Sometime soon after Netflix's streaming service launched, Jeff Thompson found himself watching episode after episode of Law & Order. It was so easy. An episode would end and he'd click "next." We've all been there. You can watch a lot of Law & Order that way.
But Thompson's approach was different than your average binge-TV viewer's. Thompson brought an archivist's flair to his hours watching. As he'd go, he'd screenshot "oddities": scenes taken from a first-person perspective, or those portrayed in an unusual split-screen fashion.
After a bit, most of the oddities melted away and just one thing—one single thing—kept popping out of the frame to grab Thompson's attention: computers. There's a computer. There's another. And there's another. He kept screenshotting them. "It didn’t take long," Thompson wrote to me, "to realize this should be extended to an exhaustive project."
So in 2012 Thompson applied for, and received, a commission from Rhizome, an organization in New York City that supports work at the intersection of arts and technology.
And that's when his work really began.
Thompson set out to document every single computer that appears in Law & Order over the course of the series' run. He ended up finding about 2,500 of them. He took five screenshots of each instance, which means that, all told, Thompson collected 11,000—yes, you read that right: 11,000—screenshots. Which, he admits, "sounds pretty insane." (The best of those screenshots, one per computer appearance, will eventually be published to Thompson's Tumblr http://computersonlawandorder.tumblr.com/.)
To understand just how "insane" this undertaking this was, let's begin with the basics: Law & Order ran for 20 years. It is tied with Gunsmoke for the longest-running live-action show of all time. There are 456 episodes. When Thompson received the complete DVD box set he ordered from NBC (Netflix's quality was too unreliable), it weighed in at 20 pounds. Thompson suspects that NBC hadn't mailed all 120 DVDs together too often: "They shipped it to me and they seemed to have no idea how to pack it, because it came with all the boxes all torn up and stuff," he told me. (The complete set, which cost $700, was purchased with funds from the Rhizome commission.)
Now, each Law & Order episode is around 45 minutes long. To watch all of them would take about 319 hours, or about two straight months of watching 40 hours per week.
But that's not how Thompson did it. Thompson parsed out his Law & Order consumption over a one-and-a-half-year period, during which time he watched about an episode a day, and sometimes five or six on a weekend. He watched these episodes, not like a casual Law & Order viewer (Thompson, after all, is no casual viewer) but at 150 percent speed, reducing each episode to a mere 30 minutes, "which," Thompson admits, "sounds kind of crazy but it's totally watchable that way. It did drive my wife crazy, in the background, but ... it saved me over 100 hours of watching time. So it was kind of obvious that that was the way to go."
Looking back, Thompson says that for the first 10 seasons or so, the project was new and exciting. "After that, it became more and more of a drag," he told me. "By the end it was really just work."
Law & Order, Thompson says, is in some ways a perfect artifact for exploring the history of our relationship to computers. For one, the show's run covers what is perhaps the significant period for this relationship, the two decades during which computers arrived at and gradually became central features of our lives. But Thompson says that the show's value is more than that. It's "also the format of the show: It's ripped from the headlines. It's meant to mirror things that are happening right now, to be really reflective of culture."
Additionally, unlike other crime procedurals, Law & Order,in contrast with CSI, tends to give a pretty realistic portrayal of our technological capabilities. Thompson said there are really only two exceptions to this: the classic "zoom and enhance" trick, which works way better on TV than in reality, and the elegance of software such as facial-recognition programs. "The real thing often is really boring looking, or really technical," Thompson says. For the show, they hire a designer who makes software that looks like what your "mom might think facial-recognition software would look like."
But beyond those little efforts, most of the technology on the show seems to have come as an afterthought. "No one was probably thinking about, you know, what kind of mouse should we use, or where should it go in the room," says Thompson. They just represented whatever was the norm of the time, and, in doing so, documented details of computer history that perhaps no one at the time could have articulated—details that were so commonplace they went totally unnoticed.
For instance, when computers appear on Law & Order in the early '90s they are often not on. Who at the time would have said, "We have these new machines in the office. We only turn them on when we need to use them, and they are off the rest of the time." The fact that computers tended to be off is only noticeable in light of today's habit of leaving them on, even during a task that is not specifically on a computer (which may not even happen that often anyway). People's work-streams were not computer-based, and computers only were booted up for a specific task.
Another shift Thompson noticed is that over time, computers attained more prominent physical locations within a room. Early on, computers tended to be off to the side, on a specialized desk, perhaps for many people to share, using it for one specific task. If a character had his or her own computer, it would be located on a separate table behind his or her desk, not on the desk itself. It's not until 1995 that the first computer makes the leap from behind the desk to its central "desktop" position we all are so familiar with today.
That shift, from out-of-sight-out-of-mind to office-place centrality, dovetails with another: Over time, people became more social as they interacted with their machines. What does this mean? In the '90s, Thompson says, it's very infrequent that you'll see someone using a computer with another person present. If a computer is on, it's running in the background, as though to indicate that someone got interrupted while using it solo. In more recent seasons, people seem to be more comfortable using computers in the company of others. You'll often see two detectives working on two laptops sitting right across from one another, and, ubiquitously, people nonchalantly checking their phones mid-conversation with those around them.
When all was said and done, Thompson decide to run the math: How much of Law & Order had he captured? His calculations are a bit back-of-the-envelope, but illustrative nevertheless. The show ran for roughly 1,149,120 seconds. Standard video frame-rate is 29.97 frames per second, and he had 11,000 frames, or 0.007 percent of Law & Order. Of course, he didn't capture every single frame in which a computer appears, but, he says, "it gives you an idea of actually how little time the computers are on screen, compared with the whole rest of the show."
Which, for Thompson, points to a central observation about his project: It wasn't really about Law & Order at all—"It's about technology, and our culture, and ways that we can look for records of our relationship to those things in places we wouldn't normally think to look for them, which we wouldn't be able to find elsewhere." For 20 years, Law & Order documented the air around us. We don't have books or academic articles about the details Law & Order captured; they were invisible at the time.