Francis Hunger – Setun, An inquiry into the Soviet Ternary Computer

Francis Hunger

book – Institut Für Buchkunst Leipzig – ISBN 3932865480
Looking back at the mysterious early computer research from beyond the Iron Curtain (and its “aura”), with special focus on the Soviet Union, this in-depth investigation unveils the unique Setun project – the first computer to make use of ternary logic (-1, 0, 1). A dead-end innovation, with a life-span of just twelve years, the Setun evolved out of ground-breaking work in the field of Multiple Valued Logic, a logic that proceeds with more than the two values employed in binary systems. The ternary approach was thought to have the potential to go well beyond the binary schemes that the global IT industry and infrastructure still use today. Extensively quoting original materials, the author presents a detailed discussion of Setun’s internal mechanisms, that after almost sixty years sounds incredibly “geeky”, but is nevertheless fascinating. The author grew up in the ex-East German state, and, as such, is able to give an interesting perspective on the former relationship between the two superpowers. We are told about the competitive environment that existed and how this was tempered with academic cooperation and a shared belief in the ethereal, fascinating notion of “progress”. This research has been embodied by Hunger in the form of an art project, a propagation of the painstaking research effort. Its aesthetic reflects some of the communist bureaucracy cliché: in a cardboard wooden office, Hunger sits with the paper archive of Setun’s information giving answers only to people that follow specific rules (affixed at the entrance) and who queue politely in stanchions. The access to knowledge “configuration” here is a complex metaphor describing Setun’s time and reflecting on how we are used to completely different rules nowadays, using a milestone in computer archaeology as the symbolic content.