Discover the Lost Early Computer Art of Telidon, Canada’s TV Proto-Internet from the 1970s

Most of us got hooked up to the inter­net in the 1990s or there­abouts, though the true ear­ly adopters did it when per­son­al com­put­ers first blew up in the 1980s. But cer­tain Cana­di­an house­holds got online even ear­li­er, in the late 1970s, although not quite on the inter­net as we know it: they had Telidon, a phone line-con­nect­ed video­tex/tele­tex sys­tem that used a reg­u­lar tele­vi­sion as a dis­play. “It is no exag­ger­a­tion to say that the telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions mar­ket­place in Cana­da was gripped by Telidon fever from late 1979 to late 1982,” writes Don­ald Gilles in the Cana­di­an Jour­nal of Com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Fuel­ing that fever was “hope and belief in tech­nol­o­gy – sci­ence-based tech­nol­o­gy – as an agent of change, a bringer of nov­el­ty, and enhancer of life.”

When it first came avail­able, Telidon’s con­tent providers includ­ed “cor­po­ra­tions and inter­ests such as The Bay, Ency­clo­pe­dia Bri­tan­ni­ca and the Toron­to Star,” writes the CBC’s Chris Hamp­ton, but “a com­mu­ni­ty of arts-mind­ed elec­tron­ics wonks, tele­com prophets and oth­er curi­ous sorts coa­lesced around it, embrac­ing it as an art medi­um.”

You can see some of those Telidon cre­ators inter­viewed in the short Moth­er­board doc­u­men­tary at the top of the post. While busi­ness­es exper­i­ment­ed with pos­si­bil­i­ties of bank­ing and shop­ping through the sys­tem, artists pushed its bound­aries even fur­ther, using its now severe-seem­ing tech­no­log­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions as a cat­a­lyst for visu­al cre­ativ­i­ty. On some months, artist Bill Per­ry’s Telidon mag­a­zine Com­put­erese drew more view­ers than every oth­er provider com­bined.

Now, more than 30 years after its dis­con­tin­u­a­tion, Telidon has attract­ed atten­tion again. It turns out that its ear­ly-com­put­er-art aes­thet­ic has aged quite well, as seen in the exam­ples now being pulled from the archives and Insta­grammed by Toron­to new-media cen­ter Inter­Ac­cess. Orig­i­nal­ly found­ed to make Telidon devel­op­ment tools avail­able to the artist com­mu­ni­ty, Inter­Ac­cess launched this social media project as a way of cel­e­brat­ing its own 35th birth­day. Look­ing back on all the uses artists found for Telidon — every­thing from abstract qua­si-ani­ma­tions to a study of per­spec­tives on the Cold War — we can imag­ine how com­par­a­tive­ly bound­less the mod­ern inter­net would have seemed to them. But we might also won­der what that mod­ern inter­net would look like if it had a lit­tle more of their artis­ti­cal­ly and tech­no­log­i­cal­ly adven­tur­ous spir­it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Inter­net Imag­ined in 1969

From the Annals of Opti­mism: The News­pa­per Indus­try in 1981 Imag­ines its Dig­i­tal Future

What the Entire Inter­net Looked Like in 1973: An Old Map Gets Found in a Pile of Research Papers

Andy Warhol’s Lost Com­put­er Art Found on 30-Year-Old Flop­py Disks

Watch Bri­an Eno’s “Video Paint­ings,” Where 1980s TV Tech­nol­o­gy Meets Visu­al Art

The Sto­ry of Habi­tat, the Very First Large-Scale Online Role-Play­ing Game (1986)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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