I was in Montréal for the I/O Symposium and gave the talk What Can We Learn From the Demoscene? In 45 minutes I explained everything about the scene and explained what other fields could learn from it.
Or well, not exactly. I tried to give a broad view, but I zoomed in on four key points:
1. Computing as craft. The idea that code (and music and graphics) requires skills and knowledge about the material you are using. The techne is more important than the art, and the human is more important than the machine. Basically. This means that the scene is making computing sustainable, when most others are not and the internet already seems to require nuclear power to live.
2. Non-recorded formats. Releasing things as code rather than recordings gives very different possibilities. Scene productions are not products – removed from the platform once it’s finished – no, they are states of the machine (Botz). There are countless archives of data that future researches can unleash heavy data analysis on. What will the recording industry offer to future researchers? Not much. Especially not if they maintain their stance on copyright and related rights.
3. Collective copyright system. There has always been a tension around ownership in the scene. Early on there might have been plenty of anti-copyright among crackers, but later sceners who wanted to protect their works had a much more conservative stance. I exemplified this through the Amiga mod-scene, where artists sampled records and claimed ownership to the samples. “Don’t steal my samples” like it says in many a mod-file. On the other hand, the mod-format made it extremely easy for anyone to take those samples, or that cool bassline, or whatever else they might fancy. The remix culture was present in the materiality, but the scene resisted it for various reasons. They developed a praxis where artists who transgressed – who borrowed too much, or in a wrong way – would be shamed in public and have their status lowered. This sounds brutal and even primitive, but copyright praxis today means that you can do whatever you want if you have the capital for it. Which is perhaps not much better?
4. A bounded culture. There is a sense of detachment from the rest of society in the scene. The crackers and traders broke laws, the sysops didn’t want journalists sneaking around in their bulletin boards, and some artists follow the idea of “what’s made in the scene stays in the scene”. Some online forums today do not accept members if they are not sceners. And so on. There are all kinds of problems with this attitude, but it also meant that the scene could let their traditions and rituals take root, over a long period of time. Without it, it’s harder to imagine that kids in the 1990’s could maintain a network culture on their own, even before the www was commercialized. The question is, though, how many teenagers today are interested in all those obscure traditions and rituals?
Building on talks I’ve had with Gleb Albert, I also talked shortly about the neoliberal tendencies in the scene. How meritocracy and competition was so important, how groups were sometimes run as businesses with leaders and creatives and workers, and how there was a dream of having a network culture where The Man was not involved.
Discussions followed about how the neoliberal tendencies were different in the North American demoscene. In America, they said, people got into cracking games and making demos with a goal set on making a career and making money. I think this is one of the topics that Gleb Albert is looking into (in Europe), especially the connections between the cracking scene and the games industry.
There were also discussions about what I’ve called the collective copyright system. Some people in the audience talked about how coders would secretly look at other people’s code (because, again, that’s possible due to the formats used) and take inspiration from it. I’m sure most sceners did this at one point or another. But the point is that it wasn’t considered positive like in remix cultures such as hip-hop, vaporwave or plunderphonics. That tension between the Open and the Closed is probably something we need to understand better when we develop post-copyright networks in the digital.