The Mythology of the Mainframe

"There is a vast amount of vital intelligence on that mainframe."
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Mainframes occupied an interesting spot in the American imagination. The mainframe, in the movies, was an incantation: it conjured up all the mysterious power and glory of technology. The mainframe could compute not just faster, but other. 

The mainframe was an oracle that had secrets and power, but it was locked away in the bowels of a corporation or government, hard to reach physically, hard to reach digitally. The quest to get into the mainframe -- by either means of egress -- could form the backbone of a movie, and it took a hero, or as often, a classic Lord-of-the-Rings-style team of wizards and warriors, tricksters and average Joes. I always loved that the stories tended to unite the nerdy hackers with the brawny people of action, both their skills required to acquire the power within; it was a recognition of the dual nature of computers as physical objects and hosts for digital information. And so often, it seemed, the action turned on getting into the space that connected these two realities. The mainframe was unhackable unless they were in the room, in which case, it was simple. Or they couldn't break into the room without a hacker using the mainframe itself to help the physical assault. 

I got to thinking about all this because of the supercut you see above, which was created for the site Slacktory and posted on Laughing Squid. It's a testament to a lost story plot and a slowly disappearing type of computing architecture. The mainframe hasn't really gone away. IBM still sells a few billion dollars' worth of these machines per year. And the general model they represented of a very reliable machine for processing zillions of transactions has been taken up by everyone. We all access powerful servers that are faster than the mainframes of decades past. But the power of the idea of the mainframe is gone. It's been decomposed into its constituent parts and cycled up into the cloud.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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