In this bizarre era we’re living through, it might seem inappropriate to spend time reminiscing about the past but I personally can’t resist at least a little bit of that as an escape from all the anxiety. “Do You Compute?,” a new book by Ryan Mungia and Steven Heller, offers a particularly interesting form of nostalgia in that it both recalls a time when life was simpler and offers us an opportunity to reconsider the cultural ideas that led to the many technologically borne pre-COVID-19 challenges that, of course, we still must contend with one day.
“Do You Compute?” is a graphic retrospective on how technology was marketed in the last century, “from the Atomic Age to the Y2K Bug.” It’s a beautiful compendium of more than three-hundred vintage advertisements that look back on the visual language that countless technology companies, most now defunct, once employed to sell the world on the promise of digital technology.
What’s surprising to see is how the prevailing trend for marketing computers in their first few decades of commercial availability was to present them in an almost studiously unremarkable fashion. Once you look past the bemusing post-War, pre-Modernist visual elements—the hand-painted illustrations, superfluous atom shapes, and diner-like patterns—it becomes apparent that these ads were pretty boring. This was of course due in no small part to the trepidation with which society regarded technology for many decades. The “pitch” for these ancient computers centered on the pure utility and added capabilities they offered large organizations. They were also very careful not to oversell the transformative potential of their product so as not to trigger the common public fear of eventually being replaced by machines. In many ways these ads were indistinguishable from marketing for appliances or tools of any sort, and that quotidian nature was a first step towards paving the way for societal acceptance.
In the latter part of the century, as technology made greater inroads into more and more areas of society, it’s fascinating to see how the advertising became moderately more adventurous, at least visually. This was in keeping with the way advertising evolved in the sixties and seventies of course, but not coincidentally that progression was also followed soon after by the shift from large, room-sized computers to so-called microcomputers. That revolution effectively upended marketers’ ability to rely on the public’s natural association of bigger with better, necessitating newer approaches. In some cases more abstract, graphically playful portrayals of the potential of the technology were favored, and in other cases more humorous, even comedic interpretations of what computers could do became popular.
What’s clear in retrospect is that broadening of the vocabulary of tech marketing effectively cleared away the old language of computers as business appliances and allowed them to be rendered as something closer to accessories, or rather positioned as integral, must-have elements for a new way of working, living and playing. This is particularly true in the video game ads included in the book, which marketed the technology as both ownable by everyday consumers and also as portals to a “Star Wars”-like vision of space age possibility, despite their underpowered graphical horsepower.
Despite the promise of its subtitle, the last section of “Do You Compute?,” which focuses on the 1990s, doesn’t actually spend a lot of time on the Y2K crisis that preoccupied popular technology in that decade. But what it does show is how the vocabulary of tech marketing really fractured in that era as a consequence of tech’s increasingly successful invasion of every quarter of life. In many ways the ads shown in this section are unremarkable in a new way; where earlier tech marketing looked indistinguishable from business marketing, by the end of the century it looked indistinguishable from the marketing for whatever industry a given tech product was trying to penetrate.
This progression, from business appliance to personal accessory to ubiquity, is what “Do You Compute?” illustrates best. It shows the long and winding road that we traveled on in the last century, before we all merged onto the “superhighway” of the past two decades. The book is a useful reminder that while we think of technology itself as being what drives change, the way that technology is sold—the language that marketers use to ingratiate it into our lives—plays an essential role as well. Seeing all of these ads collected in one place gave me a perspective on where we are today that I hadn’t had before, which is maybe both the best recommendation I can make for it and my biggest criticism: when I got to the end of the book, I just wanted to see what happened next. On second thought, maybe the authors were wise to stop where they did.