Enshrining the @

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Enshrining the @

Last week the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired the @ symbol. This has both conceptual and practical implications and applications for the Museum. Nerd-geek say wha?

Yeah I know, hang on, let me try and parse this. First of all, where did @ all start?

According to MoMA's website: linguists believe that @ was created some 1300 to 1400 years ago by Latin scholars who wanted make the preposition "ad", which means at, to or toward, into a single unique pen stroke.


all images MoMA.

Then, 16th C. Venetian merchants began using @ to indicate a unit of measure, namely as a symbol for a particular sized terra cotta vase used as a standard container for goods traveling along the silk route. Around the same time in Spain @ was also adopted as a unit of measure.

In 1885 @ appeared for the first time on the keyboard of the American Underwood typewriter and was called the "commercial A." Despite its use in accounting, the lonely @ sat on typewriter keyboards across the Latin lettered world totally underutilized.

Another hundred years passed when an electrical engineer named Ray Tomlinson working on the interwebs, created a sub-networking system he called Email. Ray saw that lonesome @ at the top of his keyboard and decided it was the perfect symbol to indicate one's location on the www.

Okay now that we've gotten the significance of the little thingy, try and wrap your mind around this; MoMA acquired @ for free.

Senior curator, Paola Antonelli, of the Department of Design and Architecture said on the Museum's blog, “[the acquisition] relies on the assumption that physical possession of an object as a requirement for an acquisition is no longer necessary, and therefore it sets curators free to tag the world and acknowledge things that ‘cannot be had’ — because they are too big (buildings, Boeing 747’s, satellites), or because they are in the air and belong to everybody and to no one, like the @.”

In laypersons speak that means, since @ is in the public domain anyone and everyone can use it, for free... which we have been doing for years. How fitting then that MoMA, in the spirit of the unfettered access of digital communication, has simply "tagged" @ for their collection.

I know we often disparage the things we don't understand as bunk. And its often hard to understand the mind of someone who sees beyond the mundane appearance of things — someone who would find value in a curvy little free symbol. So check out Paola Antonelli's TED talk and maybe you'll be inspired to hang the @ on your wall too, its now a museum piece after all.



Comments [3]

minniesota's picture

Want to imitate this

I want to acquire the Tilde ~ Da Mins

Still searching for the right brainy quote.

geek4grammar's picture

"acquiring" syntax?

I am down w/ this, but I'm not sure that it means to say that MoMA "acquired" the @, for free no less-- who would they have paid if it wasn't free? I don't quite understand what makes the @ any more or less a part of english syntax, which is obviously in the public domain, than the !, ?, $, or %, just to name a few. I agree that the history of the @ is interesting, and the idea of ownership of the intangible/intellectual property has broad implications...I just think it's an odd choice to say they "acquired" it rather than just say they're doing a exhibition on it. I'll have to go check this out so I can talk about it a little more intelligently.

We're all born naked. The rest is drag.
--RuPaul (appropriating Judith Butler for the masses...)

minniesota's picture

How I understood acquired in this context

I read the MOMA article that Grace linked to. The senior curator states that the MOMA acquired the @ symbol for its collection and then launches into a discussion of what "acquisition" means in this context.

She explains that the concept of "acquisition" is freed from the assumption of "physical" acquisition. The MOMA curator muses that the @  "...might be the only truly free—albeit not the only priceless—object in our collection."

Still searching for the right brainy quote.