The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Calculating the Weight of the Object

curta Image courtesy of Grant Hutchinson.

William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition is likely a familiar novel to readers of Snarkmarket – if not in content, then in its tone and its concerns. It is a tale of Cayce Pollard, a strange marketing-savant with a literal sixth-sense for design, and her quest to solve the mystery of both “the footage” – a series of loosely connected video fragments released anonymously online – and her father’s disappearance on September 11, 2001.

Among the things that struck me about the text was the fuzziness of the real — the fact that the mysterious videos at the centre of the story hover in an odd liminal space of being both true and false, referring to “reality” and not. It’s an aspect of the text intimately tied to digital tech – to the novel’s sense of the “virtual” nature of a virtual world, an approach which can often produce a split between an assumed real thing and its digital corolloary (think, regardless of how you feel about the implied hierarchy, of the book vs. the ebook, the face-to-face interaction vs. the online one etc).

As a result, it felt like certain things in the novel that were solid, physical, heavy were almost like a relief – a kind of in-focus reprieve from a world otherwise viewed through a kaleidoscope. Protagonist Cayce is obsessed with signs, and systems of meaning – and remaining ambivalently illegible – but also takes comfort in the unambiguous weight of a locked door, her crisp, black Rickson’s jacket, the strain on her muscles during a morning’s workout.

And then there was the Liechtensteinian calculator – the Curta.

The Curta is a mechanical calculator, but to say that seems to do it injustice. It can perform addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, and even square roots and more. Gibson describes it as “heavy, dense, knurled for gripping”, seemingly “executed by a small-arms manufacturer” while “the sensation of its operation is best likened to that of winding a fine thirty-five millimeter camera.” It also just looks really freaking cool. Like a hand grenade of math.

Watch this video relating its history and explaining how it works. Because, though I hesitate to use the phrase, it will blow your mind. And if that wasn’t enough, its inventor Curt Herzstark, perfected it while interned in a concentration camp during the Second World War. Yeah.

This came to mind because I was double-checking a reference today for a dissertation chapter which is partly about Pattern Recognition. While writing that torpid thing, I apparently thought that “as a calculator, [the Curta] is a thing bound up in ‘non-significatory’ actions, a material object meant to produce ‘immaterial answers'” – but that this “pre-digital device is meant to perform functions now hopelessly intertwined with electronic technology, and thus is itself a fetishistic sign of pre-internet technology and industrial manufacturing.”

Now I think that may be an uncharitable read.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between objects and activities. It’s something obviously affected by digitally-enabled multi-functionality. The digital object doesn’t so much have “a function” as a series of functions under an umbrella of one or two metafunctions – to wit, “this device is what I use to keep up to date” or “my tablet is what I use to read everything from the news to novels.” The association between object and function that was often one-to-one has become multiplied, perhaps receding into infinity (what, really, is the limit of what you can do with your iPhone?)

But more than that, though I know it sounds like mere tautology, the function of physical devices is related to their physicality. How they operate and what they do in 3D space is dependent on the manner in which they occupy that space. Maybe it’s my digitally-addled brain that needs reminding of that, but it somehow feels like a point worth repeating. And the Curta, in a world in which even the scientific calculator feels arcane, just seems so fascinatingly, resoundingly, undeniably physical. And perhaps it’s because of that physicality, but something about it thus seems so purposeful.

It is easy to get caught up in romanticizing the object we can touch, just as we here on Snarkmarket can occasionally get a bit too attached to pixels you can interact with and manipulate. But I’ve been wondering lately if, beyond the chatter about the attention economy or a supposed “inherent” nature to print or screens, there isn’t something pleasurable in the object that performs but one function. Physical or digital, it doesn’t matter. All I mean to ask is if there isn’t something to be enjoyed in a conscious minimalism of function rather than form – that one might find relief in the simplicity of a one-to-one relationship between an activity and a thing.


First of all, the Curta definitely did blow my mind. (If it wasn’t $1,000+ I would have bought one immediately!)

Also, the last thirty seconds of the video you linked to–where he does a calculation with huge numbers and dramatically reveals its solution at the very end–reminded me of a Rubik’s cube as well as a 35mm camera. If you learned to solve a Rubik’s cube like I did, you followed a formula of moves, twisting and rotating the layers of the cube all the while enjoying the tension of its pieces and its clicking sounds, and at the end you look down and…there it was: It worked.

In this case–seeing the Curta work for the first time–a lot of the joy seems to be in the mystery of how it works. If what you’re dealing with is a device with a single function, I think it’s tempting to see the physical gestures required to operate the device almost like they were ingredients in an incantation. Turning that one dial on the Curta, for example, is done only when you want to change the power of 10 you’re operating on, so to understand how it works you can substitute the gesture in your mind for whatever is actually going on inside. On an iPhone, on the other hand, we swipe so many things that the gesture isn’t tied down to any single outcome; when you have a multi-function device your gestures have to be multi-function as well.

The idea of the multi-functional gesture being an effect of the multi-functional device is so interesting, Jay!

On the one hand, the ritual of the action borne of muscle memory is immensely satisfying, almost on some weird deep level we don’t quite get.

On the other, as Alexis Madrigal was saying on Twitter recently, “pictures under glass” – that abstraction of the physical object into a visual interface – seems to be the thing that enables a grammar of gestures, or a language of digital interfaces. So it’s almost like the distinction between holding an object and speaking about it – the words are a level of abstraction up, but enable so much, even in the loss of that tactile connection.

It does make me wonder a bunch of things: will there be certain (fetishistic?) devices that people return to/continue to use for singular purposes (vinyl, cameras, moleskines etc); will we see single-purpose digital devices?; or is there another type of interface (three dimensional somehow?) that will meld the singular gesture of the physial object and multiple grammar of digital into one thing a la 3d movie/Pacific Rim-style interfaces?

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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