these 80s tech magazine ads will make you nostalgic for floppy disks
An artist has collected the mesmerizing pre-Y2K computer ads she found inside the now defunct ‘BYTE Magazine.’
In only two decades we've gone from losing our minds over clip art to yawning at the iPhone X's facial recognition software. It's clear: the novelty of computers has faded. But flipping through the tech publication BYTE Magazine (1975-1998) reminds you that not too long ago computers were awe-inspiring to a majority of the public. BYTE was targeted at "computer hobbyists" and featured dense, technical articles like "The Definicon 60820 Coprocessor, Part 2: Software Support." But the magazine's advertisements are the real anthropological treat. Companies like Toshiba took out three-page ads to sell "innovative" products, including a laptop that turned into a briefcase. Given the complicated relationship we have with technology today, it's easy to project a sense of innocence and naivety onto these vintage images. No ad would dare compare floppy disks to the dawn of androids anymore.
Digital artist Jenny Odell has rounded up these nostalgic advertisements to create the zine Byte Magazine Advertisements 1975–1994 . Taking inspiration from Richard Prince's iconic Cowboy series, Jenny removed the text from BYTE's advertisements to highlight their artistry. "There's a lot of outer space, robots (a favorite of Maxell ads), glowing grids and lasers, and Magritte-esque clouds in the ads," says Jenny, who was previously an artist-in-residence at Facebook. "I think part of what drew me to the BYTE ads is that I was a child of Silicon Valley in the 1980s, so some of it feels oddly familiar. It's the sort of visual vocabulary that anyone who's old enough will recognize from a time when computers were so unfamiliar and futuristic-seeming that we almost didn't have a way to picture them or what they did."
Jenny talks i-D about the legacy of BYTE Magazine, what it means to be a digital artist in 2017, and why she misses the era of internet pen pals.
For readers unfamiliar with the magazine, what were the hallmarks of BYTE ?
BYTE Magazine was essentially a hobbyist computing magazine that was popular primarily during the 1980s. This was before it was common to have a computer in your home; the target audience was individuals who would buy parts and build and program their own computers. Besides articles about the latest research in computing or reviews of new products, there were sometimes foldout schematics or detailed programming instructions. Something that's easily lost in translation when you're looking at the issues online is that the magazines were really huge — sometimes around 700 pages.
What were some common motifs and themes of these advertisements?
A lot of the ads could be categorized as: 1) computers floating in space; 2) anthropomorphized computers and computer parts; 3) computers combined with plants or animals (e.g. something plugging into an apple); and 4) overwrought visual metaphors for what the computer does, like hands coming out of the screen and writing on a spreadsheet. In all cases, it resulted in an image that looks pretty ridiculous — or at least very unlike the tech ads we're used to now.
One really important aesthetic detail about BYTE Magazine is that almost all of its covers were done by a single painter, Robert Tinney. Most of his covers could be described as a combination of Salvador Dalí, M.C. Escher, and some kind of hardware or software (for instance, a partially melted floppy disk floating in the desert sky). The commissioned illustrations by other artists tended to follow suit.
How did you fall into digital art and how would you define exactly what you do?
I can probably attribute part of working in digital art to the fact that I grew up in Cupertino and both of my parents worked in tech. But the other part is that I have a penchant for collecting weird things, and once the internet came around, it seemed like it was built for just that. When I started making collections of things cut out from Google Satellite imagery during my MFA, I remember thinking how lucky I was that my material was free and seemingly unlimited. Since then, I've drawn a lot on things like Craigslist ads, YouTube tutorials, TripAdvisor reviews, and Street View. I should note though that my collecting impulse isn't limited to the internet. A few years ago I was an artist-in-residence at a dump (Recology SF) and it was probably the happiest summer of my life. In either case, I often feel like things I find are far and away more interesting and bizarre than anything I could possibly make from scratch.
How do you approach blending technology and art?
Being in the Bay Area, I have kind of a vexed relationship not only with technology but also with the "art and technology" category altogether. I'm suspicious of work that isn't about anything more than the technology it uses. I try to use technology in a really specific way, which is as a tool — just like any other tool — to illuminate some aspect of reality both for myself and for viewers. For example, at Recology SF, I used augmented reality for part of my exhibition, but it was simply to show the new version of something overlaid onto the "trash" version of it, in order to invite the viewer to think about the entire life of an object. Likewise, most of my favorite work by other digital artists uses technology specifically to give the viewer deeper access to actual physical reality. One of my go-to examples is Living Symphonies by James Bulley and Daniel Jones, where they used a lot of really high-tech equipment and processes, but the end result was for visitors to be able to "hear" a forest more than a human would normally be able to.
How did you put together this zine? Did you dig through tons of archival material?
I found these images while I was an artist-in-residence at the Internet Archive, which happens to have a huge cache of scanned BYTE magazines that are available as free PDFs. I have a long standing interest in surrealism, and as I started going through the magazines, I found all of these intentionally or unintentionally surrealist-looking images in the ads. I started collecting my favorites, removing the text and restoring the background — somewhat similar to what Richard Prince did with his Cowboys series.
I did have to search through tons of archival material, but it wasn't hard to find interesting images. If anything was difficult, it was leaving the computer! It's a special (and kind of addictive) feeling when you're finding tons of great stuff and you know there are many, many more magazines full of even more stuff.
As I was posting some of these images to Instagram, I found out that my friend Luca Antonucci, from Colpa Press, is also obsessed with this kind of imagery. He had also been going through a few BYTE magazines he'd come across. It was Luca's idea to put together a zine of the original ads, and that was really a shared effort. I went through the magazines and pulled the ads out, but it was Luca who decided on the ordering and who actually produced the zine. If you look at how the images are ordered, you'll see a lot of nice echoes and serendipitous connections between the images.
I loved your essay "How to Internet," in which you examined the lo-fi 90s PSAs that explained what the internet was to the public. In a way, it feels like a chief focus of BYTE was removing the foreignness of computers. What do you miss from that era, when our relationship to computers and the internet was still being figured out?
The thing I think is really missing from our online interactions these days is randomness and surprise. Currently, at least with my daily experience of the internet, there's a lot of convenience, but not a lot of room for the unexpected. Things are recommended to you, or you Google something and either do or do not find the answer — and that's the end. It's almost the opposite of wandering aimlessly in a library, one of my favorite things to do.
When I was a teenager, it was common to go into chat rooms and talk to random people. I had an internet pen pal named Dylan. I still have no idea who Dylan actually was or even where he was. But I thought of him during a talk that Jason Scott (of the Internet Archive) gave last year, when he spoke about how magical it used to seem that someone on the other side was currently typing. That fragile connection with strangers, or the weird video that you happened to come across, did indeed have something of the otherworldly about it. I think that's why the BYTE images make me so nostalgic. They remind me of being a kid and of seeing the computer (and the internet) as this portal to unexpected things you wouldn't be able to think up yourself. Now I have a well-tailored Spotify Weekly playlist, but it feels more like staring into a mirror.
Images courtesy Jenny Odell