[This is the first in a series of posts on my current research on modernist laboratories—avant garde, corporate, and scientific—and their relationship to the emergence of digital humanities labs. My thanks to the participants in my Modernist Remediations graduate seminar at Yale for letting me test these experiments with them and for their feedback on my various hypotheses.]
Is it wrong to wish on space hardware?
—Billy Bragg, A New England
My first drawing of a laboratory pictured a meteoric machine reentering the earth’s atmosphere, molten metal raining down upon an imagined metropolis. During the summer of 1979 I was transfixed by reports of where the wreckage of NASA’s Skylab was projected crash down to earth. I spent several days in early July feverishly touring around my neighbourhood on a pedal-powered motocross in search of space debris. It was an international media event—broadcast daily and nightly on radio and television, headlined in newspapers and covered in magazines dropped on my doorstep—far more important to me than stories my teachers told about men on the moon and their giant leap for mankind. Strangely, I distinctly remember being deflated at the discovery that Skylab didn’t take out my school, that I lived in the wrong hemisphere, that it fell to earth over the Indian Ocean and scattered across Western Australia. I wasn’t the lucky kid who cashed in on the San Francisco Examiner’s contest that offered ten grand to the first person who could deliver a piece of Skylab to its newsroom. That kid lived in Esperance, Australia. Of course he did: he lived in a place of named for eternal hope and expectation—Esperance, which seemed to me at the time an exotic territory of dream and fantasy. I lived in Victoria, British Columbia: more British than the British, as the local tourist industry advertised itself to the world, a proudly late Victorian town, a former Hudson Bay Company outpost living out its colonial half-life—or, as I later discovered, a remnant of empire that somehow produced modernists without ever being modern. For that week in July I was seduced by technologies of modernity. I was, after all, a Cold War kid. And that Australian kid was, if only for his 15 minutes of fame, the irrational object of my Western media-fueled envy. I felt myself freewheeling backwards into the Victorian past; he, my commonwealth counterpart, was rocketing into a globalized modernity. Yes, the sky was falling, and I wanted to catch a fiery piece of the southern sky.
At the time I had no conception of the magnitude of the five IBM mainframe computers at the Johnson Space Centre required to navigate Skylab. I probably still don’t. My only encounter with a computer was the Apple ][ that one of the teachers at my grade school kept in what had once been a chemistry lab. It was the only classroom with microscopes and glassware and dissection instruments, which were kept under lock and key in cabinets at the back. On an early morning prowl I discovered that the classroom itself wasn’t locked, which seems strange in retrospect, given that someone at the school board must have signed off on the delivery of a computer that—depending on the amount of RAM—cost somewhere in the range of $1300 to $2700 US. Presumably it made the most sense to keep the school’s one computer in its old lab. I’m assuming that it never crossed anyone’s mind to put it in the music room. Or the library. It’s a computer, and computers belong in labs. What would humanists ever want to do with a computer? The short answer is sneak into the classroom-lab before school to play videogames—my obsession, which happened to be Steve Wozniak’s proof of concept for the Apple ][, was a game called Breakout—and the long answer is to start peddling myself down the long road to becoming a digital humanist.
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