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By: Steven Heller | March 23, 2010


Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator @ Department of Architecture and Design at MoMA announces that the museum has just acquired the @ symbol for the collection.

In January 1971 electrical engineer Ray Tomlinson, who helped create the first email system, determined that @ was an underused jargon symbol lingering on the keyboard and marred by a very limited register. “By October, Tomlinson appropriated it, imbuing it with new meaning and elevating it to defining symbol of the computer age,” notes Antonelli @ the MoMA blog.

“He chose the @ for his first email because of its strong locative sense; an individual, identified by a username, is @ this institution/computer/server, and also because…it was already there, on the keyboard, and nobody ever used it,”

“The acquisition of @ takes one more step. It relies on the assumption that physical possession of an object as a requirement for an acquisition is no longer necessary, and therefore it sets curators free to tag the world and acknowledge things that ‘cannot be had,’ because they are too big (buildings, Boeing 747’s, satellites), or because they are in the air and belong to everybody and to no one, like the @, as art objects befitting MoMA’s collection.”

This is, of course, a big deal in terms of collecting precious objects in the digital age: “There is no need to physically possess,” Antonelli told me. “After this, the world is ours to tag and collect.”