Matthew Kirschenbaum: Good after­noon every­one. Thanks for com­ing out for anoth­er Digital Dialogue. It’s my plea­sure to intro­duce you to Dr. Lori Emerson, assis­tant pro­fes­sor of English at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Lori is heav­i­ly asso­ci­at­ed, as many of you know, with the emerg­ing media archae­ol­o­gy move­ment but she was in fact trained in the Poetics pro­gram at SUNY Buffalo, and this is not the dis­con­nect it might at first seem. 

Working very much in the tra­di­tion of fig­ures such as Johanna Drucker and Marjorie Perloff, Lori under­stands poet­ry as media and indeed media, through its capac­i­ty to offer resis­tive and frankly dif­fi­cult expe­ri­ences, as poet­ry. All of us who fol­low her in this work are eager­ly await­ing the pub­li­ca­tion of her first mono­graph Reading Writing Interfaces, which is com­ing out in June [2014] from Minnesota. The book, how­ev­er, is only a par­tial index of the extent of Lori’s intel­lec­tu­al lead­er­ship. Its coun­ter­part exists in her inno­v­a­tive, demand­ing, and already highly-influential work with the University of Colorado’s Media Archaeology Lab, an enti­ty which she con­ceived, estab­lished, and now directs. 

Lori has amassed dozens of vin­tage com­put­ers. Her col­lec­tion absolute­ly dwarfs MITH’s out­side. They range from a rare and pre­cious Apple I to such main­stays of the per­son­al com­put­er rev­o­lu­tion as Commodores, Kaypros, and Macs, and she also col­lects soft­ware, doc­u­men­ta­tion, and ephemera. If you’ve been there to see it, it takes the breath away. And this work has been rec­og­nized by enti­ties includ­ing both the Library of Congress and the Internet Archive.

Lori thus comes to us at the end of the begin­ning of a career that has very quick­ly estab­lished her as one of the cen­tral fig­ures in the con­ver­sa­tion around media mate­ri­al­i­ty, texts, and tech­nolo­gies. In addi­tion to Reading Writing Interfaces, 2014 has also already seen the pub­li­ca­tion of The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media, which she co-edited, and thus the fliers we’ve circulated. 

So today we have the priv­i­lege of hear­ing some of her newest work, and I think I can do no bet­ter than the epi­thet that Bruce Sterling and William Gibson bestowed on Ada Lovelace in their por­tray­al in The Difference Engine. Please wel­come Lori Emerson, The Queen of Engines.

Lori Emerson: Thank you so much every­one for being here. It is a gen­uine hon­or for me to be here. I’ve fol­lowed MITH from afar and admired it very much for quite a num­ber of years now. So it is great to be here.

What I’d like to do for prob­a­bly the next 40 to 45 min­utes is just first of all talk about how Reading Writing Interfaces as well as the Media Archaeology Lab under­lie my next/current project that I’m call­ing Other Networks,” which will lead me into an expla­na­tion of my kind of mys­te­ri­ous title There Is No Internet.” And I’ll fin­ish with talk­ing about spe­cif­ic exam­ples of oth­er net­works. When I say oth­er net­works” I’m talk­ing pri­mar­i­ly about net­works that were out­side or before what we now call The Internet. So if you don’t mind I’m going to start first by talk­ing about Reading Writing Interfaces and just sort of con­nect­ing the dots between that and what I’m doing now.

Facsimile reproduction of Emily Dickinson's pinned poem A91-14a, "We met as Sparks - Diverging Flints"

Facsimile repro­duc­tion of Emily Dickinson’s pinned poem A91-14a, We met as Sparks — Diverging Flints

For the last three years or so I’ve been immersed in work­ing through a Russian doll-like com­plex of nest­ed ideas that I’m actu­al­ly still work­ing through. A lot of the basic ideas for my cur­rent project actu­al­ly emerged in an essay I wrote in 2008—which is kind of hard to believe—called My Digital Dickinson. This was my first attempt to read old­er media and new­er media against each oth­er. In this case it was read­ing Emily Dickinson’s fas­ci­cles, or her lit­tle hand-made, hand-sewn, hand-written book­lets against dig­i­tal media, draw­ing on a range of dig­i­tal poems that I thought were self-conscious about their inter­face. The point was not to say that if Emily Dickinson could she would’ve pro­duced hyper­text poems, and the point was not to say there’s this nice neat lin­ear arc run­ning from her work in the late 19th cen­tu­ry to the present, but rather I want­ed to sort of refa­mil­iar­ize con­tem­po­rary dig­i­tal inter­faces and the way they’re rapid­ly mov­ing toward reduc­ing read­ers and writ­ers into con­sumers whose access to the machine is lim­it­ed to the sur­face gloss of a near­ly invis­i­ble, sup­pos­ed­ly intu­itive, inter­face. So I was try­ing to unset­tle this well-trodden lin­ear nar­ra­tive of tech­no­log­i­cal progress by swing­ing back and forth between the 19th cen­tu­ry and the present moment. I tried to posi­tion Dickinson not only as a poet work­ing through the lim­its and the pos­si­bil­i­ties of pen, pen­cil, and paper as inter­face but also one through which we can read 21st cen­tu­ry dig­i­tal lit­er­ary texts. This is one exam­ple of a dig­i­tal lit­er­ary text that I talk about:

My [inaudi­ble] is that this back and forth between past and present had the poten­tial to be dis­rup­tive, as I already men­tioned. Disrupting this nar­ra­tive of tech­no­log­i­cal improve­ment that seems to be dri­ving the dis­ap­pear­ance of the dig­i­tal com­put­er inter­face under the guise of the user-friendly. So over and over again we’re told that com­put­ers are only get­ting eas­i­er, more intu­itive, and more nat­ur­al to use, or at least so the sto­ry goes, until you either try to exact­ly under­stand how your dig­i­tal device works or until you try to cre­ate out­side a cor­po­ra­tion’s rigid devel­op­er guide­lines, or until you come up against the impos­si­bil­i­ty of work­ing with a closed device whose seam­less,” nat­ur­al,” and intu­itive user inter­face does­n’t in any way con­form to your own sense of nature or intu­ition. And it can’t be rebuilt, remade, or reassem­bled in your own image because in com­put­ing, words like seam­less” and nat­ur­al” are code for closed.”

So the essay on Dickinson became the seed for most of the work I’ve done since then. In Reading Writing Interfaces I argue that Dickinson’s fas­ci­cles, as much as writ­ers use of mid-20th cen­tu­ry type­writ­ers and late 20th and 21st cen­tu­ry dig­i­tal com­put­ers, are now slow­ly but sure­ly reveal­ing them­selves as media whose func­tion­ing depends on an inter­face that defines the nature of read­ing as much as writing.

Here’s a dirty con­crete type­writ­ten poem from 1973 by a Canadian poet named Bill Bissett.

Bill Bissett's "a pome in praise of all quebec bombers" (1973)

Bill Bissett’s a pome in praise of all que­bec bombers” (1973)

This is some­thing that I talk about in the third chap­ter. I talk about type­writ­ten dirty con­crete poems as instances of media poet­ics. These poets are work­ing with and against the affor­dances of the type­writer, very much the same was as Internet artists might be work­ing against and with the Internet.

And this is anoth­er exam­ple, Jason Nelson’s very messy aes­thet­ic where he’s work­ing against the clean aes­thet­ic of the web.

Screenshot from Jason Nelson's digital game-poem "Game, Game, Game and Again Game" (2007)

Screenshot from Jason Nelson’s dig­i­tal game-poem Game, Game, Game and Again Game” (2007)

So nowa­days, inter­face actu­al­ly acts as a kind of magi­cian’s cape con­tin­u­al­ly reveal­ing through con­ceal­ing, and con­ceal­ing as it reveals, and with the advent of so-called interface-free devices such as Google Glass and the iPad, and when I say interface-free” I mean it in the sense that they brag that there’s no instruc­tion man­u­al, and in the sense of Apple’s and Google’s favorite mar­ket­ing slo­gan of the moment, It just works.” Largely what’s at issue in Reading Writing Interfaces is reveal­ing what these dig­i­tal devices are con­ceal­ing. I show how invis­i­ble” and user-friendly” are used quite delib­er­ate­ly to dis­tort real­i­ty by con­vinc­ing users that these inter­faces are the only viable option for users who aren’t already pro­gram­mers. Interfaces that depend on and then cel­e­brate the devices entire­ly closed-off both to the user and to any under­stand­ing of it through this glossy inter­face. So the mes­sage is con­sis­tent­ly this: Either you let us make it easy for you, or trust us you’ll be swim­ming in a sea of non-standard com­pet­ing tech­nolo­gies that depend on your being a hack­er.”

One of the key chap­ters of my book, which is chap­ter two, returns to man­u­als, pop­u­lar mag­a­zines, jour­nal arti­cles, and tech­ni­cal reports by com­pa­nies like Xerox and Apple, and also adver­tise­ments from the ear­ly 70s through the mid-80s, to look at oth­er ver­sions of user-friendly that were being pro­posed in the con­text of inter­face design. In oth­er words, what I look at is the philoso­phies dri­ving debates in the tech indus­try about the need for user-friendly, stan­dard­ized inter­faces, and the con­se­quences of the move from the command-line inter­face in the ear­ly 80s to the first main­stream windows-based inter­face intro­duced by Apple in the mid-80s. My argu­ment for this chap­ter, which becomes a kind of touch­stone for the whole book, is that this move from a phi­los­o­phy of com­put­ing based on belief in the impor­tance of open and exten­si­ble hard­ware (In oth­er words you could lift up the lid of the com­put­er, you can swap boards in and out, you can do all kinds of things.) The move­ment from that to the broad adop­tion of the sup­pos­ed­ly user-friendly graph­i­cal user inter­face, which is real­ly exem­pli­fied by the Apple Macintosh that came out in 1984, that was not exact­ly her­met­i­cal­ly sealed, but users were warned that they might get an elec­tri­cal shock if they tried to open it up. This was appar­ent­ly actu­al­ly a tech­ni­cal glitch, but I think it was a con­ve­nient way to real­ly dis­cour­age peo­ple from open­ing up their com­put­ers. This shift from one to the oth­er fun­da­men­tal­ly shaped the com­put­ing land­scape and inau­gu­rat­ed the era we’re liv­ing through right now in which users and writ­ers and artists in par­tic­u­lar have lit­tle or no access to how our devices actu­al­ly work.

That book project as well as what I’m work­ing on right now have emerged from think­ing through media archae­ol­o­gy as Matt already men­tioned, as well as build­ing, curat­ing, and tin­ker­ing in the Media Archaeology Lab. Media archae­ol­o­gy has con­tin­ued to real­ly res­onate with me, part­ly because of the way that cer­tain the­o­rists use it to under­take, as Geert Lovink puts it[PDF], A hermeneu­tic read­ing of the new against the grain of the past, rather than telling his­to­ries of tech­nol­o­gy from past to present.” So on the whole, media archae­ol­o­gy does­n’t try to reveal the present as an inevitable con­se­quence of the past but instead it tries to describe the present as one pos­si­bil­i­ty gen­er­at­ed out of a het­ero­ge­neous range of possibilities.

The oth­er aspect of media archae­ol­o­gy that I draw from a lot is its inter­est in keep­ing alive what Siegried Zielinski calls variantol­ogy, or the dis­cov­ery of indi­vid­ual vari­a­tions in the use or abuse of media. He is espe­cial­ly inter­est­ed in vari­a­tions that defy this move that I’ve already sort of touched on toward stan­dard­iza­tion and uni­for­mi­ty in our dig­i­tal com­put­ing devices. Following Zielinsky, I con­tin­ued to be inter­est­ed in uncov­er­ing media phe­nom­e­na as a way to avoid rein­stat­ing this mod­el of media his­to­ry that sup­ports nar­ra­tives of progress and that almost total­ly neglects dead ends in media, neglect­ed media, failed media, dead media of all kinds.

MAL Vectrex Gaming Console (1982-1984)

MAL Vectrex Gaming Console (19821984)

This can take the shape of dis­cov­er­ing alter­na­tive hard­ware or soft­ware but it can also take the shape of, as I’ll talk about in a minute, look­ing at telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions net­works that nev­er came to be. I can see this notion of variantol­ogy reg­u­lar­ly come to life as dona­tions come into the Media Archaeology Lab. They’re (I find them to be often beau­ti­ful and clunky) odd­i­ties that come into the Lab, usu­al­ly by own­ers who have some sort of pre­scient sense of the val­ue of their beloved machine that was almost cer­tain­ly a com­mer­cial fail­ure. One of my favorite exam­ples to demon­strate this is this Vectrex Gaming Console. I think it was actu­al­ly only pro­duced for a year, maybe a year and half, and it uses vec­tor graph­ics and you can see there on the left that it has a light pen. This is a great exam­ple of some­thing from the past that in many ways works bet­ter than what we have now. It’s much eas­i­er to use. I’ve used this Vectrex to cre­ate ani­ma­tions in a cou­ple of min­utes. It’s true that it does­n’t have the speed of con­tem­po­rary devices, but I don’t think speed needs to be the only cri­te­ria for better.

With a bit of fund­ing and the help of a small army of vol­un­teers and a cou­ple intre­pid grad stu­dents, the Lab has real­ly built up its col­lec­tion in the last cou­ple of years. I think we house up to 1500 indi­vid­ual items right now. That includes games, man­u­als, print­ed mat­ter of all kinds, hard­ware and soft­ware. I’m try­ing to focus the Lab on the his­to­ry of per­son­al com­put­ing so we do have an Altair com­put­er from 1975 or 76, through to the late 90s. But I’ve also had a hard time say­ing no to oth­er ana­log odd­i­ties that find their way to the lab. The Fisk plan­e­tar­i­um on cam­pus donat­ed some mag­ic lanterns and pro­jec­tors to us. We have a mag­ic lantern from 1907 that still works per­fect­ly fine. So that is one of the many com­pelling argu­ments that could be made from the lab, is how…the notion of planned obso­les­cence, right? We have com­put­ers in the lab that are thir­ty years old that work per­fect­ly and in their own way they do pro­vide ele­gant solu­tions to present problems.

MAL early Apple Computer Collection

MAL ear­ly Apple Computer Collection

This is our ear­ly Apple com­put­er col­lec­tion. The com­put­er on the left, you can see there’s a lit­tle some­thing pok­ing up here, that’s the Apple I. It’s not an orig­i­nal Apple I, I’m sor­ry to say. We have a net­work admin­is­tra­tor on cam­pus who loves the lab and so he built us that Apple I replica.

So far I’ve touched on three lines of thought in Reading Writing Interfaces and now that I’ve arrived at my next project I have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to work through some of these lines of thought in a dif­fer­ent con­text. As of this past September I’ve been work­ing on a two-part book project that again I’m call­ing Other Networks. It’s a kind of net­work archae­ol­o­gy of the his­to­ry of telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions net­works that pre-date the Internet or exist out­side of the Internet. Networks that were imag­ined, planned, and cre­at­ed right along­side this tumul­tous his­to­ry of the user-friendly inter­faces and per­son­al computing.

So first from the stan­dard­iza­tion and then dis­ap­pear­ance of the dig­i­tal com­put­er inter­face under the guise of the user-friendly, we get the stan­dard­iza­tion of net­work pro­to­cols in the 1980s and now the de fac­to dis­ap­pear­ance of the Internet through its ubiq­ui­ty and its hid­den, mys­te­ri­ous under­pin­nings. From the ide­ol­o­gy of the user-friendly, we get the corporate-driven cel­e­bra­tion of the so-called free­dom we’re grant­ed by ubiq­ui­tous com­put­ing; wear­ables like Google Glass, and cloud com­put­ing which all just works, we’re told over and over again, so we nev­er have to know how it works, where our data goes, how our online inter­ac­tions are watched and lever­aged. I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to use Google Glass for three weeks, and I got a real good taste of how exact­ly that works as I just acci­den­tal­ly ran­dom­ly sent things to Twitter and Facebook and all kinds of things. And third, from the use of nar­ra­tives of progress to pro­mote this ide­ol­o­gy of free­dom through the user-friendly, we get a mis­lead­ing, extreme­ly US-centric nar­ra­tive about how the” Internet came into being based on an often false bina­ry that’s put for­ward from the 1960s that pits the square bureau­crats at ARPANET against coun­ter­cul­tur­al non-conformists cre­at­ing open net­works around Berkeley, and that cel­e­brates decen­tral­ized con­trol in the Internet by call­ing it open and free.

MAL Apple Desktop Computer Collection

MAL Apple Desktop Computer Collection

More Apples. That’s the Apple Lisa on the left, which came out in 1983 for ten thou­sand dol­lars. And that was the first afford­able” main­stream graph­i­cal user inter­face. So ten thou­sand in 1983 dol­lars is about twenty-one thou­sand in 2014.

Audience: Where is the cube?

Lori Emerson: The NeXT cube?

Audience: The Mac Cube. We’re see­ing up to the lamp-like iMac, but they also made that won­der­ful­ly beau­ti­ful cube.

Lori: I remem­ber. I just dis­play what peo­ple give me. If you have one…

Audience: I actu­al­ly do.

Lori: Fascinating.

Audience: How big is your carry-on?

Lori: Limitless, for today.

So just to explain my skep­ti­cism toward free and open, I recent­ly came across a great exam­ple of the way the cel­e­bra­tion of and advo­ca­cy for free­dom online nowa­days is used in the ser­vice of this late cap­i­tal­ist, decen­tral­ized con­trol. And in this case ubiq­ui­tous sur­veil­lance in a grow­ing num­ber of cities around the world is now actu­al­ly used to sub­si­dize free wifi, and the lat­est addi­tion is small city in Israel called Ramat HaSharon in which a free wifi pro­gram was cre­at­ed not as a deci­sion by city offi­cials to sup­port or empow­er its cit­i­zens, but actu­al­ly as a byprod­uct of its appar­ent­ly benign-sounding project called Safe City. This was designed to allow city offi­cials to quick­ly respond to cat­a­stro­phes and emer­gen­cies as well as, as one reporter put it, ensure civic safe­ty and increase real estate val­ues through a sur­veil­lance net­work of cam­eras and sophis­ti­cat­ed com­mu­ni­ca­tions.” This of course sounds very sim­i­lar to NSA offi­cials’ attempts to pro­tect their abil­i­ty to con­tin­ue mass sur­veil­lance because the log­ic is that they’re pro­tect­ing the US from ter­ror­ist attacks.

When I was research­ing Reading Writing Interfaces, I was con­tin­u­al­ly and maybe naïve­ly floored by how late cap­i­tal­ism makes pos­si­ble these per­fect rever­sals in the com­put­ing indus­try. But now I see how any dig through pre-internet his­to­ry inevitably turns up yet more rever­sals, so that when we look at these free wifi pro­grams what we’re real­ly see­ing is the end result of an almost total hollowing-out of free and open as a way to describe ear­ly net­works, and then their makeovers so that while nowa­days free and open Internet can occa­sion­al­ly be used to coor­di­nate mass action, more often than not this free and open Internet is the enabling tech­nol­o­gy for com­mu­nica­tive capitalism.

So now final­ly we arrive at the title of my talk, There Is No Internet,” because I found that trac­ing both the turn­ing, twist­ing ety­mol­o­gy of The Internet” to when it was just referred to as Internet” and then Internetwork” while also using writ­ers’ and artists’ exper­i­ments on and through net­works as case stud­ies, this actu­al­ly pro­vides a through­line to the messy, con­tra­dic­to­ry roots of the Internet. The Internet as a sin­gu­lar homoge­nous enti­ty that peo­ple con­stant­ly intone came after or out of ARPANET, this Internet actu­al­ly nev­er real­ly exist­ed. It was instead until fair­ly recent­ly, and pos­si­bly maybe not even now, a lot of dif­fer­ent net­works with very diver­gent affordances.

One of the first books I read after I fin­ished writ­ing Reading Writing Interfaces was Howard Rheingold’s The Virtual Community and this was pub­lished in 1993 and was where I first noticed his strange use of Internet.” He kept refer­ring to Internet” with­out the the.” Over the com­ing months as I worked through man­u­als on Internet pro­to­cols, espe­cial­ly TCP/IP which was cre­at­ed in 1983 as the stan­dard lan­guage for net­works to com­mu­ni­cate to each oth­er, I could see how despite all the shoul­der shrugs in the lit­er­a­ture about where exact­ly the term the Internet” came from, that this term had actu­al­ly emerged from decades of het­ero­gene­ity. So from the Internet,” intro­duced to wide­spread usage as far as I’ve been able to tell in the so-called Bible for TCP/IP called Internetworking with TCP/IP, this was from 1988, to just Internet” to Internetwork” with the empha­sis on being a go-between between net­works, to Internetworking” as a verb, to Internetworking” as an adjec­tive to describe the process of trans­fer­ring pack­ets of infor­ma­tion to and from any kind of telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion network. 

So then the ques­tion became this: What were all these dif­fer­ent net­works that direct­ly or indi­rect­ly caused the cre­ation of TCP/IP and lat­er the Internet? What are the affor­dances of these net­works? What sort of com­mu­ni­ca­tion spaces did they make pos­si­ble or impos­si­ble? In oth­er words, how do these net­works work and for whom do they work for? And more dif­fi­cult to pin down, why do his­to­ries of the Internet almost always move direct­ly from the ARPANET of the late 60s to the cre­ation of the per­son­al com­put­er in the late 70s, to the cre­ation and wide­spread adop­tion of TCP/IP in the 80s, and then right to Tim Berners-Lee’s inven­tion of the Web in the ear­ly 90s, and what’s gained and what’s lost from this aston­ish­ing­ly inac­cu­rate, lop-sided narrative?

Other Networks is going to be com­prised of two com­pli­men­ta­ry parts, or at least so I hope. The first part that I’ve been focus­ing most on is called Fifty Years of Other Networks 20151965 so I’m going to con­tin­ue with this reverse chronol­o­gy that I real­ly enjoy. It’s in the lin­eage of a few crit­i­cal cre­ative hyper­me­dia stud­ies books that I know of. One is Avital Ronell’s The Telephone Book, and anoth­er is, I think it’s just called The Book of Dead Media and it’s very very rare and extreme­ly expen­sive, not that I’m hop­ing mine will be expen­sive. As far as I know there’s only a small hand­ful of these crit­i­cal cre­ative media stud­ies books.

Fifty Years of Other Networks will be a cat­a­log of net­works exist­ing out­side of or pre­dat­ing the Internet, and I’m imag­in­ing that it’s a stack of unbound loose sheets of paper pack­aged in a box. Each sheet begin­ning with the present and mov­ing back into the past will pro­vide meta­da­ta of a sort, a descrip­tion, and a short analy­sis of an oth­er net­work” so that the mate­r­i­al form of the project allows read­ers to actu­al­ly active­ly dig through this net­work archaeology. 

The ana­lyt­i­cal aspect of the project will be dri­ven by a three-fold approach in that I look at the mate­r­i­al and tech­no­log­i­cal affor­dances of each net­work; the way they were con­ceived, mar­ket­ed, and sold; and I think a cru­cial com­po­nent of this has to be the way artists and writ­ers in par­tic­u­lar were work­ing with and against the fore­go­ing, because I just think that the way artists and writ­ers use these oth­er net­works real­ly pro­vides a great test case for how they were push­ing up against the lim­its of what was possible.

What I’d like to do next is just give you five short descrip­tions of dif­fer­ent net­works that are going to be in this collection.

Since the project moves from present to past, one of the first net­works to appear in the cat­a­log is called occu​py​.here, and this was cre­at­ed in 2012 in par­al­lel with the Occupy move­ment. Occupy​.here claims that it exists entire­ly out­side of the Internet. I think what they do is they use the Internet as a por­tal to go off of the Internet, and so it describes itself as inher­ent­ly resis­tant to sur­veil­lance. It con­sists of a wifi router near Zucotti Park in New York City and any­one with a smart­phone or a lap­top with­in range of it can access it through a por­tal web­site that then opens up onto what its cre­ators calls a kind of bul­letin board sys­tem on which users can share mes­sages and files. Occupy​.here is an exam­ple of what’s called a dark­net,” a net­work that uses non-standard pro­to­cols, anonymizes its users, and it cre­ates con­nec­tions only between trust­ed users. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, dark­nets have been viewed with great sus­pi­cion since the 1970s, when the US Military’s Advanced Research Projects Agency coined the term dark­net” to refer to net­works that were unavail­able over ARPANET. And then there was a fresh wave of con­cern about dark­nets in 2002 that maybe not so sur­pris­ing­ly came out of a group of Microsoft researchers. They pub­lished a paper called The Darknet and the Future of Content Distribution” argu­ing that the dark­net was the great­est stum­bling block to their abil­i­ty to con­trol the use of dig­i­tal con­tent and devices after they’d been sold to consumers.

As read­ers dig through these lay­ers of net­works in the cat­a­log, I think that they’ll prob­a­bly start to notice the way the reverse chronol­o­gy actu­al­ly turns out dis­tinct­ly non-linear and maybe more a recur­sive his­to­ry of net­works, where net­works emerge, dis­ap­pear, and reap­pear slight­ly cal­i­brat­ed. I just men­tioned that Occupy​.here is a kind of bul­letin board sys­tem, but a BBS is a net­work that emerged in the late 70s, and near­ly all his­to­ries of the Internet agree that BBSs died out with the intro­duc­tion of the World Wide Web in the ear­ly 1990s. But there were thou­sands, I think, thou­sands of BBSs that exist­ed and so I’m going to have to talk about them. Incredibly, despite the fact that there were thou­sands of them and they were pro­found­ly influ­en­tial, there’s only been a lot of self-published first-person accounts of BBSs and there’s a lot of enthu­si­asts online who like to rem­i­nisce about their years run­ning or par­tic­i­pat­ing in BBSs, but so far there’s been no media stud­ies book writ­ten on BBSs, which is prob­a­bly the most impor­tant telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions net­work of the 80s and 90s. Since the Lab is for­tu­nate enough to have that net­work admin­is­tra­tor that I men­tioned to you, we actu­al­ly now have a tele­phone line installed in the lab and we’re in the process of set­ting up our own BBS so that peo­ple can call in if they want. I real­ly think that noth­ing else is going to help me explore the dif­fi­cul­ties, and hope­ful­ly some joys, of run­ning a BBS than actu­al­ly try­ing to do it myself. 

Computerized Bulletin Board System (1978)

Computerized Bulletin Board System (1978)

The first BBS sys­tem was called the Computerized Bulletin Board System that came online in 1978. This is the best pic­ture I could find of it. It’s just the co-founder sit­ting beside his CBBS. It was orig­i­nal­ly con­ceived as a com­put­er­ized ver­sion of an ana­log bul­letin board for exchang­ing infor­ma­tion. Each BBS had a ded­i­cat­ed phone num­ber, which gen­er­al­ly meant that only one per­son could dial in at a time. Also, most BBSs were com­mu­ni­ties of local users because of how pro­hib­i­tive­ly expen­sive it was to make long-distance phone calls, and so these local users could use the BBS to cre­ate com­mu­ni­ties that actu­al­ly began on the BBS and then extend­ed out­wards geo­graph­i­cal­ly. They shared files, read news, exchanged mes­sages, played games, and even cre­at­ed art.

ANSI art, for exam­ple, was a pop­u­lar art form on BBSs. It’s sim­i­lar to ASCII art, which is what you’re look­ing at right here. I see it as a kind of computer-based visu­al poet­ry or form of writ­ing that can only use the 95 print­able char­ac­ters defined by ASCII. ANSI art, how­ev­er, is con­struct­ed from a larg­er set of 256 let­ters, num­bers, and sym­bols. I know there’s bet­ter exam­ples of ANSI art than the one I’m show­ing here.

One BBS that I’m par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in is called The Thing, and it’s a BBS that New York artist Wolfgang Staehle start­ed in 1991, and it was actu­al­ly just one month after Tim Berners-Lee launched the World Wide Web. It was used as a kind of online com­mu­ni­ty cen­ter for artists and writ­ers, a vir­tu­al exhi­bi­tion space, and lat­er a node in a net­work of inter­na­tion­al The Thing BBSs. But what real­ly inter­ests me about The Thing is the way in which the net­work itself was con­ceived of as an art­work, rather than any indi­vid­ual pieces of con­tent that were uploaded to it. I also want to men­tion that the MAL is for­tu­nate now to house a good por­tion of The Thing hard­ware, which Staehle donat­ed to us a month ago. Unfortunately he does­n’t remem­ber the user­name and the pass­word, and we haven’t been able to break in, but hope­ful­ly we’ll get around to that soon.

While we’ve not been suc­cess­ful in break­ing into any of the machines, I do think that the mate­r­i­al traces of one of the most impor­tant dig­i­tal art net­works are still mean­ing­ful, from the filth of the key­board on the SGI Indi from heavy use by its sys­tem admin­is­tra­tors, to the BBS num­bers affixed to the front of the machine, to the odd­i­ty of The Thing’s eSoft IPAD machine, which bears no resem­blance to the Apple iPad, but instead stands for Internet Protocol ADaptor.”

Here’s some odd facts about the eSoft IPAD. eSoft, I was stunned to find out, is actu­al­ly a Colorado-based com­pa­ny and it exist­ed just down the road from me in Boulder until December [2014] and I unfor­tu­nate­ly did­n’t find this out until January. One of their accom­plish­ments was the cre­ation of the IPAD, which is a won­der­ful kind of lim­i­nal tech­no­log­i­cal object, in that it tried to strad­dle pre-Internet net­works and the Internet itself. So eSoft start­ed out mak­ing a BBS sys­tem called the TBBS, for the Radio Shack TRS-80 com­put­er and lat­er for IBM PCs, and in fact before the Internet Microsoft used TBBS to pro­vide tech­ni­cal sup­port to their cus­tomers. In 1993 eSoft cre­at­ed this IPAD as a means to pro­vide access to the TBBS using Internet pro­to­cols. So the IPAD soon turned into what eSoft called an Internet in a box appli­ance” that gave com­pa­nies a way to have a pres­ence on the Internet with just one piece of equip­ment. That was their sell­ing point.

Since my work has always been North American-based rather than just American or Canadian, it’s been a thrill to dis­cov­er not only that a major­i­ty of pre-Internet writer and artists net­works were Canadian but also that these net­works were some of the most vibrant and influ­en­tial. I believe that one of the rea­sons for this inor­di­nate num­ber of Canadian net­works is that in 1983 Tom Sherman, who at that time was a video offi­cer for the Canada Council for the Arts, found­ed the Media Arts sec­tion and then launched what he called the Integrated Media Program, which was Canada’s first fund­ing pro­gram for dig­i­tal media arts. I think that real­ly put Canada almost at the top of fund­ing and cre­ation for artists and users of net­works. The pro­gram explic­it­ly sup­port­ed work that used new or unusu­al com­bi­na­tions of media and which had failed in the past to find sup­port. As Sherman put it in an inter­view a few months after the launch of the pro­gram, sound­ing very much to me like he was under the spell of Marshall McLuhan, It is always impor­tant for pub­lic mon­ey to be used in a way which either oppos­es or mis­us­es util­i­ties to a cer­tain degree…” It sort of makes me laugh, it’s so un-American, isn’t it? “…just to show that there is some poten­tial use for dif­fer­ent types of use for those systems.”

One of those sys­tems sup­port­ed by the Canada Council was ARTEX, orig­i­nal­ly called Artbox. This was found­ed in 1980 by Robert Adrian and Gottfried Bach in Vienna, and Bill Bartlett in Victoria and it last­ed until 1991, which is quite a long time. ARTEX, which stood for the Electronic Art Exchange Program was a sim­ple and cheap elec­tron­ic mail pro­gram designed to be used by artists and writ­ers inter­est­ed in what they called alter­na­tive uses of advanced tech­nol­o­gy.” The pro­gram and the net­work were pro­vid­ed by a com­pa­ny named I.P.Sharp Associates time­shar­ing net­work, which was based first in Toronto and then in Victoria, and which may not so sur­pris­ing­ly had some ties to the Canadian Navy. One exam­ple of a writer­ly use of the net­work is Norman White’s piece called Hearsay” from November 1985, which was a trib­ute to Canadian poet Robert Zend, who had died a few months ear­li­er. Robert Zend was known for being incred­i­bly pro­lif­ic but also cre­at­ing real­ly beau­ti­ful works of type­writer art or type­s­tracts or what­ev­er term you want to use. One of his most famous works is called ARBORMUNDI.” Hearsay” builds on this text that Robert Zend wrote in 1975:


Norman White’s Hearsay” on the oth­er hand was an event based on the chil­dren’s game of Telephone where a mes­sage is whis­pered from one per­son to anoth­er and arrives back at its ori­gin, usu­al­ly hilar­i­ous­ly gar­bled. Zend’s text was sent around the world in twenty-four hours, rough­ly fol­low­ing the sun via the IP​.Sharp Associates glob­al com­put­er net­work and each of the eight par­tic­i­pat­ing cen­ters was charged with trans­lat­ing the mes­sage into a dif­fer­ent lan­guage before send­ing it on. This is the final ver­sion that arrived in Toronto.







Norman White, Hearsay” (1985)

I think it’s a great exam­ple of media and seman­tic noise.

Community Memory Project (1973-1975)

Community Memory Project (19731975)

I found that the clos­er to the 1960s I get in Other Networks, the stranger things get, and I could hap­pi­ly talk about this next net­work called Community Memory for a very long time, but here’s a short summary.

Research One Incorporated was a non-profit cor­po­ra­tion found­ed by four com­put­er sci­ence stu­dents from Berkeley and they were respond­ing to the 1970 inva­sion of Cambodia and the result­ing shut­down of a num­ber of uni­ver­si­ties. So their response was to drop out of Berkeley and work instead on set­ting up com­put­er access for mem­bers of the counter-culture. Pam Hart was Resource One President, and she man­aged to per­suade no less than the President of the Bank of America to donate a giant time­shar­ing com­put­er along with mon­ey to pur­chase a 50 megabyte hard dri­ve as a way for the Bank of America to tap into the counter-culture and kind of con­ve­nient­ly align them­selves with it. With the addi­tion of a hand­ful of tele­type ter­mi­nals, this time­shar­ing machine turned into Community Memory, which is a pro­to­type of a bul­letin board sys­tem before such a thing exist­ed, and it last­ed from about ear­ly 1973 until late 1975. I’ve heard that there were a cou­ple oth­er Community Memory nodes that popped up right after, maybe 76 or 77, one of which was in Vancouver, prob­a­bly fund­ed by the gov­ern­ment. Terminals were set up by Leopold’s Records in Berkeley right next to a con­ven­tion­al bul­letin board, the Whole Earth Access store also in Berkeley, and at the Mission Street Library in San Francisco.

Community Memory is one of those projects that’s hard­ly ever men­tioned in any pre-Internet his­to­ry, and if it is men­tioned the details on the why and the how are fre­quent­ly miss­ing or even inac­cu­rate. Maybe a cou­ple of months ago, as one exam­ple, com­men­ta­tor Evgeny Morozov pub­lished an arti­cle titled Hackers, Makers, and the Next Industrial Revolution” in The New Yorker harsh­ly crit­i­ciz­ing (as he’s made his career doing) the way so many peo­ple unthink­ing­ly accept the way start­up com­pa­nies and cor­po­ra­tions align mak­ing and hack­ing with rev­o­lu­tion and free­dom. He traces part of this mak­er cul­ture to the Homebrew Computer Club, which was a com­put­er hob­by­ist group in Silicon Valley that Woz was part of, and also he traces it to Community Memory. Morozov attrib­ut­es the cre­ation of Community Memory to Austrian philoso­pher Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality, and in this book Illich writes, Convivial tools rules out cer­tain lev­els of pow­er, com­pul­sion and pro­gram­ming, which are pre­cise­ly those fea­tures that now tend to make all gov­ern­ments look more or less alike.” 

While this quote does describe the why of Community Memory, in fact that book came out a year after Community Memory was conceived—and this is one of the great things about this project is that a lot of the peo­ple who orig­i­nal­ly found­ed these net­works are still around and avail­able, and I dis­cov­ered that one of the founders of Community Memory is liv­ing in Halifax and is on Twitter and has a very low pro­file and is very hap­py to talk about Community Memory. So one of these co-founders, his name is Mark Szpakowski informed me that the orig­i­nal inspi­ra­tion for Community Memory was actu­al­ly Project Cybersyn.

Project Cybersyn (19731975)

Project Cybersyn dates from the ear­ly 1970s in Chile, which under Socialist President Salvador Allende, cre­at­ed a net­work of 500 telex machines for fac­to­ry work­ers across the coun­try to sup­port the newly-inaugurated demo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tem and to sup­port the auton­o­my of work­ers. The sys­tem was most famous­ly used to coor­di­nate a strike of 50,000 truck dri­vers in 1972 and I think it’s anoth­er real­ly great exam­ple of how inac­cu­rate and US-centric pre-Internet his­to­ries tend to be, and maybe not so sur­pris­ing in this case con­sid­er­ing its Socialist roots. Project Cybersyn also clear­ly demon­strates how facile it is to claim that a government-supported net­work must nec­es­sar­i­ly mean the cre­ation of a closed and bureau­crat­ic hier­ar­chy and the rejec­tion of a free and open net­work. Free and open in ear­ly 1970s Chile actu­al­ly meant that those par­tic­i­pat­ing in build­ing the sys­tem want­ed to see it used to encour­age work­er par­tic­i­pa­tion in fac­to­ry man­age­ment. Like ARPANET, how­ev­er, Project Cybersyn is often read as a tool not for a more even dis­tri­b­u­tion of pow­er, but actu­al­ly as a mech­a­nism for cen­tral­ized control. 

Finally I’d just like to briefly out­line the sec­ond part of the Other Networks project, which will just be called Other Networks and will be the aca­d­e­m­ic mono­graph part of the project. In my imag­i­nary sce­nario, both parts of this project will come out rough­ly at the same time. I don’t know how that’s actu­al­ly going to hap­pen, but that’s what I’d like. I’ll draw on the cat­a­log to argue more explic­it­ly some of the points that I’ve already touched on today. Moving from the present back through the 1960s and under­tak­ing a kind of net­work archae­ol­o­gy of the many dif­fer­ent and even con­flict­ing net­works that exist­ed before the Internet con­sol­i­dat­ed all the dif­fer­ent net­works under one pro­to­col, TCP/IP, one finds that the his­to­ry of how we arrived at the Internet, how it came to be, is much more mud­died, con­tra­dic­to­ry, and stranger than has ever been account­ed for. And as I’ve tried to empha­size today, near­ly all his­to­ries of the Internet are not only mis­lead­ing and US-centric, but they also tend to cre­ate a false bina­ry between the squares from the gov­ern­ment, mil­i­tary and large cor­po­ra­tions on one side with the desires for net­works that embody cen­tral­ized, hier­ar­chi­cal pow­er struc­tures, and then on the oth­er side the hip home­brew hob­by­ists and counter-culturalists with their desires for net­works that embody free, open, com­mu­ni­tar­i­an, and dis­trib­uted pow­er structures.

While Thomas Frank has already bril­liant­ly shown in The Conquest of Cool how American busi­ness, start­ing from the mid-1950s, tried to align itself with the ideals of non-conformity, hip, cre­ativ­i­ty, and decen­tral­iza­tion, so that again this bina­ry between hip and square actu­al­ly nev­er real­ly exist­ed, for some rea­son no one has applied this piece to net­work­ing history.

There’s been a few writ­ers like Roy Rosenzweig who have shown bits and pieces from the oth­er side of things. He has point­ed out how ARPANET was iron­i­cal­ly one of the first to embrace the open tech­ni­cal stan­dards embod­ied in TCP/IP, and so the ARPANET actu­al­ly inad­ver­tent­ly sparked the cre­ation of the net­work that con­nect­ed previously-disparate net­works, now known as the Internet. However after look­ing at some of the orig­i­nal doc­u­ments writ­ten by J.C.R. Licklider, who’s a com­put­er sci­en­tist who ran ARPA in the ear­ly 60s and who first came up with the idea of a com­put­er net­work like ARPANET that he and his col­leagues called an inter­galac­tic com­put­er net­work” I’ve dis­cov­ered that the blue­print for a net­work that’s free, open, dis­trib­uted, and com­mu­ni­tar­i­an is actu­al­ly all there. So for exam­ple, Licklider has writ­ten a piece called The Computer as a Communication Device” [PDF] from 1968, and one of the most frequently-used words in this piece by this bureau­crat and sup­pos­ed­ly square, are com­mu­ni­ty” num­ber one, coop­er­a­tive,” and cre­ative.”

Proposed applications for EDUNET

Proposed appli­ca­tions for EDUNET

And in the same year (this is anoth­er fas­ci­nat­ing tid­bit) Licklider was play­ing a cen­tral role in try­ing to cre­ate an edu­ca­tion­al net­work that he called EDUNET. It’s a net­work which has almost entire­ly dis­ap­peared from our cul­tur­al mem­o­ry. I just hap­pened to dis­cov­er it because I have a col­league who was in human­i­ties com­put­ing from the late 60s and 70s who donat­ed his books to the Lab, and one of these books is a report on a big EDUNET meet­ing that took place in Boulder, Colorado in 1967. A fas­ci­nat­ing lit­tle fact about EDUNET is that Licklider’s plan for this net­work also con­tained the seeds for some ver­sion of MOOCS, which in 67 Licklider believed would increase teach­ing effi­cien­cy,” in his words, allow­ing teach­ers to teach more stu­dents with what he called pro­grammed pack­ages of reme­di­al units.”

So this then returns me to my ear­li­er artic­u­la­tion of what I’m try­ing to argue. By draw­ing on a cat­a­log of fifty years of oth­er net­works, also mov­ing from present through the 1960s through these tech­ni­cal and user-based accounts of oth­er net­works, ask­ing both how does it work and whom does it work for, Other Networks will explore the strange mix of both lib­er­a­tionism and lib­er­tar­i­an­ism that’s at the roots of our present-day Internet, an Internet that just in the last cou­ple of months many have declared as dead as the Libertarian dream of a total­ly unreg­u­lat­ed free mar­ket online can now be real­ized as cor­po­ra­tions like Verizon have been giv­en per­mis­sion to deter­mine our access to information.

But my sense is that if the Internet is dead, if it’s no longer the free and open web we thought it was, that it’s actu­al­ly not new­ly dead. Its roots in the 1960s actu­al­ly con­tained the seeds of its own demise.

Thank you so much for your attention.

Further Reference

From type­writ­ers to telem­at­ics, media noise in Robert Zend” at Lori’s blog, on Norman White’s Hearsay” and Robert Zend’s ARBORMUNDI.”