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New Errol Morris film: The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 25, 2016

Dorfman Ginsberg

I had heard months ago that Errol Morris was releasing a new documentary called The B-Side but couldn’t really find any information about it (it’s not even listed on Wikipedia). But the film is being screened soon at both the Toronto and New York film festivals, so some information is filtering out there. The film is about photographer Elsa Dorfman, who is known for her use of the large-format Polaroid 20” x 24” camera. From the description of the film on the New York film festival site:

Errol Morris’s surprising new film is simplicity itself: a visit to the Cambridge, Massachusetts studio of his friend, the 20x24 Polaroid portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman, who specifies on her website that she likes her subjects “to wear clothes (and to bring toys, skis, books, tennis racquets, musical instruments, and particularly pets…).” As this charming, articulate, and calmly uncompromising woman takes us through her fifty-plus years of remarkable but fragile images of paying customers, commissioned subjects, family, and close friends (including the poet Allen Ginsberg), the sense of time passing grows more and more acute. This is a masterful film.

And from the Toronto festival:

“My style of photography is very literary,” she says, “influenced by Ginsberg’s poetry in the acceptance of detail, everydayness. What you’re wearing is okay and who you are is okay. You don’t have to be cosmeticized.” For her portrait clients, she took two pictures. The client got one and she kept “the B-side.” For music fans, the B-sides of vinyl singles had a reputation for being unpredictable and extra precious. The same can be said for Morris’ touching portrait of Dorfman.

Sounds great…I’m definitely keeping an eye out for a trailer and release dates.

We Work Remotely

The Demon in the Freezer

posted by Jason Kottke   May 17, 2016

Errol Morris has made a short film about the world’s remaining stocks of smallpox virus 1 and the debate between those who want to eliminate the virus forever and those who want to keep it around.

In the story from classical Greece, Pandora was warned: Don’t open the box. She opens it anyway. The various pestilences are unleashed on the world but Hope remains at the very bottom of the box. Today there are microbiologists who want to continue to research smallpox. If they are given a free hand, what might they unleash?

There are those who insist that these residual stocks of smallpox should not be destroyed because some ruthless super-criminal or rogue government might be working on a new smallpox, even more virulent than existing strains of the virus. We may need existing stocks to produce new vaccines to counteract the new viruses. New viruses, new vaccines. New vaccines, new viruses. An escalating arms race with germs.

Keep this video in mind when you read about the latest advances with CRISPR.

  1. I’m going to embed the video here, even though it seems like every time I embed a video from anywhere but YouTube or Vimeo, it either autoplays or, even worse, autoplays with the sound on. Also, while I was watching on the Times’ site, the video was glitchy and stopped twice, prompting two reloads. I get why the Times (and other media outlets) want to develop their own embeddable media, but until they get it right, they should leave it to Vimeo and YouTube, the only two sites who have actually gotten it right.

What Errol Morris thinks about Making a Murderer

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 27, 2016

Oh, this interview with Errol Morris where he talks about Making a Murderer is so so spot on.

To me, it’s a very powerful story, ultimately, not about whether these guys are guilty or innocent — but it’s a very powerful story about a miscarriage of justice.

Yes! If you came out of watching all ten episodes convinced one way or the other whether Avery was innocent, I humbly suggest that you missed the point. And further that you can’t actually know…it’s a TV show! The tip of the iceberg.

Another thing that I was struck by watching Making a Murderer was the feeling of the inexorable grinding of a machine that is producing, potentially, error.

This was my favorite aspect of the show. A lot of people complained about them showing huge chunks of Avery’s and Dassey’s trials, saying that it was too boring, but that’s the whole thing! The crushing boredom of the justice system just grinds those two men and their whole families into the result that the state wanted all along. It was fascinating and horrifying to watch, like a traffic accident in super slow motion.

If you’re asking me, would I sign a petition stating that I believe that Steven Avery is innocent? Well, I don’t know. I really don’t know from watching Making a Murderer, but there’s one thing I do know from watching Making a Murderer — that neither Brendan Dassey nor Steven Avery received a fair trial, and that that trial should be overturned.

My thoughts exactly. If I had to guess, Dassey is entirely innocent and Avery is maybe guilty, but neither of them should have been convicted on the evidence presented or the procedure followed.

Anyway, read the whole thing…his stories about making The Thin Blue Line are great. And he’s making a six-episode true crime show for Netflix? YES!

Donald Trump on Citizen Kane

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 07, 2015

Many years ago, Errol Morris interviewed Donald Trump about Citizen Kane as part of a project called The Movie Movie.

The table getting larger and larger and larger with he and his wife getting further and further apart as he got wealthier and wealthier, perhaps I can understand that.

Trump acquits himself pretty well on Kane and its lessons — although I would not characterize Kane’s fall as “modest” — and his commentary about the film is probably the first actually interesting thing I have ever heard him say. But I watched all the way to the end and he shoots himself in the foot in the most Trumpian & misogynistic way — it’s actually perfect.

The Movie Movie, according to Morris’ web site, was based on the idea of putting modern day figures like Trump and Mikhail Gorbachev into the movies that they most admire. So Trump would star as Kane in Citizen Kane and Gorby would be in Dr. Strangelove as who, Strangelove himself? Man, what a fantastic idea. Joshua Oppenheimer used a variant of this idea to powerful effect in The Act of Killing, a film executive produced by Morris.

Morris himself turned a bit of the original The Movie Movie idea into a 4-minute clip for the 2002 Oscars of people — some of them famous: Trump, Gorbachev, Tom Brady, Christie Turlington, Keith Richards, Philip Glass, Al Sharpton — talking about their favorite movies.

Errol Morris interviewed

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 03, 2015

As part of Errol Morris Week on Grantland1, Alex Pappademas did a great interview with Morris about his work. Morris has interviewed serial killers, Holocaust deniers, rapists, and the architect of the Vietnam War but said that the person that most challenged his capacity for empathy was Donald Rumsfeld.

He’s confident right now! He doesn’t have to wait 100 or 500 years. He doesn’t care. I really care whether I’m right or wrong. I really do care. And probably for lots of reasons. I don’t want to be seen as a dumbass, I don’t want to be seen as someone who believes in something that’s absolutely false, untrue, something that can’t be substantiated, checked. I believe that there’s some deep virtue in pursuing truth. Maybe it’s the highest virtue. I believe that. Whether you can attain it or not, you can pursue it. It can be a goal. It can be a destination. I don’t believe that’s Donald Rumsfeld’s goal. I believe that Robert S. McNamara really wanted to understand what he had done and why he had done it. You know, we remain a mystery to ourselves, among the many, many, many other mysteries there are. And McNamara’s struggle with his own past — I was deeply moved by it. I think he’s a war criminal, I think he sees himself as a war criminal, but I like him.

Update: Another recent interview, by Brin-Jonathan Butler, is being offered as a 99¢ Kindle Single.

  1. Yeah cool guys, but it’s always Errol Morris Week here at kottke.org.

Errol Morris’ short films for ESPN

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 25, 2015

Director Errol Morris has directed six short films for ESPN collective titled “It’s Not Crazy, It’s Sports.” The films will air on March 1 and then be released online during the following week. The trailer:

The films’ subjects include Mr. Met, streakers, sports memorabilia fanatics, an electric football league, and Michael Jordan’s stolen jersey. I’ll post the films here as they’re released online. Morris previously did a film for ESPN about the sports-themed funerals of die-hard fans.

Update: Grantland has posted the first short film in the series about an electric football league that’s been running in a NY basement for over 30 years.

Update: All of the Morris’ shorts have now been posted on Grantland. Go. Watch.

Philip Glass’ soundtrack for Errol Morris’ A Brief History of Time

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 23, 2015

Brief History Of Time Soundtrack

Philip Glass did the soundtrack for A Brief History of Time, Errol Morris’ documentary on Stephen Hawking, but it was never released as an album. Until earlier this month. Huzzah! Appears to only be available on iTunes — couldn’t find it on Amazon, Rdio, or Spotify — and I wish they’d done more with that cover. Bleh.

Three Short Films about Peace

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 08, 2014

From Errol Morris and the NY Times, Three Short Films about Peace. Morris interviewed Nobel Prize winners and nominees Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee, the former Polish president Lech Walesa and rock star Bob Geldof.

I interviewed five of the world’s greatest peacemakers, and chose to feature the three who told the most compelling stories on camera. But it was a privilege to meet and to interview every one of them. David Trimble, whose participation in the Good Friday Agreement helped bring an end to Northern Ireland’s Troubles, and Oscar Arias Sanchez, who brokered the Esquipulas peace agreement that ended decades of internecine strife in Central America, were no less inspiring than the three included here.

It’s the easiest thing to say: that each of these stories is inspiring. They are. I was inspired by them. Can one person make a difference? In most cases, no. But every now and again something seemingly miraculous happens. And one person changes the world. Or as Bob Geldof puts it, tilts the world on its axis.

Football and Peace

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 23, 2014

For a Visa commercial, Errol Morris gathers a number of Nobel Peace Prize winners and nominees (including Lech Walesa) to talk about how important it is for their countries to beat the crap out of the other countries in the World Cup.

Two quotes in the video caught my ear:

Sport is a continuation of war by other means.

Look, football isn’t life or death. It’s much more important than that.

The first is a riff on Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz’s aphorism “War is the continuation of Politik by other means”. Clausewitz also devised the concept of “the fog of war”, which Morris used for the title of a film. The second is a paraphrase of a quote by legendary football coach Bill Shankly:

Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.

Soundtrack for The Unknown Known

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 14, 2014

Your Monday morning needs a soundtrack and Danny Elfman’s score for Errol Morris’ The Unknown Known is just the thing. Available at Amazon or on iTunes.

Watch The Unknown Known

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 06, 2014

Errol Morris’s latest documentary on Donald Rumsfeld, The Unknown Known, just came out in theaters. But it’s also available right now to rent/buy on Amazon and iTunes. Here’s a trailer if you need convincing.

Taco Bell’s new spokesman: Ronald McDonald

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 27, 2014

Errol Morris has directed a new series of Taco Bell commercials where a bunch of ordinary men named Ronald McDonald review Taco Bell’s new breakfast menu. Here’s one of the spots:

Donald Rumsfeld: The Unknown Known

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 26, 2014

Errol Morris’ documentary about Donald Rumsfeld, The Unknown Known, comes out next month. The trailer:

In the first of a four-part companion series to the movie for the NY Times, Morris explores The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld.

When I first met Donald Rumsfeld in his offices in Washington, D.C., one of the things I said to him was that if we could provide an answer to the American public about why we went to war in Iraq, we would be rendering an important service. He agreed. Unfortunately, after having spent 33 hours over the course of a year interviewing Mr. Rumsfeld, I fear I know less about the origins of the Iraq war than when I started. A question presents itself: How could that be? How could I know less rather than more? Was he hiding something? Or was there really little more than met the eye?

The Unknown Known has been referred to as a sequel of sorts to The Fog of War, but from this it seems more like its opposite. Morris got some substantive and honest answers to important questions from McNamara, whereas it sounds like he got bupkiss from Rumsfeld.

Update: Here’s part 2.

A Brief History of Time

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 25, 2014

Huzzah! Long unavailable (or at least not widely available), Errol Morris’ documentary film on Stephen Hawking and his work, A Brief History of Time, is now available for rent or purchase on iTunes. Or if you can wait a little bit, there’s a Criterion Blu-ray edition coming out in mid-March. Bonus: score by Philip Glass!

Honest Abe’s photographs

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2013

Lincoln Crack

Errol Morris is at it again, publishing book-length blog posts for the NY Times. This time, he’s examining the photograph evidence of Abraham Lincoln and, I think, what those photos might tell us about Lincoln’s death. Here’s the prologue and part one (of an eventual four).

My fascination with the dating and interpretation of photographs is really a fascination with the push-pull of history. Facts vs. beliefs. Our desire to know the origins of things vs. our desire to rework, to reconfigure the past to suit our own beliefs and predilections. Perhaps nothing better illustrates this than two radically different predispositions to objects — the storyteller vs. the collector.

For the collector the image with the crack [in one of Lincoln’s photographs] is a damaged piece of goods — the crack potentially undermining the value of the photograph as an artifact, a link to the past. The storyteller doesn’t care about the photograph’s condition, or its provenance, but about its thematic connections with events. To the storyteller, the crack is the beginning of a legend — the legend of a death foretold. The crack seems to anticipate the bullet fired into the back of Lincoln’s head at Ford’s Theater on Good Friday, April 14, 1865.

It should have a name. I call it “the proleptic crack.”

November 22, 1963, a short film by Errol Morris

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 21, 2013

Errol Morris and Tink Thompson share an obsession about the nature of photographic evidence. In a short film for the NY Times, Morris talks to Thompson about the photographic and filmic evidence of the JFK assassination, which Thompson has been investigating on and off since 1963.

Interesting that 1) there exists much more photographic evidence of the assassination than is commonly shown/known, and 2) Thompson very much has a theory of what the evidence shows but Morris doesn’t spill those particular beans:

Is there a lesson to be learned? Yes, to never give up trying to uncover the truth. Despite all the difficulties, what happened in Dallas happened in one way rather than another. It may have been hopelessly obscured, but it was not obliterated. Tink still believes in answers, and in this instance, an answer. He is completing a sequel to “Six Seconds” called “Last Second in Dallas.” Like its predecessor, this book is clearly reasoned and convincing. Of course, there will be people who will be unmoved by his or any other account.

See also Morris’ previous short film featuring Thompson & the assassination, The Umbrella Man.

Short Errol Morris film on Benoit Mandelbrot

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 18, 2013

A short time before his death, Benoît B. Mandelbrot filmed an interview with Errol Morris. Morris charmingly starts off my asking Mandelbrot where “the fractal stuff” came from.

Note: as always, the “B.” in “Benoît B. Mandelbrot” stands for “Benoît B. Mandelbrot”. (via @sampotts)

The Unknown Known

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 03, 2013

Vice has a sneak peak at Errol Morris’ new documentary on Donald Rumsfeld, in what looks like a sequel of sorts to The Fog of War.

Morris has Rumsfeld perform and explain his “snowflakes,” the enormous archive of memos he wrote across almost 50 years in Congress, the White House, in business, and twice at the Pentagon. The memos provide a window into history — not as it actually happened, but as Rumsfeld wants us to see it.

Jesus, that little smile at the end. The Daily Beast has an interview with Morris about the film.

THE DAILY BEAST: How the hell did you get Rumsfeld to agree to do this? Were you chasing him down?

ERROL MORRIS: No, not at all. I wrote him a letter, enclosed a copy of The Fog of War, heard back from him very quickly, went to Washington, and spent a good part of the day with him. We started it under the premise that he would do two days of interviews, I would edit it, and if he liked it, we’d sign a contract and continue. If he didn’t, I’d put the footage in a closet and it would never see the light of day.

The name of the film, The Unknown Known, is a reference to a statement Rumsfeld made at a press briefing about WMDs, terrorism, and Iraq:

There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns — there are things we do not know we don’t know.

The life and death of sports fans

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 15, 2012

Team Spirit is a wonderful short film for ESPN by Errol Morris about the funerals of die-hard sports fans.

I love the Steelers fan laid out in a recliner under a Steelers blanket in front of a television with a Steelers game on as if “he just fell asleep watching the game”.

Do fonts affect people’s opinions?

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 09, 2012

You may remember a short piece by Errol Morris in the Times a few weeks ago that was more of a quiz than a essay. Well, the quiz turned out to be a smokescreen for how people’s opinions change when the text is set in different typefaces.

Each Times participant read the passage in one of six randomly assigned fonts - Baskerville, Computer Modern, Georgia, Helvetica, Comic Sans and Trebuchet. The questions, ostensibly about optimism or pessimism, provided data about the influence of fonts on our beliefs.

The test consisted of comparing the responses and determining whether font choice influenced our perception of the truth of the passage.

The results pointed to a small but noticeable effect in the authority of each font.

DAVID DUNNING: Baskerville seems to be the king of fonts. What I did is I pushed and pulled at the data and threw nasty criteria at it. But it is clear in the data that Baskerville is different from the other fonts in terms of the response it is soliciting. Now, it may seem small but it is impressive.

ERROL MORRIS: I am completely surprised by this. If you asked me in advance, I would have guessed Georgia or Computer Modern, something that has the imprimatur of, I don’t know, truth - truthiness.

DAVID DUNNING: The word that comes to my mind is gravitas. There are some fonts that are informal - Comic Sans, obviously - and other fonts that are a little bit more tuxedo. It seems to me that Georgia is slightly tuxedo. Computer Modern is a little bit more tuxedo and Baskerville has just a tad more starchiness. I would have expected that if you are going to have a winner in Baskerville, you are also going to have a winner in Computer Modern. But we did not. And there can be a number of explanations for that. Maybe there is a slight difference in how they are rendered in PCs or laptops that causes the starch in Computer Modern to be a little softer than the starch in Baskerville.

ERROL MORRIS: Starchiness?

DAVID DUNNING: Fonts have different personalities. It seems to me that one thing you can say about Baskerville is that it feels more formal or looks more formal. So that may give it a push in terms of its level of authority. This is, of course, speculation. I don’t really know. What one would do with, when you get surprising results is you now have to think about, O.K., what do we do to take that back-ended speculation and support it with data?

Update: Pentagram’s Michael Bierut weighs in on Morris’ article.

Whether or not a typeface can do any or all of those things, I do agree the landscape has changed. Once upon a time, regular people didn’t even know the names of typefaces. Then, with the invention of the personal computer, people started learning. They had their opinions and they had their favorites. But until now, type was a still matter of taste. Going forward, if someone wants to tell the truth, he or she will know exactly what typeface to use. Of course, the truth is the truth no matter what typeface it’s in. How long before people realize that Baskerville is even more useful if you want to lie?

Are you an optimist or a pessimist?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 12, 2012

Errol Morris has a new essay on the New York Times site this week and it’s surprisingly short. And it’s actually not an essay but a two-question quiz based on this short passage by David Deutsch:

If a one kilometer asteroid had approached the Earth on a collision course at any time in human history before the early twenty-first century, it would have killed at least a substantial proportion of all humans. In that respect, as in many others, we live in an era of unprecedented safety: the twenty-first century is the first ever moment when we have known how to defend ourselves from such impacts, which occur once every 250,000 years or so.

It doesn’t seem like much and Morris is being coy about it, but I’ve been assured that something interesting will come of it if enough people take it. So take it!

Stephen Hawking reviews A Brief History of Time movie

posted by Jason Kottke   May 03, 2012

From twenty years ago, Stephen Hawking reviews the film version of A Brief History of Time.

I have been fortunate in the director of the film, Errol Morris. He is a man of integrity, with a feeling for the issues. It would have been all too easy to have someone who would have concentrated on the more sensational aspects of my private life, and my medical condition, and who would have treated the science in a superficial way. A friend of mine, who has had several television programmes based on his work, was envious of how the scientific ideas came through on the film.

(via @errolmorris)

A tale of two Rockefellers

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 30, 2012

New essay from Errol Morris in the NY Times, What’s in a Name? In it, he talks about the two Rockefellers that appeared in the newspapers a few years ago…one an imposter and one real.

Clearly, the name was also responsible for the attention he was getting in the newspaper. Clark is not just any impostor; he is a Rockefeller impostor. And as such he becomes more important, more significant. It is as if the name gives him some of the stature and allure of a real Rockefeller. A perfect example of this is the importance given to Clark in both The New York Times and The Boston Globe. He even managed to outshine Barack Obama and Joseph Biden during the week that Obama picked his running mate. Obama and Biden get a little picture at the bottom of the right-hand side of the front page. Clark gets a photo spread — one big picture and four little ones — at the top of the left-hand side. He also got more column inches in the newspaper than Clayton, the real Rockefeller. It’s impressive.

Short Errol Morris film about competitive eating

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 03, 2012

The NY Times has a short documentary film by Errol Morris on El Wingador, a five-time winner of the Wing Bowl. My favorite line from the film, uttered by an off-camera Morris:

Wait a second. That’s cannibalism!

Though his several wins came early on in the competition’s history, El Wingador is still competing in the Wing Bowl. In the 2012 competition, held today, El Wingador came in third while Takeru Kobayashi completely demolished the competition in his first attempt, eating 337 wings in the process.

A Brief History of Time by Errol Morris

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 11, 2012

The sound and picture are poor, but the entirety of Errol Morris’ A Brief History of Time is available on YouTube.

Featuring music from Philip Glass, the film is a documentary about Stephen Hawking and his ideas about the universe. Morris recently stated on Twitter:

Yes. I plan to re-release [A Brief History of Time]. (It was never properly color corrected and is one of my best films.)

The film is difficult, if not impossible, to find on DVD and isn’t available on Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, or iTunes. And as far as I can tell, the soundtrack was never released either.

The Umbrella Man

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 22, 2011

On the 48th anniversary of the assassination of JFK, Errol Morris talks to Tink Thompson about “The Umbrella Man”, a gentleman who was pictured in the Zapruder film standing with an open umbrella near where Kennedy was shot on a sunny day. The result is a nifty six-minute film.

For years, I’ve wanted to make a movie about the John F. Kennedy assassination. Not because I thought I could prove that it was a conspiracy, or that I could prove it was a lone gunman, but because I believe that by looking at the assassination, we can learn a lot about the nature of investigation and evidence. Why, after 48 years, are people still quarreling and quibbling about this case? What is it about this case that has led not to a solution, but to the endless proliferation of possible solutions?

The Updike piece from the New Yorker is available here (subscribers only, but the abstract is informative):

For example, “the umbrella man”: though the day was clear and blowy, he can be detected, in photographs, standing on the curb just about where the assassination would in a few seconds occur, holding a black umbrella above him; seconds later he is again photographed, walking away, gazing tranquilly at the scramble of horrified spectators. His umbrella is now furled. Who was he? Where is he now?

The film pairs nicely with Morris’ recent interview of Stephen King about the latter’s new novel based on the Kennedy assassination.

Tabloid’s star breaking the fourth wall

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 15, 2011

Joyce McKinney, the subject of Errol Morris’ documentary film called Tabloid, has been popping up at screenings of the film around the country, seemingly on her own dime, to conduct Q&A sessions of her own.

“I sat till the audience started to leave and waited for the precise moment, and then jumped up and yelled, ‘I’m Joyce McKinney!’” she said, with considerable glee. “They went crazy.”

There are also reports of some reviewers receiving anonymous legal threats.

Errol Morris making a movie with Paul Rudd and Ira Glass

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 13, 2011

It’s fictional but based on a This American Life story about a man whose cryogenics business goes wrong.

The film, as previously reported, is an adaptation of a 2008 report on Bob Nelson, a self-styled cryogenics pioneer. Mr. Morris claims the film, not listed on IMDB, will be written by Zach Helm, writer of the aptly titled Will Ferrell vehicle Stranger Than Fiction. This American Life previously spawned the kids’-movie adaptation Unaccompanied Minors, but Mr. Morris’s pedigree — and unique interests-promise to make this a bit more highbrow, and simultaneously more intriguingly tabloid-y.

The invention of social computing

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 24, 2011

I’m going to link again to Errol Morris’ piece on his brother’s role in the invention of email…the final part was posted a few hours ago…the entire piece is well worth a read. As is the case with many of his movies, Morris uses the story of a key or unique individual to paint a broader picture; in this instance, as the story of his brother’s involvement with an early email system unfolds, we also learn about the beginnings of social computing.

Fernando Corbato: Back in the early ’60s, computers were getting bigger. And were expensive. So people resorted to a scheme called batch processing. It was like taking your clothes to the laundromat. You’d take your job in, and leave it in the input bins. The staff people would prerecord it onto these magnetic tapes. The magnetic tapes would be run by the computer. And then, the output would be printed. This cycle would take at best, several hours, or at worst, 24 hours. And it was maddening, because when you’re working on a complicated program, you can make a trivial slip-up - you left out a comma or something - and the program would crash. It was maddening. People are not perfect. You would try very hard to be careful, but you didn’t always make it. You’d design a program. You’d program it. And then you’d have to debug it and get it to work right. A process that could take, literally, a week, weeks, months -

People began to advocate a different tactic, which came to be called time-sharing. Take advantage of the speed of the computer and have people at typewriter-like terminals. In principle, it seemed like a good idea. It certainly seemed feasible. But no manufacturer knew how to do it. And the vendors were not terribly interested, because it was like suggesting to an automobile manufacturer that they go into the airplane business. It just was a new game. A group of us began to create experimental versions of time-sharing, to see if it was feasible. I was lucky enough to be in a position to try to do this at MIT. And we basically created the “Compatible Time Sharing System,” nicknamed CTSS from the initials, that worked on the large mainframes that IBM was producing. First it was going to be just a demo. And then, it kept escalating. Time-sharing caught the attention of a few visionary people, like Licklider, then at BBN, who picked up the mantle. He went to Washington to become part of one of the funding agencies, namely ARPA. ARPA has changed names back and forth from DARPA to ARPA. But it’s always the same thing.

And it was this shift from batch processing to time-sharing that accidentally kickstarted people using computers in a social way…programming together, sending notes to each other, etc.

Robert Fano: Yes, the computer was connected through telephone lines to terminals. We had terminals all over the MIT campus. People could also use CTSS from other locations through the teletype network. CTSS was capable of serving about 20 people at a time without their being aware of one another. But they could also communicate with each other. A whole different view of computers was generated.

Before CTSS, people wrote programs for themselves. The idea of writing programs for somebody else to use was totally alien. With CTSS, programs and data stored could be stored in the common memory segment and they were available to the whole community. And that really took off. At a certain point, I started seeing the whole thing as a system that included the knowledge of the community. It was a completely new view. It was a remarkable event. In retrospect, I wish I had gotten a very smart social psychologist on the premises to look at and interpret what was happening to the community, because it was just unbelievable.

There was a community of people using the computer. They got to know each other through it. You could send an e-mail to somebody through the system. It was a completely new phenomenon.

It seems completely nutty to me that people using computers together — which is probably 100% of what people use computers for today (email, Twitter, Facebook, IM, etc.) — was an accidental byproduct of a system designed to let a lot of people use the same computer separately. Just goes to show, technology and invention works in unexpected ways sometimes…and just as “nature finds a way” in Jurassic Park, “social finds a way” with technology.

The invention of email

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 20, 2011

This is the first part of a five-part blog post by Errol Morris investigating whether his brother Noel Morris
co-wrote the first working email system at MIT in the mid-1960s. From an MIT colleague of Noel’s, Tom Van Vleck:

In 1965, at the beginning of the year, there was a bunch of stuff going on with the time-sharing system that Noel and I were users of. We were working for the political science department. And the system programmers wrote a programming staff note memo that proposed the creation of a mail command. But people proposed things in programming staff notes that never got implemented. And well, we thought the idea of electronic mail was a great idea. We said, “Where’s electronic mail? That would be so cool.” And they said, “Oh, there’s no time to write that. It’s not important.” And we said, “Well, can we write it?” And we did. And then it became part of the system.

Van Vleck maintains a web page about what he, Noel Morris, and their team were working on at the time. To go along with Morris’ article, the NY Times has an MIT Compatible Time Sharing System emulator that you can use to send email much as you could back in the 60s.