@MoMA

Before beginning this week’s post, I started thinking about cyborgs and whether they should be understood as a technological modification of humans or as a humanification of technology. In other words, does technology invade the human sphere or vice versa? I know that the boundary here is very thin but I also believe these two universes are still distinct.

This got me thinking of other forms of ‘technology invasions’. We see this every day with the Internet of Things*, which I have explored in one of my previous blog posts, Gadgets takeover. But in what cases do we take elements belonging to the digital world and transport them to the non-digital(?) human(?) real(?) world (I’m not sure what to call it)? MoMA’s 2010 acquisition of the @ symbol (which, actually, was free) is the first example I could think of – comment below if you have any other ideas.

MoMA saw the cultural, historical and artistic value of the @ symbol and its design. By acquiring it, the museum wanted to make sure it was appreciated and understood from a wider public. @ actually does have an interesting history and its usage and interpretation depending on different cultures and languages are fascinating (check it out here). I find this a clear example of post-modernism where high and low culture, and different realms merge together.

Other graphic symbols traditionally associated with digital media that have been acquired and included in MoMA’s exhibition This Is for Everyone (from February 2015 until January 2016) are the Google Maps Pin (actually, donated by Google Inc.), the ‘on/off’ symbol and the Original Mac OS Icons by Susan Kare (see more symbols and objects from the exhibition here). Furthermore, MoMA has acquired video games such as 1980 Pac-Man.

The identity of all of the symbols I have just listed is deeply rooted in the digital world. In addition, they have been intentionally designed for a purpose and to visually accomplish and communicate such intentions. If you read the @’s story I previously linked (in case you didn’t, it’s here), you will know this is not the case for the @. In fact, I find its story and relationship to MoMA peculiar and even confusing for two different reasons. But first, I need to explain my understanding of how MoMA decided to present the @ symbol to the public and the use they are making of it.

The @ only had a second life in the digital era, in fact, it is believed the symbol was already used in the 6th or 7th century. Back then, it clearly had nothing to do with emails or tagging and even nowadays it has a purpose outside the digital. Yet MoMA, while not entirely disregarding the symbols’ history and uses, it only traces it back to Ray Tomlinson (1971) by referencing Tomlinson in the symbol’s title. In doing so, MoMA limits the @’s identity, history and application to the online world.

Now, if we take into account what just said it is clear that Tomlinson, from a design standpoint, did not create the @ symbol and it was not used in the first email because of any reasoning. Yet MoMA established it also appreciates the @ as a design object and not just its function and cultural significance. So why accrediting the symbol to someone who casually decided to employ it as a UI element for convenience? Yet, MoMA’s acquisition makes me reflect on the design of the small symbol and is probably conditioning me into finding it particularly beautiful and pleasing from a design perspective. Are institutions from the real/human/non-digital(?) world (such as museums) becoming more and more influential even when it comes to established symbols from the digital world?

Secondly, MoMA by crediting Tomlinson actually enhances the anonymity of the @ symbol’s creator. It becomes even more clear it does not belong to anyone. And describing the transaction as an acquisition (which with the verb ‘to buy’ as been used multiple times by MoMA’s curator, Antonelli) is odd. To be completely honest, I perceive the purchase of something that everyone uses and yet doesn’t belong to anyone to be a bit arrogant and can’t help but to find this action unnecessary. But then again, I am not familiar with MoMA’s legal constraints when it comes to set up an exhibition such as This Is for Everyone so maybe this was the only solution available. Overall, using words such as ‘acquisition’ and ‘buy’ seems again an attempt to establish power over the online world.

Nevertheless, I think MoMA successfully extrapolated the @ from its most recognised environment creating a unique concept on the ingenuity of design and symbols capable of becoming an era’s icon.

*Internet of Things: interconnection through the Internet of any objects or devices enabling them to send and receive data
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2 Comments

  • Chloe Rajaonah
    Posted November 20, 2019 at 9:52 am 0Likes

    Hi Isotta! Your blogpost was very interesting to read. I was unaware of most of the things you said. To be honest I did not know that the @ sign had such a long history, quite frankly I did not even expect it to have a story, because I solely see it as a digital symbol. The most striking aspect to me is what you mainly talked about: Moma ‘acquiring’ the @ sign. I can only explain it by thinking that humans feel the urge to explore the possibilities of the digital world to a deep extent, and to do so, they feel like they need to possess elements of that digital world. In a way, they need to feel that they possess the power over that world, because that is how they can have control over it and explore it to a vast extent. And I believe that, in a way, the ‘purchasing’ of the @ sign showcases this. I was also thinking that in general we make great use of the @ sign in our ‘non-digital, human, real world (as you call it)’ and therefore integrate this digital symbol in our non-digital real lives by for instance writing it down on paper when we indicate our e-mail addresses. Instead of writing out the symbol in written letters (‘at’ or in French ‘arobaze’), we use the @ symbol used in the digital realm, so in a way, even in our writing we include elements of the digital world.

    • IsottaT
      Posted November 23, 2019 at 1:27 pm 0Likes

      Hi Chloe! Thank you for your comment. I agree with you and I like how you explain that ‘humans feel the urge to explore the possibilities of the digital world’. I do think that, as MoMA aims to communicate what @ symbolises, this acquisition seems to be an attempt to concretise something that is otherwise rather conceptual.

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