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.