices that were also a product of the late 1960’s Bay Area. What if this profusion of selfhood, this appeal to individualism is how the network reproduces itself? By encouraging its users to use the network as a medium for constructing their selfhood? This is kind of a banal observation about self-branding on social media, but where did this practice originate? And why?
Capitalism expands by flooding new territories with libidinal energy, then reining that energy back in, leaving only superficial aesthetic traces.
Is “hippie computer scientist lady sitting on the office floor” a vision of a society built on love and liberation, or a premonition of reactionary hipsterism, gentrification, self-surveillance and imperialism disguised in faux-radical aesthetics?
Just to be clear, I’m not implying sentience on the part of the network here, or deception on the part of Engelbart and his team at SRI. These aren’t secret agents pretending to be hippies while they enact a secret plan to build a mind-control system. These researchers were aware of the compromises they made in working at SRI, and may have even felt they were opportunistically exploiting an over-funded, poorly supervised bureaucracy. But they remained unconcerned with how the machinery of empire was gleaning aspects of their research for its own ends. The personal computer as we know it evolved from what the market and needs of US military infrastructure selected as useful. It was adequate to the circumstances, not necessarily optimal, and no more predetermined than any other form of evolution.
A few years after Engelbart developed the NLS at SRI, Alan Kay would build upon these developments at Xerox PARC, leveraging the next generation of computer graphics capabilities to display Sesame Street characters within the user interface because he felt that would encourage children to see the computer as a friendly and helpful presence in their lives, in the same way Sesame Street did for television.
The photo that I ended up using as the main image for this site is a picture of one of the SAGE “Blue Room” radar surveillance centers. Two parallel rows of fire control officers at their consoles, each one staring intently into the screen. There’s a civilian in the front left, wearing a blue suit that blends in with the surroundings like a kind of bureaucratic camouflage. He’s likely one of the IBM engineers or managers which built the system. The entire scene is bathed in a eerie blue light whose only contrast is the yellow-green glow of the weapons console displays. The blue tint isn’t a photo filter – the rooms were lit with special blue lamps which enhanced the displays of the dim, slow-to-refresh weapons direction consoles. When these surveillance centers first went into operation, Air Force psychiatrists were concerned that long-term exposure to blue light combined with the strobing of the computer displays would have negative effects on the health of the officers.
These surveillance centers were contained deep inside concrete bunkers that housed massive, multi-room IBM AN/FSQ-7 Direction Control computers. The fire control officers were literally working from inside the computer. Row upon row of men, sitting at desks, reacting to patterns of light on a screen with utmost seriousness. They did this for 8 to 14 hours per day, with the years passing in a blend of 99.999% boredom and 0.001% sheer terror as they monitor their consoles for the intrusion that would signal the onset of Doomsday: the Communist attack, nuclear war.
This was not a form of organized human activity that existed before SAGE. There had been assembly lines for a few generations, but this isn’t the labor of people doing repetitive work because there wasn’t yet a machine to automate their labor. These men were decision making components of the computer, performing reasoning tasks that the computer wasn’t yet fast or sophisticated enough to do on its own.
When I look at that photo I see in that imperial Doomsday machine a foreshadowing of one of the most banal and ubiquitous forms of capitalist conformity and oppression: the office cubicle farm. Row after row of people sitting at desks, each one isolated into their own individual selves, staring at a patterns of light on a screen, pushing buttons and reacting to the patterns of light on the screen. Each one reports to their station day after day because their lives depend on it, monitoring their screens for the intrusions that could signal the collapse of the system.