Do You Compute? Tech Ads From the Atomic Age to Y2K

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PRINT Book Club takes a look inside new design books we love via exclusive excerpts and imagery. In this installment: Do You Computer? Selling Tech From the Atomic Age to the Y2K Bug by Ryan Mungia and (our very own) Steven Heller.

From the Publisher

Before Alexa and the iPhone, there was the large and unwieldy mainframe computer. In the postwar 1950s, computers were mostly used for aerospace and accounting purposes. To the public at large, they were on a rung that existed somewhere between engineering and science fiction. Magazine ads and marketing brochures were designed to create a fantasy surrounding these machines for prospective clients: Higher profit margins! Creativity unleashed! Total automation! With the invention of the microchip in the 1970s came the PC and video games, which shifted the target of computer advertising from corporations to the individual. By the end of the millennium, the notion of selling tech burst wide open to include robots, cell phones, blogs, online dating services, and much, much more.

Do You Compute? is a broad survey featuring the very best of computer advertising in the 20th century. From the Atomic Age to the Y2K bug, this volume presents a connoisseur’s selection of graphic gems culled from museums, university archives and private collections to illustrate the evolution of the computer from its early days as a hulking piece of machinery to its current state as a handheld device.

From the Book

As the ’90s came to a close, mainstream magazines were saturated with computer advertisements. No longer characterized solely by the giant mainframe, the definition of selling tech spun off into a profusion of categories and subcategories of technological peripherals — websites, software, cellular phones, pagers, fax machines, video games, robots and, of course, the computer.

Sperry Rand, 1957. Author's collection/Courtesy Hat & Beard
Lord, 1986. Author's collection/Courtesy Hat & Beard

Paradoxically, in conjunction with the rise of these various devices (not to mention the internet), the slump first experienced by print in the 1970s would begin to accelerate as advertising dollars shifted towards digital media. There were exceptions — Wired, for example, began its successful run in 1993 as the first magazine to cover the culture of technology — but, on the whole, the computer, which initially relied on print to bring it to market, was now on the inevitable trajectory towards making that medium obsolete.

According to Perry Chen, who examined the Y2K phenomenon in a 2014 exhibition called Computers in Crisis, just as “the printing press was, rightfully, feared as an existential threat to oral storytelling traditions,” digital technology “filled this narrative as a consequence of our increasing reliance on computers.” As such, the ’90s marks the end of an era with the ads and sales brochures representing not a complete history of the computer in the second half of the 20th century, but a snapshot of a time when technology was catapulted into public awareness by way of an older, archaic medium.

Virtual i-O, 1996. Author's collection/Courtesy Hat & Beard, 1998. Author's collection/Courtesy Hat & Beard

A prelude to our increasingly digital world, the Y2K crisis emerged in the final years of the 1990s as a mainstream media frenzy reminiscent of Atomic Era nuclear panic. Magazine editorials, books and stores — Y2K prep centers where one could purchase survival supplies for the impending doom — began to appear with more and more frequency as the year 2000 approached. The seismic shift that occurred in our collective consciousness during this time period is significant. What we initially understood computers to be — benign devices on which to do your homework, play video games or keep track of payroll — suddenly morphed into something much more nebulous and nefarious.

While many were wondering whether this computer glitch would spell the end of civilization, Danny Hillis, in a 1999 article for Newsweek, argued that it already had: “We are no longer in complete command of our creations. We are back in the jungle, only this time it is a jungle of our own creation. The technological environment we live within is something to be manipulated and influenced, but never again something to control. There are no real experts, only people who understand their own little pieces of the puzzle. The big picture is a mystery to us, and the big picture is that nobody knows.”

The Computer Time Bomb, 1998. Author's collection/Courtesy Hat & Beard