Last week I made a presentation at Merz Academy called Hackers and Suckers: Understanding the 8-bit Underground. I was invited by Olia Lialina for a lecture series called Do You Believe in Users? in Stuttgart. This question should be understood in the context of a disappearing user in modern discourses on design. Computers have become normalized and invisible, and the user seems to have a similar fate. (read more in Olia’s Turing Complete User)
The talk was about 8-bit users, and the hype around 8-bit aesthetics. I talked about different 8-bit users – from those who unknowingly use 8-bit systems embedded in general tech-stuff, through stock freaks and airports, to chipmusic people and hackers. I explained how “8-bit” is both a semiotic and materialist concept, but often used as a socially constructed genre. 1950s music or 1920s textile can be called 8-bit today.
I explained what the qualities of 8-bit computing are, as based on my thesis: simple systems, immediacy, control and transgression. Some examples of technical and cultural transgression followed, and then I gave the whole “8-bit-punk-appropriator-reinvent-the-obsolete” speech and then dissed that perspective completely. Finally, I tried to explain my own view of non-antropocentric computing, man-machine creativity, media materialism, and so on. When I prepaired the presentation I called this Cosmic Computing, but I changed it because my presentation was already hippie enough…
- Humans cannot have a complete & perfect understanding of a computer. Following ideas from Kittler – and the fact that 30-year-old technologies still surprise us – this seems controversial for computer scientists, but not so much for artists?
- Users bring forth new states, but that might be all normal for the machine. This is controversial for all ya’ll appropriatingz artistz, but not for Heidegger and computer scientists.
- All human-machine interactions are both limited and enriched by culture, technology, politics, economy, etcetera. Meaning that “limitations” and “possibilities” are cultural concepts that change all the time.
- Don’t make the machine look bad — don’t be a sucker. Make it proud! Another anti-human point, to get away from the arrogant ways that we treat technologies.
In hindsight, it was a pretty bad idea to be so anti-user in a lecture series designed to promote the user. (: And the discussion that followed mostly evolved around the concept of suckers. Some people seemed to interpret what I said as “if you are not a hacker you are a sucker”. This was unfortunate but understandable. I don’t mean that there are only two kinds of users. They are merely two extremes on a continuum.
Hackers explore the machine in artistic ways and they can be coders, musicians, designers — whatever. They are not necessarily experts but they know how to transgress the materiality/meaning of the hardware/software. They can make things that have never been done before with a particular machine, or something that wasn’t expected from it. That often requires not-so-rational methods, which is not always based on hard science. Just because you know “more” doesn’t make you better at transgression. There is a strong connection between user and computer. Respect, and sometimes a strong sense of attachment - even sexual? That’s probably easier to develop if you don’t plan to sell it when the next model comes out. (btw, this is not some kind of general-purpose-definition of the term hacker, just how I used it in this presentation)
Suckers, on the other hand, don’t seem to have this connection. They buy it, use it and throw it away. Either they don’t feel any connection to the object, or they don’t want to. They act as if they are disconnected from technology, and only suck out the good parts when it suits their personal needs.
It is a disrespectful use. The machines are treated merely as instrumental tools for their own satisfaction. Suckers are consumers to the bone. Amazing technologies are thrown at them, and suckers treat them as if they don’t even exist – until something stops working. Or they go all cargo cult.
I don’t like it when I act as a sucke.r, but it happens all the time. I recently got an iPhone for free. I’ve had it for months without using it, because I am scared of becoming a sucker 24/7. I am definitely not in charge of my life when it comes to technology. And I like that. Hm…