Sunday Vibes

Can 'tech' be considered art?

THIS year's logo for Merdeka Day and Malaysia Day is quite distinctive. The wording is pretty standard (Keluarga Malaysia: Teguh Bersama), but the image is unusually related to technology. The international symbol for WiFi has been co-opted and given a colourful makeover, with red, blue and yellow as a tribute to the Jalur Gemilang.

The way the radiating lines are out of alignment lends a quirky charm while making one ponder Malaysia's place in the great story of technology. It's a theme that is appearing with increasing frequency at auction. Tech is now a collectable. It is even considered "art" — at least by the people selling it.

When we think about art and technology, the first thought is Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs). Thankfully, that fad may be passing faster than most. Malaysian artists weren't much into the game, and good for them. Those who prefer the idea of something more tangible will be relieved.

Meanwhile, the prototypes of the computer age are highly collectable, even though these sometimes take the form of NFTs. The most notable was the source code of the Worldwide Web itself.

It was a Brit (Sir Tim Berners-Lee) and not a Californian who pioneered this, and he sold the original code through Sotheby's last year for well over RM20 million. At least Sir Tim had the decency to call it a "digital artefact" and not "an artwork".

None of the technology that will fulfil the promise of the Communications and Multimedia Ministry logo for 2022 would have been possible without computers. These are the mothership from which everything from handphones to game consoles to Tiktok have burst forth. Depending on what you count as a computer, they have been around for a long time, but were laughably basic until about 60 years ago.

The first Malaysian corporation (individuals couldn't afford it) to dip a toe into this lukewarm water was Tenaga Nasional, or Lembaga Letrik Negara as it was known way back in 1965. This country may not have been the first to see the potential of the Digital Age, but it wasn't the last either. Malaysia was ahead of super-tech South Korea (1967) and just one year behind Singapore (1964). India was always at the forefront, acquiring its first serious computer in 1956.


At auction, the country with by far the most clout is the United States. Apart from Sir Tim, it's almost an American monopoly despite some of the earliest computers coming from countries as unlikely as Italy. Prices have come down as much as capabilities have gone up.

Among the first supposedly affordable machines of the 1960s was Olivetti's Programma 101 (yes, "101" was a thing then!) Adjusted for inflation, it would be more than RM100,000 for a device that was little more than a pocket calculator; its memory was 240 bytes. It still helped American astronauts find their way to the moon.

Almost 10 years later, Hewlett-Packard took things up to 128 kilobytes of memory. For this great leap forward, the price also increased to the modern equivalent of more than RM2 million. These are not the machines that excite modern collectors. It's personal computers that resonate, and that largely means Apple.

The Apple Lisa was big news in the early 1980s, with a price tag that seems shocking now. Although it was intended for home use, it also cost the equivalent of RM100,000 plus. Although 10,000 were produced, they can still fetch more than RM200,000 at auction today — with floppy discs included.

Sales were not impressive at the time, ruining Apple financially, but boosting its image and telling the world the name of Steve Jobs' daughter. The company's fortunes were not helped much a few years later in 1989, when the Macintosh Portable was released. It only lasted two years.

None of these computers from the 1980s can compare in value with Apple's first commercially disastrous attempt with a wider market. By far the most valuable personal computer at auction is the Apple 1. Only 50 pre-assembled models were sold when it was produced in 1976, which gives it rarity as well as pioneer status.

In 2014, an example of this collaboration between Jobs and Steve Wozniak sold for more than RM4 million. Its price and place in history was assured when it was bought by the Henry Ford Museum.

This one will be staying in America. Another Apple 1, in its original packaging, was bought a few years earlier by an Italian enthusiast for a mere RM2 million. Both of these models came with an extremely rare — and rather unlikely — wooden case made from a rare Hawaiian tree.


Computers that are not from the garage of Jobs and Wozniak are rather less popular with collectors. The market for early Russian models is probably crashing right now, although back in the 1980s, this was a major copyist of the new technology coming out of America.

The AGAT-4 was launched in 1984, trying to rival Apple. Few were exported, partly because Soviet manufacture was not a byword for quality, and having a keyboard in the Cyrillic alphabet was even worse.

For collectors looking for something that takes up less space, video games are another item worth scouring the attic for. Be especially alert for Super Mario Bros. Despite tens of millions of copies being sold over the years, one has fetched a stupendous RM8 million.

Needless to say, it is the first edition, with a superb provenance and in pristine condition. The people who buy video games at these prices are not interested in playing with them. This is the investment realm — collectibles that are easy to transport and a status symbol behind a glass case for those who can tell the different editions apart.

For technology that takes up no space at all, there are oddities such as Jack Dorsey's first tweet. The founder of Twitter typed the words "just setting up my twttr and 15 years later, sold it as an NFT for more than RM12 million. Elon Musk's attempts to get into that game came much too late.

Follow Lucien de Guise at Instagram @crossxcultural.

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