ControlMarch 25, 2009
Condensed meditations on the control panel as a pervasive technological sublime:
The control panel was an invention of the industrial age, a manual interface consolidated into a conscribed area within easy reach of a single operator. Industrial machines would eventually yield to nonkinetic information machines. Even as these technologies became more quotidian, the idea of a priestly technological class solidified: control panels were operated by specialized men, technicians.
Grouped control panels aggregate to form control arrays, the ultimate realizations of which include military command hubs, nuclear reactor control rooms, and of course space flight centers: Mission Control.
This profusion of technological interface has long exercised a strong hold on the popular consciousness through science fiction and fantasy films. The proverbial figure behind the curtain of The Wizard of Oz was a puppetmaster of reality operating a panel-controlled illusion.
Much later, an iconic distillation of control tech is found in the breastplate and belt of Darth Vader, a malevolent superbeing whose human distance from technology is collapsed; he wears the interface of his own hybrid mechanical identity.
Even as the specialist implication of control panels persisted, electronic appliances and lifestyle accoutrements increasingly found their way into the domestic sphere. The key entertainment and lifestyle components of the 1980s—the entertainment a/v system and kitchen gadgets—brought the control panel ethic and aesthetic literally into the hands of the middle-class consumer. Overdriven remote controls are rhetorical technologies; only half of the buttons, if that many, are functionally known to the user.
The demise of the Cold War resulted in a glut of technological detritus, and a new subculture of tech fetishists flock to the control panel aesthetic. Flickr has an active Control Panel group where members upload pictures of panels found in diverse sources, from eBay items, vintage stereo components, aviation boneyards, medical flotsam, and even detached pieces of nuclear missile launch panels. The ultimate aestheticization of the control panel may be found in the work of photographer Mark Richards, whose ode to the tech sublime is found in the book Core Memory: A Visual Survey of Vintage Computers (disclosure: I edited this book).
The final frontier may be the hard, masculine, and technical control panel aesthetic coming around to a softer and ultimately ironic manifestation: craft. Knitted, crocheted, and otherwise woven representations of the control panel are part of the vast DIY movement. Plush iPhones and soft synthesizers are indicators that the angular control interface responds to a human need for suave tactile sensitivity. The control panel of tomorrow may yield to a more physically and psychologically supple interface.