Anachronism or Typical Dreams? PLATO and Progress

“If a music teacher were asked to state the requirements of a classroom presentation “dream-machine”, the response would be a device capable of displaying musical notation, showing slides, playing recordings, and maybe even generating some new examples for aural training. Such a machine was dreamed about in the 1960’s by Professor Donald Bitzer (1961) at the University of Illionois. He made it a reality; it is called PLATO, and it is now a product of the Control Data Corporation.”

“For all subjects there is a basic PLATO display unit which contains a screen upon which graphics (like musical notation) can be drawn, a random-access microfiche projector which can show slides on the screen, a typewriter keyboard through which one can communicate with the computer, and a touch panel which allows students to answer questions by touching pictures or words on the screen.”

This is from a text from 1976: Hofstetter in Creative Computing. PLATO was the ultimate machine back then, and it’s not all that different from how some people idealize music and physical computing now, right? It’s a nice example of how technological development is not a one-dimensional anti-social progress upwards and forward. When some things are enhanced, others are per se made obsolete like the McLuhans said, and it’s not necessarily an improvement. PLATO is a good reason to think of history as cycles instead of lines.

PLATO V. photo by Mtnman79

PLATO enabled people to work with music in ways that has become attractive once again. Just imagine the feeling of showing slides on your TV/monitor. You could access recorded sounds on a magnetic audio disk, which I can imagine holds a lot of potential for physical manipulation of the sounds or songs. I’m not sure how the software worked, but it seems that you could work both on GUI-level and code-level with many programs. And of course, touch screens have become cool again and we perhaps forget that there were touchscreen GUIs to make music in the 1960s if not the 1950s (Samson and Mathews, see timeline).

PLATO presented “new realities for computer-based musical instruction” and it still does, and probably will on other occasions in the future. It makes me think about how the League of Automatic Music Composers were connecting KIM-1 computers in the late 1970s to create man-machine-software systems to improvise music with, and I can’t think of anyone doing it afterwards. I’m sure there are, but what I mean is that it never became very popular. Too controversial for humanism? (Stephen Stamper made me rediscover them with his similar chipmusic project, and the live coders in TOPLAP also mention them.)

As a nice by-product of searching for info on PLATO, I discovered that it was a pioneering system also for communications and games. The early models were more like terminals than computers and you could go to chat rooms, play 3D multiplayer games, instant message, draw bitmap graphics, etc – several years before the first BBS. In fact, in about two weeks there will be a meeting on this matter in California organized by Cyber1. You can find more info/pictures/videos about PLATO-communication at their site. And here I thought I was obscure for still using C64-BBSs

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One Response to “Anachronism or Typical Dreams? PLATO and Progress”

  1. Realtime Text /1/ Why Did it Disappear? « CHIPFLIP Says:

    [...] is actually slower and less expressive than it was in the 90′s. Or even the 70′s with PLATO. Chat has derailed into some sort of primitive enter-beast, where you can’t [...]

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