Constellation Umberto Eco


Umberto Eco (1932-2016)

Umberto Eco was one of the most lucid interpreters and commentators of mass media and digital culture. Since the early 1960s, alongside his analysis of television, he developed a keen interest in computers and their impact on artistic production. In works such as his analysis of Nanni Balestrini’s computer-generated poetry, his essay on Arte programmata (programmed art), or his collaboration with electronic music composer Luciano Berio, Eco constantly showed his eagerness to develop a critical discourse in which artistic and technological production go hand in hand. Later, with the advent of information society in the late 1980s, when computers became an everyday tool for the vast majority, Eco continued to offer his critical point of view and to reflect on the cultural implications of this technological change in his column on the magazine L’Espresso. More than these articles, however, it was his 1988 novel Foucault’s Pendulum, which offers a precious analysis of how computers can change people’s attitude towards knowledge and even subvert the relationship between reality and its representation. The novel narrates the story of three employees of a publishing house who use a computer to create a very convincing conspiracy theory by processing and connecting a high volume of random information. Many people fall for the story, prompting a chain of violent actions. Published a year before Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web and three years before the first website went live, the novel is quite prophetic, as it recounts how fake news creates real tragic events and how users drown, rather than roam freely, in the network. In March 2021, the writer Wu Ming 1, part of the anonymous collective Wu Ming, published a book on QAnon and current online conspiracy theories, in which the characters of Foucault’s Pendulum appear as prescient narrators of present facts, thus demonstrating just how farsighted Eco had always been when it comes to computer culture.

The Open Work: there’s a (cybernetic) method in this madness

The concept of “open work” theorised by Eco in his pivotal book by the same title has encountered a wide international fame. Through this, Eco successfully captured what was then a general trend in art that favoured “openness” over structured forms, interpretability and ambiguousness over explicit meanings. Important sources for him were cybernetics and information science, as Eco claimed they were addressing issues relevant to literature. In a system, a message has a higher information content the more it deviates from what is expected: an SOS message brings a more ‘powerful’ content than a Christmas card. However, too much deviation from the expected content amounts to noise, as no recipient can decipher the message. The same, Eco claimed, happens in literature: poets use common language structures and vocabulary to expand, or even subvert, shared rules and meanings. But too much innovation, too much ‘openness’, and you’ll end up with one of those poems that no one understands, even if they pretend to.

Arte Programmata at the Olivetti store

In 1962 the Olivetti showroom in Milan hosted the exhibition Arte Programmata: Arte cinetica, opere moltiplicate, opera aperta (Programmed art: Kinetic art, multiple works, open work). The title aptly describes the overarching idea for the show: artworks for which the authors had programmed a mechanism (programmed art), which was then set into motion (kinetic art), but, unlike a carillon or a classic automaton, was free to develop multiple, unexpected visual patterns (multiple works, open work). Visitors were then invited to witness these ongoing artistic creations, to consider the artistic implication of human-machine interaction, and to wonder about the role of artists when they are not fully responsible for, or in charge of, the results of their work. The participants were Bruno Munari, Enzo Mari, and the collectives Gruppo T and Gruppo N. While they did not use any of the technologies produced by Olivetti, they nevertheless addressed some crucial questions in computer and information science through their artworks. The exhibition catalogue was curated by Eco, who defined the essence of programmed art as the tension between chance and program, order and disorder, which were central concepts in his own work too.

All roads lead to Stuttgart

Those who venture into the history of early computer culture will often encounter the name of Max Bense. He was a philosopher of science and a professor at the Ulm School of Design, an education centre shaped on the model of the Bauhaus. It was there that Bense, together with Abraham Moles, an electrical and acoustic engineer how held PhD degrees in physics and in philosophy, posed the basis for the study of computer aesthetics. In 1964, they also founded the Stuttgart School, a research group devoted to the study of the subject. Indeed, Bense and Moles were both central figures in the debate around arts and cybernetics – Eco quotes Moles in his The Open Work – and helped breed an entire generation of programmers and designers deeply interested in the technical as well as in the aesthetical issues of computer science. Among the Ulm School of Design alumni, we count: Theo Lutz, the programmer and author of the very first computer-generated poem “Stochastiche Text” (1959); Ettore Sottsass (the husband of Fernanda Pivano) who went back to Italy to work for Olivetti, where he designed the first Italian-made computer, Elea 9001; the designers Tomás Maldonado and Gui Bonsiepe, who also worked for Olivetti and created the system of symbols for the same Elea.

Ulysses’ sirens play electronic music

Among Eco’s numerous artistic collaborations, the one with composer Luciano Berio, celebrated for his pioneering work with electronic music, is particularly notable. In 1958-59 the two, together with Berio’s wife, the experimental singer Cathy Berberian, explored together the potential of onomatopoeias in music as well as in poetry. Working at the Studio di Fonologia Musicale RAI in Milan – a centre dedicated to experiments with electronic music and supported by the Italian national public broadcasting company – the three produced an electroacoustic composition inspired by the 11th chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses, the “Siren” chapter, and titled Thema (Omaggio a Joyce). Eco was the literary expert, Berio the musician, Berberian the interpreter. The experiment was a true instance of “open work”, not only because of Joyce’s literary style, one of the highest examples of ‘openness’ and interpretability, but because the technology allowed Berio and Eco to divide the recording of Berberian voice into fragments and recombine them as they pleased.

Zagreb: the hub for the Bit generation

Between 1961 and 1973 Zagreb, thanks to a series of exhibitions going under the name of Nove Tendencije (New Tendencies), became an international hub for experimental artistic languages: from Op Art, to Concrete Art, Kinetic and, of course, Computer Art. Dedicated specifically to the impact of computers on visual art was a special section within the 1968 exhibition – Tendencije 4 – titled Computer and Visual Research. To further explore the potential artistic applications of the new technology, as well as its aesthetical implications, a multilingual magazine by the title of Bit International (1968-73, 9 numbers) was founded in connection with Nove Tendencije. Unsurprisingly, Eco was among the contributors of Bit International, which also boasted names like Max Bense, Abraham A. Moles, and Tomás Maldonado. Beside Eco, many other Italian artists took part to Nove Tendencije. Just to name a few: the art critics and historians Gillo Dorfles, Palma Bucarelli, and Carlo Giulio Argan, the designers and visual artists Bruno Munari and Enzo Mari, the painters Enrico Castellani, Piero Dorazio, the art collectives Gruppo T, Gruppo N, and Gruppo V.

Mac the Catholic, and Ms-Dos the Calvinist

In the 1990s Eco had a column called “La bustina di Minerva” in the Italian magazine L’Espresso. Many of his brief op-eds expressed his disappointment towards the counter-intuitiveness of early personal computers, which made them look more cryptic, and thus smarter, than they in reality were. In his 1994 article titled “Mac vs Dos” Eco humorously pairs religion and computers and compares the different philosophies behind the two operating systems. He explains that Macintosh is Catholic, specifically a pre-Reformation Jesuit, because it guides the user step by step in a clear and pastoral way, believing than anyone has a right to redemption. Like at bible school, everything is explained in clear terms, and Mac icons are like a sort of biblia pauperum that uses images instead of text. Ms-Dos, instead, is Calvinist because it imposes on the user a long and painful personal interpretation of its rules and lacks a didactic graphical interface. Windows, the more user-friendly evolution of Ms-Dos, is compared by Eco to the Anglican schism: less stern, but still not quite Catholic either.

The name of God is spelled in BASIC

In 1988, Umberto Eco wrote Foucault’s Pendulum, a novel about three men working in a publishing house who become obsessed with discovering the Templars’ secret plan to rule the world. Crucial in their quest is their personal computer, capable of processing and connecting a high volume of information to create a very convincing conspiracy theory. Because of its seemingly esoteric powers, the characters named the computer Abulafia, after the Medieval kabbalist. Just as God, according to the Torah, created the world by combining the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, so does Abulafia combine the protagonists’ conspiracy theories until they become real. However, the heretical comparison, which leads to the protagonists’ final demise, goes further than this. The PC is fully turned into a Kabbalistic tool when one character writes a program in BASIC language to get all the combinations of the four consonants in God’s name ‘Jehovah,’ a result that only rabbis should seek by means of religious meditation.

The Jesuit who invented Digital Humanities

In the 1950s-60s, the Vatican, and the Jesuits in particular, were extremely receptive of the new field of cybernetics. The most famous case is that of Father Roberto Busa who, upon personally meeting IBM CEO Thomas J. Watson in 1949, convinced him to support his project of lemmatising the complete opus of Thomas Aquinas, an endeavour that took the Jesuit and his team about thirty years and granted him the title of funding father of Digital Humanities. Busa presented his pioneering project to one of the most important academic events of the 1960s dedicated to cybernetics: the infamous 21st National Convention of the Italian Philosophical Society, taking place at the University of Pisa in 1967. During the conference, irreconcilable differences arose between supporters and detractors of the idea of a true artificial intelligence, analogous to humans. Among the speakers, four were Catholic priests and, interestingly enough, they were not the most critical towards the prospect of sentient automata.

A software for the End of the World

Asking a computer to answer eschatological questions might sound like something belonging only to the realm of fiction. Not in the case of Terence McKenna, who created the Timewave Zero software to calculate the date of the end of the world. In the early 1970s McKenna, who was into shamanism and psychedelic drugs, went to Colombia, tripped on a lot of mushrooms and ayahuasca and had a revelation: there are two opposite forces regulating the Universe, habit and novelty. Novelty, also meaning “complexity”, keeps increasing in the Universe. When it will completely overpower habit, the world will end, and we will pass into another dimension. Not only was McKenna a drug enthusiast and a Californian hippie, but he was also very interested in computer science and quite a respected figure within computer counterculture. He decided to come up with a mathematical equation to verify his theory about habit and novelty and wrote a computer software to predict, through simulations, the end of the world. When he died, a copy of Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum was found in his library.

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