Digital Kaleidoscope: A Commentary by A. Michael Noll


A. Michael Noll

February 2, 2023

© A. M. Noll 2023

[The following commentary is authored by A. Michael Noll, and posted with the permission of the author. Michael experimented with many of the technologies of 3D, computational art, and tactile telecommunication in the 1960s and 1970s at Bell Labs. I always find his reflections to be informative and provocative. WHD]

Digital art and NFTs are the current rage.[1] I actually might have been involved in the founding of computational art. In the summer of 1962, while I was employed at Bell Telephone Laboratories, I proposed using digital computers to program and create art.[2] I did not know then that my pioneering works would result it today’s NFT art.

Since my days at Bell Labs, I have learned to be skeptical of today’s “rage” and what might simply be hyperbole, usually motivated by attempts to make money. “Snake oil” is still being sold – and many are eager to want to believe and buy it. So, are NFTs in art just today’s digital snake oil?

To me, nothing seems really innovative and new about NFT art. Most of the moving imagery of NFT art and digital art today reminds me of old-fashioned kaleidoscopes and sand art of the analogue past. But now a computer and a screen are required to view it. Yes, some of it is visually stunning, but so too were the effects and images seen through the eyepiece of a kaleidoscope – or the frame of the sand art as it rearranged and redeployed. I guess the “new” art should be called digital kaleidoscopes.

Decades ago, I suggested that digital computers equipped with sensors might determine the “emotional” state of a user.[3] An artist might then specify an emotional experience for the user and stimuli – visual and acoustic – created differently and uniquely for each user. This would be an artistic digital “trip” – and perhaps something innovative even today.

A. Michael Noll

[1] NFT stands for non-fungible token. It is a unique array of encrypted bits that gives “ownership” rights to the holder. To me, the “N” should stand for Nonsense.

[2] Noll, A. Michael, “Patterns by 7090,” Bell Telephone Laboratories Technical Memorandum, MM-62-1234-14, August 28, 1962.

[3] Noll, A. Michael, “The digital computer as a creative medium,” IEEE Spectrum, Vol. 4, No. 10 (October 1967), pp. 89-95.

Comments are most welcome