Who decides what “intended uses” are?

For the last year or so, there has been a growing mainstream critique of social media. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors are raising their concerns about what Facebook and other cyber gangs are doing to society. See for example the Center for Humane Technology. The recent concerns are often embedded in a discourse that “Russia” has abused Facebook to influence voting. But did they really abuse it? Or did they merely use it, as an article in WIRED recently put it?

It’s an important distinction, which has everything to do with how we talk about chip music and low-tech art. I’m doing a talk in Utrecht this summer, which has brought me back to these ideas. And they feel highly relevant now, with discussions about what social media are and how they should or should not be used.

Once upon a time the App Store rejected a Commodore 64 emulator because its BASIC interpreter could be used to program stuff. That was unacceptable at the time, but these policies later changed to allow the fierce power of C64 BASIC. It makes the point clear enough: what the iPhone and other iOS-devices can do is not just conditioned by its hardware. The possibilities of a programmable computer are there, only hidden or obscured. But there are ways to get around it.

And this is true for all kinds of hardware. Maybe today it’s even true for cars, buildings and pacemakers. There are possibilities that have not yet been discovered. We rarely have a complete understanding of what a platform is. My talk in Utrecht will focus on how the chip- and demoscenes over time have unfolded the platforms that they use. What is possible today was not possible yesterday. Even though the platforms are physically the same, our understanding – and “objective definitions” of them change. And it almost seems like the emulators will never be complete?

With a less object-oriented definition of these platforms, it’s reasonable to define the 8-bit platforms not only as the platform itself, but as an assemblage of SD-card readers, emulators and other more-or-less standard gadgets for contemporary artists and coders. The Gameboy, for example, might have been an inter-passive commodity at first, but after development kits were released, it changed. It used to be really difficult or expensive to get access to its guts, but now it’s relatively easy. So it might be time to stop framing Gameboy music – and most other chip music – as something subversive; something that goes against the “intended uses” of the platforms.

Sure, the Gameboy was probably not designed for this, in the beginning. And Facebook was probably not designed to leak data, influence elections, and make people feel like shit. But that’s not really the point. These possibilities were always there, and they always will be. But perhaps the Center for Humane Technology will push such materialist mumbo jumbo to the side, and re-convince people of the “awesomeness” of social media.

 

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