A thesis about ANSI that hates PETSCII

I was reading an MA thesis in history by Michael Hargadon about ANSI art (pdf). It’s an interesting read, but struck me as rather odd, occasionally. Perhaps because it’s North American? For example, there is a newskool Razor1911 ASCII piece (the kind that looks strange on PC because the /-signs don’t align) is described as ASCII-art at its finest, effectively ignoring Amiga ASCII (just look at ASCII arena).

But what made me really worried was when I read that C64 BBSes never developed true BBS artwork like that of the IBM PC. He continues to say that only some block-drawing characters were available. This is ignorant to say the least, and actually makes me doubt the accuracy of the rest of the text. To be honest, I skipped through it rather quickly after the Big Petscii Diss.

Anyway. Theoretically, it is rather technodeterministic. There is loads of technical explanations. Perhaps that’s because, as far as I understand, the author was a SysOp and not an ANSI-artist. He quotes a historian saying that the first-order constraints that govern the creation of art and the form it takes are the availability of materials and the ways in which these materials can be arranged to produce meaning. So Hargadon later concludes that the limitations of a given platform will define the forms of expression that can be sustained on it.

I like when the machine gets credit for what’s being done, but I think this is taking it too far. I think it’s problematic to differentiate between unavoidable and influential constraint, as Hargadon talks about. The first is supposedly a consequence of a discrete and fixed object (called platform) and the latter is a consequence of the overall technosocial system (called operating environment).

But computers are not fixed objects: they change. Hackers continue to ‘push the limits’ and sometimes we even call their attempts new innovations. But these features were always in the machine, obviously. It was merely the human understanding that was ‘pushed’ and not the machine.

We cannot define these machines objectively. There is always a human bias. It is particularly obvious with objects that are continuously abused by demosceners. There will soon be a new C64-demo that requires the emulator programmers to start working again. Or vice versa – the emulator programmers discover something that leads to new 1337 coder tricks.

What I mean in this context is that ANSI-art could be disconnected from the ANSI-standard just like the term ASCII-art was. People could make all kinds of crazy text mode graphics on BBS’s if they just added software support for interlaced frames, changing fonts, etc. After all, BBS-software was often developed by elite userz rather than companies.

If you want to read long academic texts about warez d00ds, I’d recommend Alf Rhen’s Electronic Potlatch. Nevertheless, this is a valuable contribution to science despite its narrow scope that disconnects it from all other forms of text art (graffiti is not even mentioned). And although I agree with Hargadon that modern social science requires the relaxation of .. the rules of historical evidence, it’s something that comes with a great responsibility.

6 Responses to “A thesis about ANSI that hates PETSCII”

  1. Michael Hargadon Says:

    “What I mean in this context is that ANSI-art could be disconnected from the ANSI-standard just like the term ASCII-art was. People could make all kinds of crazy text mode graphics on BBS’s if they just added software support for interlaced frames, changing fonts, etc. After all, BBS-software was often developed by elite userz rather than companies.”

    But they didn’t, which I suppose is my point, or at least one of them: ANSI art developed in the way and into the form that it did because the ingredients required for its success were baked into the platform upon which the form emerged, namely the fact that the block-drawing characters common to codepage 437 were built into the BIOS and the software required to do cursor positioning and color changes were built into the OS. By the time the kind of networking technology that permitted full ANSI menuing and nice, long screeners to be displayed without overwhelming the pipe and destroying the user experience came into vogue, ie. modems at (at a bare minimum) 9600 baud or above, the C64 was a dead letter in North America and the Amiga had been relegated to a very small share of the market.

    I probably missed it, but I didn’t find anywhere near an equivalent number of PETSCII art archives as I did ANSI archives, a fact that relates directly to the popularity of the IBM PC and the ease with which the platform (and other constraints discussed at length in the thesis) encouraged this form of expression. You could probably do video editing on a C64, but no one did . . . why would one? There was no market need for this, no popular impulse for it, and the constraints of the platform would make such expression exceedingly difficult. While any computing platform can implement any algorithm that can fit in memory or can be paged into it, the likelihood of anyone bothering to do so is constrained by the difficulty of the implementation and the fruits one might expect to reap from the act.

    Technological determinism (the system rules!) and hacker-ethos determinism (the only limits on the system are my own imagination and expertise!) are equally fallacious if the purpose of the explanation offered is to explain, pragmatically, why things happened the way they did. I wasn’t attempting to write a paen to hackers, nor to write about graffiti or typewriters, nor to offer anything other than a narrow, technical explanation, nor to provide the final word on ANSI. I instead wanted to write one academic explanation, to my knowledge one of the first, to explain some aspect of computer history to a decidedly non-technical lay audience of historians, and to encourage just the sort of criticism you present here. This is all to the good.

    The only aspect I take exception to is the following misquote — “And although I agree with Hargadon that modern social science ‘requires the relaxation of .. the rules of historical evidence,’ it’s something that comes with a great responsibility,” [195]. It’s rather apparent, or at least I thought it was, that what I aimed at in that paragraph and broadly throughout the work was to demonstrate that “[h]istory can be written using the kind of short-lived, difficult-to-authenticate sources that are created in ever-greater numbers as information interchange and community participation moves away from physically-bounded documents and towards those that exist solely in the virtual domain” [196]. Contemporary historians have a hard time dealing with digital documents, which present unique challenges in the area of authentication and incorporation into narrative. The challenge of avoiding incorrect statements (PETSCII’s codepage, as an example) is not a new one. :)


    • goto80 Says:

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your reply!

      I think we both agree that the technology (its limitations and potentials) influence the creative processes a lot more than most people would like to think about. It’s obvious to most hobby/hacker movements and has been played with a lot in digital art, but it usually leads to a pointless argument about for example determinism versus hacker-ethos, that you mention above. I’m interested in getting out of that loop, which means to synthesize the cultural understandings with the ‘objective’ descriptions. So, this is why I reacted the way I did to your thesis.

      Indeed, petscii is very badly documented. It’s strange – since you can draw petscii graphics once second after you push the on-button of a C64 – but not surprising, because everything that surrounds petscii is rather ignored in academia (commodore, bbs, demoscene, etc). My favourite place to watch petscii is to telnet to Antidote and go to the C/G sub board. You get the full context with slow speeds, strange messages with lots of ugly penises, and so on. And in the end, I think this is something that can might aswell stay outside of academia. I could never describe what this culture really ‘is’ so perhaps it’s better to just live it.

      I agree with your view on methodology. But your statements about petscii made me think that you’d not even seen any petscii graphics and even if that says more about me than you (that I’m a sucker for petscii and get childishly hurt by any misconceptions, hehe) I think those kinds of interpretations should be avoided, especially when the sources are more ephemeral or dodgy.

      ANYWAY – I’d like to thank you for this research. Your work is definitely important, and I thank you for giving us an insight into the ANSI-world!

  2. A thesis about ANSI that hates PETSCII | Logicamp Says:

    […] rather odd, occasionally. Perhaps because it’s North American? For example… »Via chipflip.wordpress.com Partager :Facebook Ce contenu a été publié dans Non classé. Vous pouvez le mettre en favoris […]

  3. RedNight Says:

    Even in North America the IBM PC was looked down upon as a business machines for lamers with Lotus 123 till 90ish. The North American scene never developed a significant Amiga scene which was largely due to Commodore’s own failure to sell the machine to hobbyists. The 80s to about 91 hobbyists and the BBS scene was predominately Apple II and Commodore.

    The whole thesis is centred around early to mid 90s North American BBS scene like most of Jason Scotts collection is. All it takes to find a decent amount of CBM related work is to point your browser in the direction of Europe.

    Even just skipping over to the Apple II archives even with only using Jason’s collection it’s not hard to figure out that the IBM PC was not the hobbyist machine of choice till the early 90s. It’s also not hard to find to find significant examples of Apple II art on Jason’s site either.

    Half the thesis seems to be justification for the PC clone industry, ignoring that large amount of it’s success was do to heavy use of third world labour and little to none engineering cost. If it stuck to it’s main focus point in instead justifying PCs and ragging on other (better) systems that it would be much better.

    The CBM character set is actually intended for doing basic graphics, and was used heavily in many Commodore apps and on Commodore boards. Of course to actually see any of it you have to god forbid use a Commodore or at least an emulator. Who would think that non-PCs don’t have the PCs font. Actually the Amiga’s font has been converted to a PC font, and it’s not used for the Amiga .DIZ files.

    p.s. Jason Scott’s ongoing collections is pretty awesome.

    • goto80 Says:

      Ah, a bit of platform wars :) I know very little about the US scene. But of course there was plenty of C= and AppleII-stuff (afaik, there were ‘pirate boards’ on the Apple II already in 1979). I think that C64 is a lot more suitable for text art compared to the PC. Otoh, that makes it even more interesting that so many people did ASCII-things on PC.

      • RedNight Says:

        I agree the PC text art scene was quite interesting, and historically significant. The part I have issue with is the unfounded dissing of C=, the brush over of Apple ][, and the long winded PC sales pitch.

        I make no denial that I am a Commodore kid, and still love those machines. In reality the North America scene was Apple ][ first, and Commodore second. The scene throughout the late 70s and 80s thought of IBM as being the great enemy of the microcomputer revolution(they weren’t, but it was the prevailing attitude of the culture and a well documented fact).

        When the Amiga came out Commodore in North America thought the machine should be marketed as businesses computer and not a everyones computer. Part of what they did id they decided not to sell the machine in the hobbyist, department, gaming stores etc that did carry the 8bit system. This made the machine unavailable to a lot of C= users.

        At roughly the same time Taiwan 386 clone boards started becoming available relatively cheaply; and also available in most electronics orientated hobbyists shops. The scene didn’t accept Apple’s Macintosh readily, and the Amiga was not available to hobbyists in many places. It was also readily apparent that 8bit machines were running out of steam by 90ish.

        The AppleCat modem was actually designed Cap’n Crunch and was huge part of the North American scene. You are correct that (insert noun of choice: scene / underground / pirate / hack / phreak ) boards have existed since the late 70s. My personal memories really start late 80s.

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