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The Design of Information Overload

A Cold War Story

In 1959 Charles and Ray Eames presented their multi-screen film Glimpses of the USA inside Buckminster Fuller’s golden dome at the American Exhibition in Moscow. This propaganda project on behalf of the United States Information Agency  was part of a series of experiments into information overload as a new form of communication and persuasion. It drew on multimedia pedagogies, wartime situation rooms, circus techniques, Hollywood, surveillance, computation, psychology and the news states of distraction in the metropolis. What was radical in 1959 has become every day. We are surrounded everywhere, all the time, by arrays of multiple, simultaneous images. The idea of a single image commanding our attention has faded away. It seems as if we need to be distracted in order to concentrate.

Christopher Faust, Suburban Documentation Project. Metro Traffic Control, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1993. Credit: Courtesy of the artist.

We are surrounded today, everywhere, all the time, by arrays of multiple, simultaneous images—in the streets, airports, shopping centers, and gyms, as well as on our computers and television sets. This was already clear in the 1990s, when the interface became multiple windows and when I started to think about this new condition in which the idea of a single image commanding our attention began to fade away. It seems as if we need to be distracted in order to concentrate, as if we—all of us living in this new kind of space, the space of information—could be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. The state of distraction in the metropolis, described so eloquently by Walter Benjamin early in the twentieth century, seems to have been replaced by a new form of distraction, which is to say, a new form of attention. Rather than wander cinematically through the city, we now look in one direction and see many moving images juxtaposed, more than we can possibly synthesize or reduce to a single impression. We hardly even notice it. It seems as natural as simply breathing in the information. This effect is multiplied and intensified as screens keep getting closer and closer to our bodies, even becoming part of our body. We now experience the city inside the screen itself; the city we are only vaguely aware of just beyond the edge of the screen.

How would one go about writing a history of this form of perception? Should one go back to television studios or control rooms, with theirs wall of monitors?; or to Cape Canaveral to look at its mission-control room?; or should one even go back to World War II, when so-called situation rooms were envisioned with multiple projectors bringing information from all over the world, presenting it side by side for instant analysis by military commanders and political leaders?

But it is not simply the military in general or war technology in particular that has defined this new form of perception. Designers, architects and artists were involved from the beginning, playing a crucial role in the evolution of multiscreen and multimedia techniques of information presentation. While artists’ use of these techniques tends to be associated with the Happenings and Expanded Cinema of the 1960s, architects were involved much earlier and in very different contexts, such as military operations and governmental propaganda campaigns. Take the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow, where the US government enlisted some of the country’s most sophisticated designers. The exhibition was a Cold War operation in which Charles and Ray Eames’s multiscreen technique turned out to be a powerful weapon.

To reconstruct a little bit of the atmosphere: the United States and USSR had agreed in 1958 to exchange national exhibits on science, technology and culture. Following a Soviet exhibit in New York City early in 1959, in July Vice President Richard Nixon arrived in Moscow to open the exhibition, where he engaged in a heated debate with Premier Nikita Khrushchev over the virtues of the American way of life—an exchange that became known as the “Kitchen Debate,” as it took place in the kitchen of a suburban house split in half to allow easy viewing.

The exhibition captivated the national and international media. Newspapers, illustrated magazines and television networks all reported the event. Symptomatically, Life magazine put the wives instead of the politicians on its cover. Pat Nixon appeared as the prototype of the American woman depicted in advertisements of the 1950s: slim, well groomed, fashionable, happy. By contrast, the three Soviet ladies surrounding her appear stocky and dowdy. And while two of them, Mrs. Khrushchev and Mrs. Mikoyan, look proudly toward the camera, a third, the wife of Politburo Central Committee member Frol Kozlov—whose comportment Roland Barthes might have described as the punctum of this particular photograph—cannot avert her eyes from Pat Nixon’s dress.

Envy: that is what the American exhibition apparently was designed to produce. Yet this was not envy of scientific, military or industrial achievements, but envy of washing machines, dishwashers, color televisions, suburban houses, supermarkets stocked full of groceries, Cadillac convertibles, makeup colors, lipstick, spike-heeled shoes, hi-fi sets, cake mixes, TV dinners, Pepsi-Cola and so on. “What is this,” the newspaper Izvestia asked itself in its news report, “a national exhibit of a great country or a branch department store.1

It was for this context that the Eameses produced their film Glimpses of the USA, projecting it onto seven six-by-nine meter screens suspended from the latticework of the vast golden geodesic dome Buckminster Fuller had designed as a theater, measuring a full 76 meters in diameter. More than 2,200 still and moving images presented a day in the life of the United States in 12 minutes. Culled from multiple sources, this selection of images was organized on seven separate film reels, projected simultaneously on seven synchronized projectors.

Cover of Life magazine showing the American and Russian First Ladies at the American National Exhibition in Moscow, August 10, 1959.

Charles and Ray Eames, Glimpses of the USA, showing in the interior of the Moscow World’s Fair auditorium, 1959.

The Eameses did not simply install their film in Fuller’s space: they were involved in organizing the entire exhibition from the very beginning. It was Jack Masey of the United Stated Information Agency (USIA) and the industrial designer and architect George Nelson, who had been commissioned by the USIA to design the exhibition, who brought them onto the team—part of a big Cold War American foreign policy project to, paradoxically, bring Bauhaus thinking back to Europe in the guise of “good design,” both in terms of the display system and the products on view.

Charles and Ray Eames, A sequence of frames form scenes in Powers of Ten, 1968.

Still from Charles and Ray Eames, Powers of Ten, 1977 updated version.

It was decided to incorporate the Eames’s film as the team felt that the “80,000 square feet (7,500 square meters) of exhibition space was not enough to communicate more than a small fraction of what we wanted to say.” Thus, the film was all about information compression—from its incorporation into the exhibition through its placement in Fuller’s minimalist architectonic space—an architecture of information. (Glimpses of the USA turned out to be one of the most popular displays of the exhibition—close to three million people saw it and the dome’s floor had to be resurfaced three or four times during the exhibition’s six-week run.2) Breaking with the fixed perspectival view of the world, the viewer found him or herself in a space apprehensible only with the high technology of telescopes, zoom lenses, airplanes, night-vision cameras, and so on, where there was no privileged point of view. The film commenced with images from outer space occupying all seven screens—stars across the sky, seven constellations, seven star clusters, nebulae—before moving through aerial views of American cities at night—from higher up to closer in—until city lights viewed from above fill the screens.

When the cameras’ respective eyes finally descend to ground level, the cameras zoom into the most intimate of domestic scenes: we see close-ups of newspapers and milk bottles at doors; people having dinner at home, putting babies to sleep. As with Powers of Ten (1968), the Eames’s later and much better-known film, Glimpses of the USA moves from outer space to these close-up details of everyday life. Except that in Powers of Ten the movement would be set in reverse, beginning in the domestic space of a romantic picnic spread in a park in Chicago where a man lies down next to his partner for a postprandial nap. The camera then moves out into the atmosphere and then back down inside the body through the skin of the man’s wrist to microscopic cells and to the atomic level.

Glimpses of the USA breaks with the linear filmic narrative Powers of Ten employs to bring snippets of information, an ever-changing mosaic image of American life. And yet, the message of the film is linear and eerily consistent with the official message Nixon delivered in the Kitchen Debate. From the stars in the sky at the beginning of the film—which the narrative insists are the same in the Soviet Union as they are in the United States—to the people kissing their good-nights and the forget-me-not flowers seen in the last image, the film emphasized universal emotions while at the same time unambiguously reinforcing America’s material abundance. The message of the film was clear: We are the same as you, but, on the material level we have more.

The overall effect of the film is that of an extraordinarily powerful viewing technology, a hyper-viewing mechanism that is hard to imagine outside the very space program the exhibition was trying to downplay.

What kind of genealogy can one make of the Eames’s development of this astonishingly successful technique? It was not the first time they had deployed multiple screens. In fact, the Eameses were involved in one of the first multimedia presentations on record, if not the first. As with the Eames’s participation in the Moscow exhibition, George Nelson set up the commission. In 1952, he had been asked to prepare a study for the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Georgia in Athens and brought along Ray and Charles and the designer Alexander “Sandro” Girard. Instead of writing a report, they decided to collaborate on a “show for a typical class” of fifty-five minutes. Nelson referred to it as “Art X,” and the Eames called it “Sample Lesson.”3 The subject of the lesson was “communications,” and the stated goals included “the breaking down of barriers between fields of learning, making people a little more intuitive[and] increasing communication between people and things.”4 The performance included a live narrator, multiple images (both still and moving), sound and even “a collection of bottled synthetic odors that were to be fed into the auditorium during the show through the air-conditioning ducts.” Eames later said, “We used a lot of sound, sometimes carried to a very high volume so you would actually feel the vibrations. The idea was to produce an intense sensory environment so as to “heighten awareness.”5

It was a major production. Nelson described the team arriving in Athens “burdened with only slightly less equipment than Ringling Brothers. This included a movie projector, three slide projectors, three screens, three or four tape recorders, cans of films, boxes of slides, and reels of magnetic tape.”6 The reference to the circus was not accidental. Speaking with a reporter for Vogue, Charles later argued that “‘Sample Lesson’ was a blast on all senses, a super-saturated three-ring circus. Simultaneously the students were assaulted by three sets of slides, two tape recorders, a motion picture with sound, and peripheral panels for further distraction.”7

The circus, as an event that offered a multiplicity of simultaneous experiences that could not be taken in entirely by the viewer, was the Eames’s model for their design of multimedia exhibitions and the fast-cutting technique of their films and slide shows, where the objective was always to communicate the maximum amount of information in a way that was both pleasurable and effective.

Art X: exhibition/film/slide show/lecture/event. View of lecture hall at the second presentation of Sample Lesson, UCLA, May 1953.

Charles and Ray Eames, Frame from the 16mm film A Communication Primer, 1953.

The Eameses said they “were trying to cram into a short time, a class hour, the most background material possible.”8 As part of the ART X project, they produced A Communication Primer, a film that presented the theory of information, explaining Claude Shannon’s famous diagram of the passage of information, and was subsequently developed in an effort to present current ideas in communication theory to architects and planners, encouraging them to use these ideas in their work. The basic idea was to integrate architecture and information flow. In fact, the information flow was the real architecture.

But the issue was much more than one of efficiency of communication or the polemical need to have multiple examples. The idea was to produce sensory overload. As the Eameses suggested to Vogue, “Sample Lesson” tried to provide many forms of “distraction” instead of asking students to concentrate on a singular message. The audience drifted through a multimedia space that exceeded their capacity to absorb it. The Eames-Nelson team thought that the most important thing to communicate to undergraduates was a sense of what the Eameses would later call “connections” among seemingly unrelated phenomena. Likewise, in Glimpses of the USA, when asked why seven screens, this is what the Eameses said:

The number of screens had to be large enough so that people wouldn’t be exactly sure how many they have seen. We arrived at the number seven. With four images, you always knew there were four, but by the time you got up to eight images you weren’t quite sure.9

One journalist described it as “information overload—an avalanche of related data that comes at a viewer too fast for him to cull and reject it … a twelve-minute blitz.” The viewer is overwhelmed. More than anything, the Eameses wanted an emotional response, produced as much by the excess of images as by their content.

The multiscreen technique went through one more significant development at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. From the “Sample Lesson” in 1953 to IBM in 1964, the Eameses treated architecture as a multichannel information machine—and, equally, multimedia installations as a kind of architecture.

In every sense, Eames architecture is all about the space of information. The experience for the audience in Moscow was almost overwhelming. Journalists speak of too many images, too much information, too fast. For the Internet generation watching the film today, it would not be fast enough. Coming out of the war mentality, the Eames’s innovations in the world of communication, their exhibitions, films, and multiscreen performances transformed the status of architecture. Their highly controlled flows of simultaneous images provided a space, an enclosure—the kind of space we now occupy continuously without thinking.

Details from the IBM, 14 screen presentation Think during show. From Industrial Design, May 1964, p. 38.

●Footnotes
  • 1 Izvestia quoted in: “‘Ivan’ Takes a Look at American Life,” U.S. News and World Report, August 10, 1959, p. 42.
  • 2 Pat Kirkham: Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1995, p. 324. From interview of Billy Wilder by Kirkham in 1993.
  • 3 “Grist for Atlanta paper version,” manuscript in the Eames Archives, Library of Congress, box 217, folder 15.
  • 4 John Neuhart, Marilyn Neuhart & Ray Eames: Eames Design: The Work of the Office of Charles and Ray Eames, Harry N. Abrams, New York 1989, p. 177.
  • 5 Owen Gingerich: “A Conversation with Charles Eames,” The American Scholar 46, No. 3 (Summer 1977), p. 331.
  • 6 Stanley Abercrombie: George Nelson: The Design of Modern Design (quoting George Nelson: “The Georgia Experiment: An Industrial Approach to Problems of Education,” manuscript, October 1954), MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1995, p. 145.
  • 7 Allene Talmey: “Eames,” Vogue, 15 August 1959, p. 144.
  • 8 Gingerich: “A Conversation with Charles Eames,” p. 332.
  • 9 Ibid., p. 333.
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