When future historians study our culture they’ll have quite a bit to comb through: court decisions, Reddit AMAs, Beyoncé’s Beyoncé. To add to that list, those overwhelmed anthropologists will now have a record of every computer to ever appear in Law & Order.
Though it may seem counterintuitive to catalog images of, say, Chris Noth furrowing his brow over a clunky early PC, artist Jeff Thompson says Law & Order’s run from 1990 to 2010 took place during a “crucial 20-year period in technological history.” Thompson, in partnership with the New York-based arts and technology organization Rhizome, spent 18 months watching all 465 episodes of the show — that’s 319 hours of police tape and detective work. Throughout this particularly focused binge-watch (which took place at a steady clip of 150-percent speed), Thompson took screenshots of every computer as it appeared, creating an archive of over 11,000 images which are cataloged on a Tumblr and in a forthcoming book. As a bonus, he’s also posted a list of all the URLs which appear in the iconic procedural, including such gems as animetothemax.com and thebaronmuchhumpin.com.
Throughout the ‘90s, as computers moved from the fringes to the center of many Americans’ lives, Thompson says the placement of technology in Law & Order went through distinct phases. Desktop computers, at first used only as props to add “realism” to the workplace, moved from the background to the center of detectives’ desks around 1995.
In an essay on Rhizome’s website, Thompson runs down these and other important moments in Law & Order’s technological history, from the first computer to be switched on in Season One, Episode Nine to the appearance of “Faceplate,” an obvious stand-in for Facebook, in one of the final seasons.
Thompson also notes some broader cultural shifts in Law & Order’s storylines: for example, the recognition of the bursting of the dot-com bubble in the early 2000s. "Then her cousin Jeff convinced her to jump on the internet bandwagon,” he recorded one character as saying. “It was a disaster."
Ever the completist, Thompson has gifted the internet with an extra-sultry half-speed mix of the iconic Law & Order theme song, embedded below. Further meticulously recorded stats, graphs, and screenshots regarding the computers of Law & Order can be found on a GitHub page compiled by Thompson, along with a particularly excellent rundown of “firsts” in the show’s long run — including the first laptop, the first mention of hackers, and the first of 10 attempts to make “zoom and enhance” a thing.
- In early seasons of Law & Order, computers were about as important as desk lamps and stacks of paper.
- The 39th computer in Law & Order, and the first to be switched on; a full-color display wouldn’t appear for another four seasons.
- Just one of 10 instances of a zoom-and-enhance interface — a truly crucial tool — in the name of hard detective work.
- As computers became a more regular staple in the workplace, they move to the center of the desk, where characters frown quizzically into them for about 100 more episodes.
- The baron strikes again at thebaronmuchhumpin.com with a pre-emoji fit of the giggles.
- In the tenth season, justice is served with style on an iMac G3.
- From the tenth season, where this computer appears: "She was talkin' internet this, internet that. I don't know much about it."
- Season 18 ushers in a new era of fancier interfaces and more high-end devices.
- Police work gets with the times in the last few seasons, with characters mentioning ProTools, smartphones, and Craigslist. It isn’t until Season 20, though, that computers stop making the old-school “beep” sound when their keys are pressed.