Rewiring the History of the Demoscene: Wider Screen

skenet-scenes-petscii

Wider Screen has just released a themed issue on scene research, including scientific articles on the demoscene and the chipscene. It seems to be some very good texts, although I’ve only read one so far. So let’s talk about that one!

Markku Reunanen gives a long-awaited critical examination of the history of the demoscene in How Those Crackers Became Us Demosceners. He notes that the traditional story is basically that people cracked games, made intros for them, and then started to make demos. He problematizes this boring story by describing different overlaps between the worlds of games, demos and cracks. The first time I really reflected on this issue was in Daniel Botz’ dissertation. It is indeed obvious that this is a complex story full of conflicting narratives, and we can assume that (as always) The History is based on the current dominant discourses.

What do I mean with that? Well, take Sweden as an example, where the scene was always quite large. These days the scene is usually, when it is mentioned at all, described as a precursor to games, digital arts and other computer-related parts of “the creative industries“. When Fairlight’s 25-year-anniversary was reported in the Swedish mainstream media, cracking was portrayed as a legal grey area that contributed to the BNP. The forth-coming Swedish book Generation 64 seems to be telling a similar story. The scene was a bunch of kids who might have done some questionable things, but since these people are now found in Swedish House Mafia, Spotify and DICE it seems like all is forgiven. But it’s not.

Look at what the other sceners are doing today. The ones who didn’t get caught up in IT, advertising and academia. Piratbyrån, The Pirate Bay and Megaupload all involved scene people and, from the previous story, appears as a darker side of the scene. The data hippies, the copyists, the out-of-space artists, the dissidents, the fuck-ups. The people who don’t have much to gain from their scene history. But also the BBS-nazis (one of them living close to me) is interesting to consider today, when far-right discussion boards are frequently mentioned in the media. The info-libertarians at Flashback also remind me of the scene’s (in a very broad sense) spirit of “illegal information” and VHS-snuff movies that I mention in The Forgotten Pioneers of Creative Hacking and Social Networking (2009). Something else I mention there, as does Reunanen, are the swappers and traders whose sole function was to copy software around the world. But they are not really part of the history since they weren’t doing that Creative and Original work that we seem to value so dearly today.

No, the scene wasn’t a harmless place for boys-2-men, from geeks to CEOs. And also – there were plenty of people making weird stuff with home computers that were not part of the scene. People at Compunet were making audiovisual programs that looked really similar to the demoscene’s, but are usually not regarded as part of the scene. Possibly because of its apparent disconnection from the cracker scene. I’ve sometimes seen STE argue about this with sceners at CSDb. Jeff Minter did demo-like things, and people had been doing demo-like computer works for decades already. And all the hobbyists who wrote simple or strange sonic and visual experiments on their 8-bit home computers, but never released it in the scene? Well, they are effectively being distanced and erased from the history of the demoscene by not being included in archives like CSDb and HVSC that exclude “irrelevant” things.

So yeah – thumbs up to Markku for this article! Let’s not forget the provocative and subversive elements of the scene (read more about that in the 2009-article I link to above) because they might become very relevant sooner than we think.

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