Mr. Whippy in the mainframe: The function of myth in public perception of computational products
By Frederick Longman for the Erica Symms Society
Touch this instrument when we become part of each action linked to the potential rise and fall, such as dragonflies blowing water ripples, through the sound of the materialized. Sound waves in the excitement of the sharp rise, low when the weak relaxation, these changes affect themselves and all around, such as the movement from the molecules of the universe to the cosmic spectrum of red shift, fluctuations extended to the surrounding, the world, the universe, and even infinite. And ultimately constitute a system, while subject to its side effects.
ERIS-2000 was a scientific device invented by cybernetician Erica Symms during her investigations into complex systems theories at Birmingham Polytechnic. It was used to show and study, through simplified simulation, the consequences of human decisions on complex systems. Above is a description of ERIS-2000 by a university student who encountered the device as part of Symms’ research trip in China during 1975. In this description the computational device and its capabilities are fantasised about, a gap in full understanding of the device’s workings has been filled with a projection or anticipation of what it may be able to do. His description testifies the strong human belief in new technologies and their capabilities to resolve present and future problems. It tangibly speaks of the strong emotions associated with this fascination that lead to somewhat impulsive, capitalist behaviours - consider the desire of Apple followers who queue for days to be the first to get their hands on a new iDevice. But what exactly is it about technology that captures the public’s imagination in these ways and propagates its problem-solving promises? Is it the artefacts themselves, or the scaffolding myths that manufacturers broadcast alongside them?
In this brief essay I investigate the role of myth in generating these thoughts and feelings. I want to ask who is responsible in the process of myth creation, and to what extent myth plays a key role in influencing public opinion and emotions about new technologies, especially computational products. Using an advertisement discovered recently in the archive of Birmingham University, ERIS-2000 will become a case study through which to investigate this topic. Published in 1973 this advertisement captures a moment in history when the Western world saw a surge in new computational technologies available for public purchase and in advertising too in response to the economic downturn and the need to keep consumers buying. We can see a similarity to Mr. Whippy, the Thatcherite soft serve ice cream famously cheap and pumped with air to double its volume, with technology as cream and myth creation as pumped air. Although this began during the 1970s it is a trend that has continued ever since.
Popular technology is obsessed with its own obsolescence. As soon as a new product is released it becomes outdated before even hitting the shelves. During the 1970s technology companies began to design and broadcast carefully produced advertisements for their products, wrapping the cycle of obsolescence in a skein of optimism - how else to sell 10MB of storage for nearly $4000 - The technological optimism and promise felt through these advertisements rides on the cybernetic dreams computer scientists both side of the Atlantic, such as Erica Symms, helped to propagate. The optimism continues today - consider Apple’s annual keynote speeches announcing new and improved products for consumers to purchase. They present something obsolete as a miracle, talking of it in terms of reverence. But there is nothing miraculous about the new technology, it is but another iteration on a conveyor belt of increasing optimisation, a slave to Moore’s Law’s ever diminishing returns. This yearly update becomes a milestone within an otherwise continuous process of technological evolution.
The ERIS-2000 was an analogue device living in an increasingly digital time, seen in the cold light of a datasheet it was seriously outdated and, although its usefulness in a laboratory and as a part of the scientific process was undeniable, it wouldn’t sell on facts alone. Just as the case with any other computer technology company, long range developments were wrapped up in discrete products in an attempt to sell urgently before it was worth nothing. Although not designed to be a device for everyone - as a scientific instrument its message was different to that of, say, an Apple Computer - ERIS-2000 had potential as a substantial piece of equipment with the ability to lead a company into a prosperous future up and above its competitors, it was introduced as a premium machine that under the right hands could predict outcomes of future situations. The way it became communicated through adverts such as this monumentalised the object, evoking inspiration from the audience in an alternative way to an Apple consumer product. What is maybe not so surprising to discover, when we compare this product to others like Apple’s, is that ERIS-2000 was never meant to be a sellable item.
The optimistic tone of this ERIS-2000 advertisement disguises the atmosphere surrounding its creation in 1970s Britain. An economic downturn had led to a need to monetise research and creeping neoliberalism exacerbated this. Advertising stepped into this void making new products marketable for consumers. Turning ERIS-2000 from an object for the science laboratory into a commodity to be bought and sold generated essential funding for scientists like Erica Symms to continue their important work. However these events contributed to the propagation of a culture of myth generation that has accompanied computational products ever since.
Looking at this ERIS-2000 poster it is difficult to ignore its sense of promise and optimism, the advert immortalises ERIS-2000 and within this space the technology is presented as the arrival of the future. With claims that it can solve future problems this poster captures an ambition that was never properly achieved. Only in hindsight can we see that, as is often the way, this technology failed to live up to the myth’s claims.
Computational technologies are an ideal vessel for myths, often operating as general purpose boxes until put in to use, or configured for a particular user, their initial presentation has to be steeped in myth to set them apart from the other general purpose boxes on the market. The myth of ERIS-2000 presented here probably says more about the people who marketed the product than it does about the mysterious device itself. The promise of technology doesn’t come from technology per se - it wants to obsolete itself, to move on - but from the culture around it, from the advertising, from the need for monetisation.
When economic downturn is paired with a slowdown in innovation the impetus for generating convincing myth around technology becomes imperative. This is when products heralded with myth fail to realise their promises - their myth exceeds the product’s potential. However, it is necessary this myth be perpetuated to see it generate profit for the company behind it. Consider, as a contemporary expression of this, Apple’s iWatch, sold as a must-have device. It hasn’t lived up to its expectations. Regardless of any useful innovation, Apple has an obligation to perpetuate a myth of innovation within this product range to satisfy the bottom line and their shareholders.
As time goes on, the process of myth generation appears to begin at increasingly early stages in product cycles. This has lead to speculative products being pumped up only to be popped by the revelatory needle of truth. Theranos, a consumer healthcare technology company, presented an unfinished - potentially impossible, at least improbable - idea as finished, functional technology and grew super fast as a company as a result. But this found them wrapped up in their own myth and when they couldn’t make it work they fell.<https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2016/09/elizabeth-holmes-theranos-exclusive>
Despite side effects, myth generation is essential in the development of new technologies, promising to prospective audience users or investors that it worth investing in, after all humans respond far better to stories than specifications. In the 1970s technology needed to create a need for itself, to convince people of its potential for good, for better business - that you would need a computer to work, that it was accessible for the ordinary businessman (initially) and then the ordinary consumer, that ‘electronic mail’, for example, could help in every possible way. New technology still rides the coattails of this magic trick but needs the same myth-making capability to convince investors (who are now private rather than military, educational or governmental) that they need to give them money (to make money).
With hindsight we are able to see whether the myth has any truth within it, while the device is in active use we can compare this use with the myth but, past a certain point, nostalgia kicks in and we begin to speculate and fantasise about the potential promise of devices like the ERIS-2000. What once stood as a piece of technology to be sold now stands as a monument to optimism and forward thinking technology. It becomes obvious that the role of myth in society has become used for the propagation of hope, a human commodity that capitalism trades with for profit.