Home‌ ‌Computer‌ ‌Cultures‌ ‌and‌ ‌Society‌ ‌Before‌ ‌the‌ ‌Internet‌ ‌Age‌

Gleb J. Albert | gleb.albert[a]uzh.ch | PhD | Department of History, University of Zurich

Julia Gül Erdogan | julia-guel.erdogan[a]hi.uni-stuttgart.de | M.A. | Institute of History, University of Stuttgart

Markku Reunanen | markku.reunanen[a]aalto.fi | PhD | Department of Media, Aalto University

With this thematic issue (2–3/2020), WiderScreen returns to the topic of computer subcultures and “scenes”. However, while previous issues of this journal had a stronger focus on the artistic output of computer subcultures, the present issue focuses on the social conditions and practices that constituted computer subcultures and alternative user cultures in a particular period – namely the time span between the introduction of home computers as a mass commodity in the late 1970s and the triumphant march of the World Wide Web in the first half of the 1990s.

The microcomputer revolution did not only open up new markets and pave the way for the evolvement of the PC standard towards the 1990s – it also gave birth to diverse computer user cultures. While until the mid-1970s computer usage was confined to large corporations, universities, and the military, the home computer opened up digital technology to completely new user groups. The first home computers were built by hobby enthusiasts, and when the first models entered mass production, they attracted not just those looking for a digital typewriter, but also those who wanted to “tinker” with the machine and put it to creative use. These users were not always dealing with computers in ways foreseen by the manufacturers. Instead of becoming obedient customers of the software industry, they shared programs with each other or even wrote their own software. Instead of using the new technology for educational or professional purposes only, they indulged in playing computer games. Instead of being content with the limited capabilities of the machines, they found ways of pushing these limits. Some home computer user groups developed into distinct subcultures and “scenes”, with their own ethics, values, aesthetic codes and cultural practices. Some of them, such as free software activists, or the digital artists of the “demoscene”, were admired as technical pioneers; some, like software pirates or “phone freaks”, were stigmatised as dangerous and deviant; others, like hackers, oscillated between both poles.

This issue, born out of an international workshop held at the University of Zurich on 24–25 March 2017, deals with such unruly user cultures that sprung up in the age of home computing, their regional manifestations and transnational connections, their practices of communication before the mass availability of the internet, their entanglement with the industry development and the major global events that unfolded at that time. When choosing the papers for the conference and the subsequent publication, we wanted to bring attention to topics of home computing historiography that had not received the necessary attention in previous scholarship – such as alternative user cultures in the geographical “peripheries”, alternative modes of computer-assisted communication, and questions of the diversity of the subcultures’ participants. We wanted to move away from the typical success stories and hagiographies that dominate the public perception of the early history of home computing. Instead, this issue aims at offering a panorama of alternative user cultures that were of broader social and cultural historical relevance than the stories of genius inventors, successful entrepreneurs and heroic activists.

A major focus of this issue is constituted by the communication networks home computer users built “from below”. Before the opening and commercialisation of the internet offered possibilities for digital communication for everyone (who was willing to pay for a subscription), many home computer users resorted to decentralised, bottom-up ways of communication, namely bulletin board systems (BBSs) – file and message exchange servers running on computers in private homes, reachable by other users via modem and landline. The “modem world” (Kevin Driscoll) is largely a tabula rasa in media and computer history, thus we are very happy to feature three crucial contributions on the subject. In his paper on North American BBSs users, Kevin Driscoll addresses the tricky question of how many people actually used this mode of communication during its life period between the late 1970s and the early 1990s. His contribution introduces new statistical sources and discusses important methodological questions when it comes to calculating users of a decentralised and bottom-up platform. Even though the paper focuses on North America, it is surely relevant for other regions: While the BBS principle was invented by tinkerers in the US, BBSs developed into a world-wide phenomenon. The contribution of Petri Saarikoski highlights another region where BBSs were a popular way of communication – Finland. His pioneering study presents a rich and all-encompassing history of Finnish BBSs and their users, employing contemporary sources and oral history materials. The third paper on BBSs is a regional study and a contemporary witness account at the same time. In her essay, Beatrice Tobler reflects her ethnological work which she conducted on BBS usage for her licentiate degree thesis in 1994-95. She presents her findings from her participant-observer research in Swiss and German bulletin board systems, and reflects on her choice of subject which was highly unusual in these days, as hardly any work had been conducted on BBS usage in the German-speaking countries, and her thesis remains the only scholarly work on the Swiss BBS community to date.

While BBSs are only beginning to move from the periphery of research to the mainstream of the history of computing, the geographical peripheries (seen from where computers are invented, produced and marketed) had become a subject of research already for the last couple of years. More and more recent publications highlight the importance to study computerisation of the regions outside the US and Western Europe – not only in order to discover alternative ways of computerisation and computer usage, but also to find out that, from a global perspective, “peripheral” usages of home computers were much more the norm than the “normal”, formalised ways in the centres of computer production and marketing. Several contributions in this issue only shed light on various “peripheries” and explore them through the perspectives of comparison, entanglement and transfer. Julia Gül Erdogan deals with hackers in West and East Germany in a comparative perspective, exploring how a tinkering, playful way of computer (mis)use developed in both German states, what the self-conceptions of these tinkerers were, and whether they could find a common language after the fall of the Wall. Gleb J. Albert also deals with transfer across both the Iron Curtain and the global north-global south divide – namely the transfer of pirated software and the transfer of subcultural aesthetics and values that went along with the former. Already in the mid-1980s, commercial software pirates in the “peripheries” reached out to members of the crackers’ subculture in order to import cracked software into their respective countries. As these copies bore the insignia of the crackers subculture, their so-called crack intros, users in the “peripheries” learned about this subculture and often strove to become part of it, thus allowing the subculture to globalise itself. With the example of Greece, Theodore Lekkas and Aristotle Tympas present in their contribution a different kind of periphery – not across Cold War borders, but within the Western Bloc. With Greece being treated by the international hardware and software industry as a marginal market and not provided with localised products, users had to rely even more on their own initiative – and the computer magazines analysed by the authors served as an important coordination point for such efforts. At the same time, the paper shows how Great Britain as a heartland of European home computing served as a point of reference for users in the “peripheries”.

As many of the contributions show, it is not always helpful to see alternative user cultures in opposition to “the industry”. Often enough, computer subcultures and alternative user groups engaged in commercial activities, cross-fertilised industries, or even gave birth to whole new branches of industry. Ulf Sandqvist deals with the latter in his paper on the demoscene and the birth of the games industry in Sweden. Companies founded by members of the demoscene, a digital coding/arts subculture particularly strong in Scandinavia, were among the first game companies in Sweden. Sandqvist shows how both the technical and the social skills acquired within the subculture could substitute formal education when entering the software business, yet had its limits. A different example of the entanglement between users, subcultures and the computer industry is offered by Patryk Wasiak in his contribution on Polish users of the Commodore Amiga computer during the system transformation period. Polish Amiga users formed a “brand community” around this computer model, embracing the brand and vigorously protecting its reputation against competing computer models and its users – yet, far from being obedient consumers, they formed distinct practices of computing around the Amiga, such as tinkering, DIY merchandise, and piracy. Here, as well, the Polish Amiga demoscene was at the forefront of the “brand community”.

The manifold contributions in this volume will hopefully enlarge and widen our understanding of social bonding and user practices in the age of home computing, the crucial founding era of our digital present. We thank all contributors for their thoroughness and patience, the editors of WiderScreen and the anonymous peer reviewers for their valuable feedback. We thank the Swiss National Science Foundation, the Centre for Contemporary History (ZZF) in Potsdam, the Department of History at the University of Zurich, the DFG-SNF research group ’Medien und Mimesis’, the Collegium Helveticum, Echtzeit e.V. and Digitale Kultur e.V. for funding our workshop which resulted in the contributions of this issue. We dedicate this issue to the memory of Thomas Hengartner (1960–2018), director of the Collegium Helveticum in Zürich, where our workshop was held. In conversations and in his welcoming address, he expressed much enthusiasm about our topics of research, and we wholeheartedly regret that his sudden passing prevents us to discuss them further with him.

Front cover: Main menu of BBS BCG-Box, source: Ville-Matias Heikkilä / Skrolli. Part of Nordisk Dator cover, source: slengpung.com.