olia lialina on Fri, 4 Dec 2009 17:02:21 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Digital Folklore, To Computer Users with Love and Respect

Dear nettimers,

Below is the introduction to the freshly published Digital Folklore
reader, edited by Dragan Espenshied and myself. The publication contains
essays and projects on online amateur culture, DIY electronics,
dirtstyle, typo-nihilism, memes, teapots, and penis enlargement -- a
praise of "low" computer culture.


forever yours

Do you believe in Users?

    We are all naive users at some time or other; its nothing to be
    ashamed of. Though some computer people seem to think it is.

    Ted Nelson, Dream Machines, 1974)

In an ideal world, we would love to skip this introduction – or at least
the most difficult part of it, where we, as authors have to define the
term used in the book's title.

Isn't it enough to put a unicorn on the cover, throw a bit of Comic Sans
over it and announce a chapter on LOLCATS in the table of contents? You
would know what we mean.

But sharing our fascination with amateur digital culture is only half of
the business at hand. The Grand Plan, to which this book is only a tiny
contribution, is to truly reconnect users and computers, users and
developers, users and the history of their favorite medium. If this plan
works out, perhaps a reasonable relationship between computers and
people could be restored.

The personal computer (a meta medium), and the Internet (aka network of
the networks), are mistakenly regarded as mere extensions of
pre-computer culture.  Net, web, media, computer, digital, are the
miserable and inadequate prefixes still used to indicate that something
was produced with a computer, was maybe digitized or can be accessed
through a computer interface. A lot of effort is put into increasing the
"fidelity," "realism" and "emotion" of the "content" rushing through
digital circuits, and these efforts are almost always praised.  These
perceived improvements however are likely to wipe out the very reality
and emotion that is living inside the computer. It seems that in spite
of its prevalence in our culture, the computer's ultimate purpose is to
become an invisible "appliance," transparent interface and device
denying any characteristics of its own. Most computing power is used in
an attempt to make people forget about computers. Thus, the often heard
statement that computers are a common thing in today's world is a
fallacy. Never before has computer technology been so widely spread and
computer culture been so underdeveloped in relation.

If you ask a search engine what "digital folklore" is, it will pull up
links to e-books on folk art or recordings of folk music in MP3 format.
Likewise, five years ago if you looked for "internet art," you would get
linked to galleries selling paintings and sculptures online, even though
net art (where "net" was more important than "art"), had long been a
unique art form. Computer games are subject to similar attitudes. Either
they are seen only in relation to what is commonly regarded as "real"
play (especially in the context of children), or they are judged in
terms of the preceding mediums (namely cinema). Respect for the unique
narrative and expressive potential of games only appeared very recently.

This has to change for the betterment of human culture as a whole, so we
proudly coin the term Digital Folklore.

Digital Folklore encompasses the customs, traditions and elements of
visual, textual and audio culture that emerged from users' engagement
with personal computer applications during the last decade of the 20th
and the first decade of the 21st century.

This seemingly over-determined time frame is needed to distinguish
Digital Folklore from Home Computer Culture, which ceased to exist in
the 1990s. Before, home computers – machines elegant and quirky at the
same time – nurtured the development of a passionate community. Using
mostly their free time, these self-taught experts created their own
culture. Meaningful contributions could be made quickly and with
relative ease because of the home computer's technical simplicity. When
the home computer became merely a machine for work, when it became a
requirement in life to know Microsoft Office, when the workings of the
machine became increasingly complex and business oriented, the role of
computer users changed.

So what do we exactly mean by user? The movie Tron marks the highest
appreciation and most glorious definition of this term. The film is
mostly set inside a computer network; programs, represented by actors in
glowing costumes, are the main heroes. One program asks another: "You
believe in the users?" The other answers: "Yes, sure. If I don't have a
user, than who wrote me?" In another conversation it becomes clear that
both an account manager and a hacker are called "user" by "their"
programs. The relationship of users and programs is depicted as a very
close and personal one, almost religious in nature, with a caring and
respecting creator and a responsible and dedicated progeny.

This was in 1982. Ten years later the situation became dramatically
different. The term "users" was demoted to what the fathers of computer
technology dubbed "Real Users,"(1) those who pay to use a computer but
are not interested to learn about it, or "Naive Users,"(2) those who
simply don't understand the systems.

In 1993 AOL connected their customers to the Internet for the first time
and naive users showed up in the thousands – invading the Usenet
discussion system formerly only frequented by computer enthusiasts with
a university background. These AOL-ers  became part of the Internet
without any initiation and none of them had any of the technical or
social skills deemed  necessary to the previous generation of Internet
users. The "old guard" was unwilling to deal with a mass of "users" who
were ignorant of their highly developed culture and the  increasing
onslaught was often referred to as an "Eternal September."(3) "User"
became a derogatory term for people who need things to be as simple as
possible and they became cannon fodder for system administrators and
real programmers.

In 1996 The New Hackers Dictionary clearly distinguished two classes of
people: Implementors (hackers) and Users (lusers).(4) Twelve years
later, "Software Studies: A Lexicon", released by the same publisher The
MIT Press, doesn't contain an article on User at all. As a way to deal
with this new influx of “lusers,” the prevailing tactic was to give them
a nice and colorful playground(5) ("user-friendly," "user-oriented")
where they could not cause any real damage and leave the hackers alone.
 This rather cynical view is still perpetuated today – users are being
highly entertained, but also exploited as content producers and
ad-clicking revenue generators.

While more and more people had personal computers and net access, fewer
and fewer were seeing the value of their contributions. As most had
agreed to have "no idea about computers," it became virtually impossible
for them to reflect on the medium itself.  At the same time however
these lusers used computers very intensively, producing and uploading
content non-stop.

And here we reach the point where we would like to highlight artifacts
of Digital Folklore,  a distinct user culture developed inside
user-oriented applications and services despite their low social status
and technical limitations. And their cumulative output began to dominate
that of hacker culture.

Consider the way early amateur websites were made. As clumsy as they
might appear to trained professionals, in terms of spreading the
Internet's architecture and culture, they were of huge importance. In
fact, the mental image we have of the medium today: intelligence on the
edges of the network, many-to-many communication, open source (even if
it was just about how to use the <blink> HTML tag), is the result of
these early efforts. Users could easily write the code for their own web
pages and were, by building their pages, literally building the Internet.

Already by the end of the 1990's however the rise of web design, the web
designer as a new profession, the "new economy" and the whole industry
around it, all conspired to point the lowly users back to their place.

These days we can witness how the users' role has been reconsidered in
the Web2.0 hype: noble amateurs, crowd-wisdom, user generated content,
folksonomy – all crowned by the triumphal "YOU" as the person of the
year on the cover of TIME magazine.(6) This grand "comeback" of the
user, heralded by the glossy mirrored cover, illustrated just how vast
the gap between users and their computers had grown.  The implication
being that a powerful user is a one-time sensation, not the norm.
During a short Web 2.0 time the users' creativity earned a lot of
praise, whether it was "blinging up" their kids, rating books at
Amazon.com or rickrolling colleagues. But being so busy and creative, we
missed the moment when Web2.0 was replaced by a new trend, The Cloud:
users in front of dumb terminals, feeding centralized databases and über
computer clusters. One is easily reminded of the Master Control Program,
the boogie man from the aforementioned movie TRON. Whatever association
your mind is offering here, whatever the name of the system, it is about
powerful computers, not powerful users.

But it won't be technology that will stand up for values like free
speech and free thought. And the technological mastery of a few bright
minds will not protect the Internet from being blocked, split up,
throttled or censored by repressive regimes, conservative industries or
religious zealots. Hackers and professionals will have to understand
that in order to advance "their" medium and "their" culture, they too,
have to tap into the powers of Digital Folklore.

In Germany, where this book originates, the problem has its own
specificity because one gets the feeling that "The Internet" is
happening somewhere else. Journalists praise Iranian bloggers in their
struggle for freedom, yet regard German bloggers voicing their concerns
about German governmental control of the web as nutty freaks.

And there seemed to be little time for reflection in between the total
neglect of computers and their sudden, unscrutinized adoption: In the
1980s people still generally thought of computers as Cold War machines
that guide nuclear missiles, or as  surveillance machines turning people
into numbers in the 1987 census. Even playing the coin-operated Pac Man
arcade machine was illegal for minors. By contrast, today's school
children are educated as "Real Users." They learn how to use Microsoft
Office to type business letters and design PowerPoint presentations,
before they learn how to make a game or even spell IKEMZDOL(7)
correctly.  Users must understand their integral role in the process,
demand comprehensible systems, work for better computer education and
begin to see themselves as developers again. Studying Digital Folklore
can do this, and help give back users the power they have earned and
The domain of the digital must belong to people, not computers. The
personal computer must be regarded as a medium with a cultural history
shaped more by its users and less by its inventors. In February 2009,
speaking at TED conference, Sir Tim Bernes-Lee stated that he invented
the web 20 years ago.  Though officially he has the right to claim this,
the web is in fact 16 years old, because that is when people started to
use it.

Henry Jenkins wrote in his 2002 article "Blog This!"(8): "We learned in
the history books about Samuel Morse's invention of the telegraph, but
not about the thousands of operators who shaped the circulation of
message." To rephrase him, we could say that we have studied the history
of hypertext, but not the history of Metallica fan web rings or web
rings in general. This book is an attempt to fill this gap.
It is a collection of texts and projects on the digital vernacular,
online amateur culture, DIY electronics, dirtstyle, typo-nihilism, cats,
teapots and penis enlargement. We are grateful to our students, former
and present, for participating in research and contributing to the book.

(1) "People who are buying computers, especially personal computers,
just aren't going to take a long time to learn something. They are going
to insist on using it awfully quick." J.C.R. Licklider: "Some
Reflections on Early History", quoted from: A. Goldberg: A History of
Personal Workstations, ACM Press, 1988, p.119

(2) "Person who doesn't know about computers but is going to use the
system. Naive user systems are those set up to make things easy and
clear for such people“. Ted Nelson: "The Most important computer terms
for the 70's", in Dream Machines, Tempus Books, 1987, p.9

(3) September was a special month in the early days of network culture.
With the start of the university term there would always be some new
users that needed some introduction and caring for their first steps
into the online world. See e.g. the Wikipedia entry

(4) Eric S. Raymond: "The New Hacker's Dictionary",The MIT Press, 1996,
p. 463

(5) The graphical user interface for "users" is also often called
"WIMP," for "Windows, Icons, Mouse Pointer." Real programmers would use
a command line interface of course.

(6) Issue December 25, 2006/January 1, 2007

(7) IKEMZDOL = "I könnte mich zu Tode lachen", the German version of

(8) Henry Jenkins: "Blog This!", Technology Review Issue March 2002,
online at Technology Review

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: http://mail.kein.org/mailman/listinfo/nettime-l
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime@kein.org