John Harwood


On his book The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945-1976

Cover Interview of April 10, 2012

The wide angle

The Interface is an attempt to explain how computing became an essential aspect of everyday life.  This wasn’t always the case, and it wasn’t always certain that it would be.

Since Edmund C. Berkeley published his heady exposé Giant Brains, or Machines that Think, in 1949, and in scientific writing (whether fact or fiction) well before then, the specter of a machine that could mimic the activity of the human mind had haunted experts and laypersons alike.  Fear and doubt reigned supreme: of unbridled technocracy, of “depersonalization,” automation, and, above all, of the possible threat that the computer presented to a received humanist tradition (Can a machine be said to “think”? And if so, does it think “better” than a human being?).  In short, the world once wondered: What would a computerized world look like?

IBM addressed this anxiety in numerous ways, but it was not successful in allaying these fears until it embarked upon its sustained engagement with design as a means of convincing the public of the efficacy and wonder of its machines.  It was not until the company’s managers realized that creating a mass market for computers was a problem of visuality, space, and experience—that is, an aesthetic problem—that they made any headway with skeptics.

IBM’s designers—particularly Eliot Noyes, Paul Rand, and Charles Eames—performed the crucial work of naturalizing the computer.  This involved understanding the full sweep of natural and applied sciences being rapidly redefined in the post-WWII era, and then representing that discourse through every medium at the designers’ disposal.  Crucially, this involved an intentionally paradoxical pair of claims: first, that the computer was a “tool” like any other, wholly natural and conventional; and second, that the computer was a magical device that would wholly transform every aspect of human life.

This may seem like a rather odd subject for an art and architectural historian.  However, I have always been interested in the intersections between architecture, science, and economics.  Far from viewing architecture as a helpless discipline, subject to the whims of the market, I claim that architecture has a vital role in articulating the fundamental visual and material aspects of our world.