Where old computers don’t go to die

English prof’s Media Archaeology Lab preserves access to digital works that might otherwise be lost

By Clay Evans

A 1981 Osborne I computer. Photo by Noah Larsen.

A palpable air of digital decrepitude pervades Lori Emerson’s time-warped laboratory at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Geriatric relics of the computer revolution with names like Vectrex, Kaypro and Commodore Amiga exude the strange pungency of aged electronics, vaguely musty with tart plastic undertones.

“A lot of this stuff is toxic,” Emerson says cheerily, leaning in to boot up an ancient 1981 Osborne I computer — the same model on which writer Ralph Ellison composed his posthumously published novel, “Juneteenth” (later released in fuller, though unfinished form as “Three Days Before the Shooting…”). “One of these stopped being produced because it emitted too much signal radiation.”

As the machine whirs and sputters, she squints at a screen no larger than that of a smart phone, but with considerably tinier and less readable characters.

“Sometimes it sounds like an old steam engine,” she says. “And it’s incredibly hard to read.”

Welcome to Emerson’s Media Archaeology Lab, where old computers don’t come to die, but rather to be lovingly resurrected as a monument to our fast-moving digital and computer culture, in which the latest thing may become passé in a matter of months. Here in the basement of a historic cottage on Grandview Avenue, dozens of curious machines line the walls along with games and software from the early days of computing.

Emerson is an unlikely curator for such a collection. An assistant professor of English at CU-Boulder, she earned her Ph.D. in poetics from the University of Buffalo and didn’t even own a computer herself until the mid-1990s. Her interest grew out of a concern for creative works that had been stranded in technological limbo as software and hardware became obsolete, as well as her interest in the digital work of experimental Canadian poet bpNichol.

“I got more and more fascinated with the history of computing, and nothing compares to actually poking around with original software and computers,” she says. “Having the original material environment makes a really big difference.”

Lori Emerson, an assistant professor of English at CU-Boulder, sits in front of a Vectrex gaming console from the early 1980s. Photo by Noah Larsen.

Here’s how she describes the mission of the MAL (it is, surely, mere coincidence that the acronym mirrors that of HAL, the enormous, seemingly sentient and ultimately murderous computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film classic, “2001: A Space Odyssey”):

“The MAL tries to both preserve and provide access to several interrelated aspects of our cultural past: historically important works of electronic literature, generally from before the era of the (World Wide Web),” she said in an interview with the Library of Congress,  “along with the platforms they were created on and for; and historically important computer hardware and software, such as the Apple IIe, Apple Lisa, Apple Macintosh, NeXT Cube, and Hypercard.”

Emerson says the burgeoning field of media archaeology, with its nexus in Berlin, Germany, undermines a widely held view (especially among the young) that technology has proceeded along neat lines of evolution. It’s concerned with, “Thinking about and discovering imaginary media, dead media, failed media.”

“It works against the idea that contemporary computers such as the Macbook Air are the natural result of innovation,” she says.

Soon she hopes to begin holding classes in the lab, using obsolete hardware to get her undergraduate students to think critically about the ways in which they interface with the digital media that increasingly pervades their lives.

“More and more, they are passive consumers of media rather than active producers of content. I want them to be aware of how media are shaping their own creativity,” she says.

She also hopes to establish residencies for digital theorists, critics and artists and eventually start a MAL imprint to publish work emerging from research connected to the lab.

But as she scoots from the miniscule blinking screen of the Osborne over to a 1982 Vectrex gaming console to play with its simple, elegant vector interface for graphic creation, she’s wearing a big smile. The MAL may provide an innovative academic environment, but it’s also a lot of fun.

“I’d also like to have a gaming night,” she says.

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