Nicholas Gessler - Things That Think: A talk about physical computation devices

December 7, 2005 at 8:00 pm


Image credit: The IFF
As we move into the age of ubiquitous computing, we are in danger of forgetting how we made things think and how things are thinking today. Computation is increasingly hidden on chips sealed in plastic behind the stylish skins of our appliances, under the sexy high performance hoods of our automobiles, and behind the sizzling screens of our PCs, ATMs and cell phones. Information seems to have lost all of its materiality as we envision it freely floating in global ether of wireless connectivity.

While it is a pleasure to be seduced by these virtual realities, looking underneath their thin veneers from time to time is a good sanity check. In this talk, computer collector Nicholas Gessler will give us a close-up look at a variety of early technological devices - things that think - starting with the original complex computing mechanism, the Jacquard loom. We will look at mechanical and electromechanical computing modules, core memories, and physically sculptural cam memories. Finally, we’ll examine some 20th Century cryptographic machines. A real-life show-and-tell. Perhaps, as Gessler dreams, we can develop a Rube-Goldbergian aesthetic that foregrounds processes linking computation across all its evolutionarily diverse media, moving towards an aesthetic of intermediation.

Nicholas Gessler is a researcher at UCLA whose work focuses on the emerging field of “artificial culture” - a research enterprise that extends work which began with distributed artificial intelligence and artificial life “towards a new scientific practice of synthetic anthrolpology”. Originally trained in more traditional anthropological practices, Gessler formerly studied the indigenous culture of the Queen Charlotte Islands. From 1973-1988 he was director and curator of the Queen Charlotte Islands Museums. In addition to his current work on large scale social and cultural simulations, Gessler is an expert on, and avid collector of, early computational devices.

For more information about his collection of “Things That Think” see his website:

Text written by Margaret Wertheim