Supercomputers as art and cultural artifacts

From BLDGBLOG, some pictures and romantic musings about everyone's favorite kind of computer - big, expensive, finicky and shared: the Supercomputer.

Be sure to click through to see the picture of the MareNostrum system filling a glass box in a chapel in Barcelona. There are more great photos on photographer Simon Norfolk's site.

I wish there was more well-done photography of these systems - not all are nearly as photogenic overall as MareNostrum, but there are plenty of great details, and so many are already lost to history. My vote for favorite detail is the Cray 2 coolant waterfall:

(It's the blue glowing thing in the top center - from

Here are some interesting quotes from the BLDGBLOG post:

These computers, Norfolk continues, 'are omniscient and omnipresent and these are not qualities in which we find a simulacrum of ourselves - these are qualities that describe the Divine. The problem is not that these computers might one day resemble humans; it is that they already resemble gods.'

I would say Golem.

So if I were forced to take issue with the existence of these machines, it would not be because of their use in modeling new nuclear warheads - as Norfolk makes clear they do - but in something far more secondary, even faintly absurd: what I'd call the lack of a supercomputer poetics, or a more imaginative role for these machines to play in our literary and even religious lives. Oracular, Delphic, radically non-secular: they are either all or none of the above.

If we'd all agree to think clearly about climate science, there's quite a bit of Oracular prediction using supercomputers going on there. I'd love to see high-performance computing become more a part of the culture, as computer security undoubtedly has. I think such stories are unlikely to be told visually, though - it's hard to imagine how it'd be done without being either overdramatized and silly or dreadfully boring. After all, how do you make a movie out of editing text and waiting?


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