I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Turn On, Boot Up, Jack In... Counterculture and Computer Culture: John Whitney

by Sakunthala Panditharatne
March 5, 2012
Animator John Whitney is known today as one of the fathers of computer graphics. He spent most of his life in California, creating some of his most famous films during the late 60s. Like the computer itself, Whitney’s animation emerged after WWII. His early animation tools might today be described as “homebrew” -- he invented them himself using cheap war surplus materials. Many of his films were one-man operations: he made the animation, invented the machines, and also often composed the soundtracks himself. His animations look less like Avatar than like patterns made with a Spirograph kit.

Whitney was not after realism, but visual harmony. He studied twelve-tone musical composition in Paris, and it sometimes seems as if he “composed” his animations in the same way he wrote music; Whitney felt that audio and visual art were inseparable. He wrote in his 1991 book that he as seeking "a special relationship between musical and visual design". Droning symphonies and digital fireworks are the defining features of Whitney’s work. One exhibition at MoMA listed him as an abstract expressionist, but it’s hard not to notice the resemblance between Whitney’s spirals and trippy 1960s psychedelia.

2001: A Space Odessey was released in the summer of 1968. Critics were divided, but the psychedelic space scenes were wildly popular with hippies, especially on the American west coast, where students would have competitions over who had seen the film the most times. One 60s magazine called the cult of 2001 “a new church, perhaps a new religion.” For some, it seemed as if science fiction was a suitable replacement for psychedelic drugs. “It's great that these kids have found a way to take a trip without LSD”, said one cinema worker.

Both John Whitney’s animations and 2001 blended high tech and psychedelia, and they were both adopted by the 1960s counter-culture. In rejecting mainstream society, maybe the counter-cultural youth were not trying to return to a hunter-gatherer past, but were imagining a technologically advanced future. Techno-utopian theorists were popular with the west coast hippies. Both Marshall McLuhan, the media theorist, and Buckminster Fuller, the geodome architect, attracted large followings in the counter-culture community. Marshall McLuhan talked about a technology, something strikingly similar to social media, which would allow the world to shrink into a decentralized “global village”.  Buckminster Fuller’s message romanticized the inventor and condemned the large co-operations and governments. Like 2001 and John Whitney’s animations, the techno-utopianist theories contained the same mix of the scientific and natural, the same idea of using technology to return to a more primitive society. The hippie’s romantic view of technology is epitomized in the poem "All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace" by Richard Brautigan:

i like to think

(it has to be!)

of a cybernetic ecology

where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,

returned to our mammal

brothers and sisters,

and all watched over

by machines of loving grace

It’s often forgotten that alongside the hippie commune was the hippie computer club. In the late 60s and 70s, there were lots of small clubs with dinky names like ‘Itty Bitty Machine Company’ or ‘Kentucky Fried Computers’. Among them was the ‘Homebrew Computer Club’ and among its members was Steve Jobs, just returned from a spiritual journey to India.

From 1966 to 1969, Whitney was artist-in-residence at IBM. Although during this period he used IBM computers instead of his homebrew inventions, Whitney was not out to make technology look good, but to achieve a genuine aesthetic goal. His computer art shared the idealism of the hippies: whilst the utopianists believed technology could bring a better society, John Whitney believed it could be used to create real beauty and harmony. In 2006 Roger Ebert caused controversy by saying that video games could never be art. Maybe John Whitney would have something to say about that.

Sakunthala Panditharatne is a maths student and pseudo-Bohemian loser. She spends maybe 80-90% of her time programming, writing and starting awesome projects, like her tumblr, theimaginaryhackathon.tumblr.com . The rest of the time she spends watching Malcolm in the Middle. She likes long, complicated novels and believes in the power of self-organization. Dave Eggers used to be her hero, but she’s kind of past that phase now.