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Why One Man Watched Every Episode of ‘Law & Order’ and Took Screenshots of All the Computers

Rob Walker
·Tech Columnist

Season 1, Episode 3: In the early years of Law & Order, computers were in the background, and usually turned off.

Binge-watching is mainstream. And Law & Order is among the most popular television shows of all time.

But nobody has binged on a show the way Jeffrey Thompson gorged himself on Law & Order.

He not only took in all 456 episode in the procedural’s 20-year-run, in order. He also meticulously cataloged — with more than 11,000 screen shots — every single instance of a computer or similar technology that appeared on the show. 

 “Does that sound crazy to you?” he asks.

Season 1, Episode 9: First appearance of a computer that’s actually turned on (displaying a child abuse database).

Before you answer, you should know that Thompson isn’t an extreme couch potato; he’s an artist whose work frequently deals with technology. And this is the “the kind of obsessive project where you don’t remember starting it,” as he puts it. He started out watching old Law & Order episodes on Netflix just for diversion. But he would periodically take screenshots of interesting oddities for his blog.

Then he started noticing computers. And eventually he realized what he was really watching was a massive audio-visual database charting two decades of technological evolution.

So he applied for a grant from Rhizome, a nonprofit arts organization that specializes in tech-culture projects, and he won one of the 2012 commissions decided upon by Rhizome member votes. (Rhizome Commissions range from $1,000 to $5,000.) On February 1, he’ll give an “illustrated lecture” at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, discussing his findings.

Season six: Computer sketch art, and a designer’s desktop, mid 1990s style.

Michael Connor, Rhizome’s editor and curator, cheerfully acknowledges that there’s an absurd humor lurking in the background (or maybe not lurking, in plain sight) of Thompson’s undertaking. But in the end, he says, the artist has cleverly repurposed a popular show, and shown us something interesting: “We can treat television as a kind of database.”

Connor notes that there’s some precedent for this, such as Jennifer and Kevin McCoy’s 2001 “Every Shot, Every Episode,” which collected thousands of images from Starsky & Hutch, tagging each with key words and sorting them onto 278 category-specific CDs. But Thompson’s examination of Law & Order takes the show-as-database idea in a specific direction — one that’s chock-full of information about culture and technology. In a way, Connor continues, “it’s a mirror image of what Netflix does.” That is: instead of an algorithm mining our viewing habits, Thompson has mined Law & Order, to his own ends.

Season six: Unconvincing representation of email software.

And as Thompson himself points out, he couldn’t have invented a better database: The show’s neatly bracketed 1990-2010 run helps, and its famously “ripped from the headlines” vibe makes it a perfect subject for dissecting change over time. The fact that technology wasn’t (usually) the focus, but rather a routine element of the action that had to be understandably and unobtrusively communicated to a super-mass audience adds another useful wrinkle.

One straightforward example Thompson tracked involves the physical prominence of computers themselves. In the earlier seasons, they are turned off, behind desks, and in corners. “No one ever uses them – it seems like you wouldn’t use a computer while you were talking to another person,” Thompson says. “And you wouldn’t have a big CRT monitor on the front of your desk. It would be blocking human interaction.

“Over the course of the show you see that change,” he continues. The objects become more central, and by 2010 characters are using smartphones constantly.

Along the way, every refresh of tech culture dutifully appears in some form: representations of email, social networks, Internet porn, hacking. (Among other things, Thompson has compiled a comprehensive list of fake URLs from the show.) “We see both the promise and the fear” of technology, he says.

Season seven: Lawyer with a laptop, Wall Street guy surrounded by computers.

Thompson devised his own custom hardware and software super-watcher setup. He built a custom touchbar with an Arduino controller that interacted with some software (that he wrote) on his computer: He could tap his controller from the couch and this rig would capture five sequential screenshots, freeing him from endless pause-and-backtrack cycles — and allowing him to take copious notes.

That includes “a whole bunch of quotes from the show,” he says. “My favorite is the first season, these two officers are riding around in a car, and one says to the other, ‘You know, we’re living in the computer age.’ So perfect.”

Season thirteen: Computers as junk.

At the Museum of the Moving Image event, Thompson’s lecture will be followed by a conversation with a former designer for Law & Order — the man who actually invented all the faux user interfaces that appeared over its final six seasons. Rhizome will publish an essay from Thompson summarizing the project and its conclusions, and over time he’ll be adding more of his collected images to a visual archive on the Tumblr computersonlawandorder.tumblr.com.

So, yes, Thompson’s project does sound a little crazy. But it’s also weirdly fascinating — not just for what it reveals about how culture portrays technology, but also for its cleverness in finding a trove of useful data that was hiding in plain sight. As Connor puts it: “It’s a celebration of really careful and considered viewing of things most people would miss.”

Check out “Rhizome Presents: Computers on Law & Order,” February 1, at 4pm, at the Museum of the Moving Image, 36-01 35th Ave, New York, NY 11106.

Season 18: Devices front and center, and everywhere we go.