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Computer History According to Law & Order
February 1, 2014 2:16 AM   Subscribe

Artist Jeff Thompson received a Rhizome commission in 2012 for his project Computers on Law & Order, for which he watched every episode of the long-running television series and took screenshots of all the computers. Thompson will present an illustrated lecture based on the project this Saturday, Feb 1 at 4pm at the Museum of the Moving Image, followed by a discussion with Law & Order graphic designer Kevin Raper. In this article, he shares some of his findings.
posted by infini (26 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

This is fascinating, thanks.
posted by Sebmojo at 3:16 AM on February 1

This is great! Thanks for the post. I watched the show from ths beginning a couple of years ago - the change in computer and mobile phone use were two of the most interesting developments through the show. I agree with the author that it is an anthropological gold mine - through 20 years of rapid social and technological change, not to mention the geographic and demographic change in NY itself. Fascinating stuff.
posted by goo at 3:48 AM on February 1 [3 favorites]

The link in that article to the accompanying Tumblr is b0rked. Here is the correct link.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:03 AM on February 1 [3 favorites]


The last episode of Law and Order is a 4chan spoof. Moot is the final boss of Law and Order.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:05 AM on February 1 [3 favorites]

Great article, but my favorite part is this footnote that has nothing to do with computers:
The characteristic and variously described "dun-dun!" sound effect was created by series composer Mike Post. The sound was made from "an amalgamation of nearly a dozen sounds, including an actual gavel, a jail door slamming, and five hundred Japanese monks walking across a hardwood floor."
posted by Elementary Penguin at 5:05 AM on February 1 [5 favorites]

I saw one not long ago where they explained for the benefit of the audience what a search engine was before using it to search for information about a suspect.
posted by double block and bleed at 5:18 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]

I love the fake websites, especially FacePlace, especially when Chris Meloni or Ice T have to say it with a straight face.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 5:25 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]

The best fake websites and tv shows are still The Goodwife though.
posted by PinkMoose at 5:51 AM on February 1 [4 favorites]


To me the only truly interesting historical documents are ephemera, because they are made unselfconsciously with regard to the eye of history.

L&O's combination of ripped from the headlines, ambition of verisimilitude, and older audience demographic provide beautiful and explicit historical evidence. A nice contrast to television generally which is written to appeal to younger audiences and at the same time be timeless so as to preserve its syndication (and now digital) afterlife.
posted by MattD at 6:23 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]

After watching all 319 hours of the show (or the equivalent of about two straight months watching 40-hours a week, though that is not how I consumed it), I think Law & Order is an even more interesting cultural artifact than I could have ever expected. The show forms a unique database of images and speech, and one that reflects the fascinations, fears, and biases of its time. Law & Order's long run and its "ripped from the headlines" content makes it a useful lens through which to look at a period of great political and economic change in the United States. In particular, the show coincides with a major cultural shift: the rise and eventual ubiquity of computers and networked technologies over a crucial 20-year period in technological history.

Great article, very interesting stuff. I have to wonder how your lens of the world would be tinted after watching 319 hours of Law & Order.
posted by stinkfoot at 6:24 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]

I know that they only really give out honorary Doctorates, but someone should give this dude a free Masters Degree.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:44 AM on February 1 [7 favorites]

I have to wonder how your lens of the world would be tinted after watching 319 hours of Law & Order.

About the same as watching every episode of M*A*S*H repeatedly I guess. Fundamentally, we're observing human nature. The Valley tends to forget the human beings in their technofuturistic utopias.
posted by infini at 6:45 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]

Blasdelb, his own blog, not the tumblr, gives this sentence in his bio: Assistant Professor and Program Director of Visual Art & Technology at the Stevens Institute of Technology.
posted by infini at 6:47 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]

Should I point out the image for the "clearly identifiable Apple product" is not in fact an Apple product?
posted by mrzarquon at 6:48 AM on February 1 [6 favorites]

I have to wonder how your lens of the world would be tinted after watching 319 hours of Law & Order.

It would be tinted the exact shade of Richard Belzer's glasses.
posted by Operation Afterglow at 7:03 AM on February 1 [8 favorites]


(Sorry, I know that guy.)

As someone who worked in the art department on a Law & Order series, the fact that this is a thing people are interested in fascinates me.
posted by Sara C. at 9:35 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]

And now, Elisabeth Rohm is starring in Mega Shark vs Mecha Shark. Coincidence?!
posted by Brocktoon at 10:25 AM on February 1

Phew--for a minute, I thought he stole the idea for a blog which reviews every episode of L & O, a project I will never actually get around to starting.
posted by box at 10:55 AM on February 1

That was actually surprisingly interesting. I'd never have considered using something like L&O (which I did used to watch frequently, but haven't for years) as a cultural time capsule of technological change.

I wonder if you could do something similar with the evolution of forensic science as depicted though the show.

Although when he says that Apple products started appearing because Apple sponsored the show, my impression was that Apple didn't do product placements, but they were frequently selected by the people who put together the sets because they looked more futuristic and high-tech than your standard beige box. And probably because all of the art department used Macs. (But maybe this is just something I heard on the Internet.)

@mrzarquon: I think it was referring to the Mac Mini in the background, not the monitor (which is clearly not an Apple product). Actually looking at it again maybe that is just a power brick…
posted by damonism at 12:42 PM on February 1

Apple products started appearing because Apple sponsored the show

This isn't entirely true, or at least is a gross misunderstanding of how this works.

Apple products started appearing because Apple is open to product placement. Which mean that we get free props, they get their logo shown on TV basically for free, and it's a win-win for everyone. Especially since, well, characters of the show have to use some type of computer, and AFAIK there is no ubiquitous non-branded alternative.

Apple doesn't actually sponsor the show, in terms of payment in money or any sort of support beyond the use of props.

The nice thing about Apple as opposed to other computer companies is that it's kind of a one-and-done thing. You don't have to make fifteen different deals with different companies that supply other types of computer equipment. You make a deal with Apple and get laptops, desktops, ipods and iphones, tablets, mice, headphones, keyboards, etc etc etc etc. and then you have pretty much all the consumer-level computers you need for the whole production.

And, you know, lots of people use Apple products in real life, so it helps with verisimilitude.
posted by Sara C. at 1:11 PM on February 1 [3 favorites]

> I think it was referring to the Mac Mini in the background, not the monitor (which is clearly not an Apple product). Actually looking at it again maybe that is just a power brick…

It could be a Mini's power brick, but definitely not a mini in the shot.
posted by mrzarquon at 2:24 PM on February 1

This is even cooler and nerdier: "Source Code in TV and Films"
posted by oneswellfoop at 3:48 PM on February 1 [2 favorites]

Don't forget about Seinfeld!
Almost every episode of Seinfeld features an Apple Macintosh computer in Jerry Seinfeld's apartment. For the first few seasons, we see a Macintosh SE (1987) on his desk in the corner. In later seasons, the SE is ditched for a PowerBook Duo (1992) seated in a Duo Dock with an external monitor. After Apple's PowerPC switchover, a Power Macintosh 6100 (1994) supplants the Duo as Seinfeld's computer of choice. Finally, Jerry adopts the rare and coveted Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh (1997) near the end of the series.
posted by Room 641-A at 10:57 PM on February 1

Didn't Carrie Bradshaw also have an Apple? I remember her having one of those candy-colored clamshell laptops that preceded the iBook, which later became the MacBook.

There's an episode at some point where she accidentally wipes her hard drive, which I suppose seemed like a real problem in 1998 or whatever, but comes off as completely ridiculous (and her corresponding behavior outrageously girly/helpless/luddite) in 2014.
posted by Sara C. at 12:05 AM on February 2

She does take her Apple to TekServe to be fixed though -- the NYC predecessor to the Apple Store and the Genius Bar.
posted by Sara C. at 12:05 AM on February 2

The images from that Tumblr could be used in a L&O-based Captcha system:posted by blueberry at 2:18 AM on February 2 [2 favorites]

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