I just came back from my first visit to Assembly, which is one of the most prominent demo scene events in the world. It hit home something I’ve known, but never really completely digested: in our government and legislation there are still tons of people who think “computers” is a nerdy fringe hobby and that the net is somehow separate from “the real world” – and they don’t even realize they are the weirdos now.
When I was young, I was definitely the nerdy computer kid. I got my first computer, a Commodore 64, at the age of nine in 1983. It didn’t take me long to start to learn programming and learning what I could do with the thing. I went to camps arranged by Mikrobitti magazine about game and assembly programming, and soon I was making simple games and little demos and intros. Before that skill could really mature, I switched to Amiga 500 and went through the same process. My little closet of a room was a coding cave where the walls were literally plastered with matrix printer print-outs of Amiga memory offsets – it was just handier that way, I could just swivel my chair and see what I was looking for. I copied games and programs on C-cassettes and discs which were sent via the regular snail mail around the country. I was definitely aware of demos and demoscene, but I was one of those unfortunates who never really got in contact with other hobbyists of a similar level and mindset. I made some games and gave them to a few pals, but now they are lost in time, save perhaps some oxidized C-cassette or a floppy in an attic somewhere. Coding as an active hobby petered out for me in the early 90′s, since I couldn’t accomplish anything with it. There was no social circle to share with and to learn from – I never found a crew.
Today, sitting in the upper benches of Hartwall Arena and looking down at the sea of glowing computer screens on the floor I couldn’t stop thinking how my early teenage self would have killed for the chance to be in such an event. At the same time I found myself wondering what is the actual reason for this event now, what is it’s purpose at this day and age. Most of the glowing screens were running games, although there was frantic coding going on in many areas, where the crews where getting ready for the compos. I just kept having this weird disconnect to the idea of a “computer event”. 20 years ago an event like Assembly was definitely thing for Computer Hobbyists. It was a time when computers really still were a Thing some kids did, a bit like amateur radio or any other such fringe technical pursuit. (I still remember the massive scoffs I got when I said in a classroom in the late 80′s that soon everybody would have a computer at their home. I’d like to say hello to my classmates who are now reading this through a Facebook link. ) Ten years ago thinking of “computers” as a single hobby had became a bit tenuous. Now, what I was looking at in the arena was thousands of gamers and a bunch of coders, artists and hardware aficionados, who used this commonplace thing called a computer as a tool in their various hobbies. The difference, to me, was profound.
The thing makes this very relevant is the mental digital divide. I have drifted into being some sort of a copyright and freedom of online speech activist, although I’ve made my living for most of my adult age either directly via copyright fees, or in the fields of science, culture and entertainment – ranging from journalism to TV, movies and games industry – where the money comes from IP and people’s willingness to pay for it. I’ve made snarky remarks about “fax/VHS generation”, but the unfortunate fact is that in every western country the government and the legislative bodies consist largely of people whose mindscapes fit that description depressingly well. You know, those people who still think computers are a geeky hobby and the internet is somehow not quite “the real world”. This is also prevalent in many fields of culture. In Finland a very vocal pro-traditional-copyrights film director met with people from the local Pirate Party a couple of years back, and the condescension just just oozed off of her: “when I went to meet them, there were these lanky boys to whom computers were obviously the most important thing in their life, and it gave me mostly motherly instincts”. The comment was just stunning not only in its condescension, but in the sense that without even realizing it, she had just positioned herself to be absolutely irrelevant to the conversation by flaunting her utter cluelessness. Her world was obviously an 80′s college film with Computer Nerds and The Real People, which isn’t really a good basis for a conversation for digital distribution and freedom of speech online.
The problem is, she is hardly alone in this. In the copyright and online privacy/freedom of speech conversation one keeps running into people who are really living in this mindset – that people whose arguments are technical are a fringe group of computer geeks who don’t quite function “in the real World with the rest of us”. Nowadays saying that someone is a “computer hobbyist” is a bit like calling an average person “a cell phone hobbyist”, “a car hobbyist” or a “blender hobbyist”. Well, you can be one, but it’s a kind of a specific hobby, isn’t it, and most of the people using cell phones, cars or blenders certainly aren’t one. Cars are actually a nice comparison: back in the time, if you wanted one, you really needed to learn how to build and repair it – nowadays you can do that, but mostly people just use the things. It’s the same with computers – they really are not an end to themselves anymore, just tools to do other cool stuff.
The median of the digital divide seems to be currently at around 45-55 years of age, with obvious exceptions to each direction. I’ve had people younger than exclaim be proudly that they “live here in the real world with my real friends and not on the net”. I’m wondering how unreal they find phone conversations, and how my deep friendships with people I’ve never met in flesh but talk with weekly or even daily is less real than they meeting their pals in a pub four times a year. From a political point of view this whole state is sad and goddamn frustrating, and makes one really think that rational decisions about the internet can only be made when most of the people in power are digital natives who are born in the 90′s.
Sitting in the uppermost benches of the arena and watching that sea of monitors made me feel like an old fart too, since I found myself reveling in a nostalgia for the times where I got to tip my toes in, but never dive. I do miss the time when the paradigm was “user is a programmer”, someone who had a bit of hidden lore in his sleeve. Not just any knowledge that could be googled up with any given cell phone, but knowledge you had to figure out yourself, ask from your contacts or learn from books which you had to order – gasp – from abroad. There was a definite sense of discovery there about a new exiting technology, which now is an everyday thing.
Of course, like every case of nostalgia, this one contains only the sugar, but none of the bitter flavours. In the previous three years I’ve learned one totally new programming environment and I’m currently learning another. The information isn’t esoteric and hard to get anymore, it’s out there on the net for everybody to read. More importantly, the people are there. I don’t have to be that kid in the late 80′s tinkering alone in his room in isolation because of the unhappy coincidence of not just happening to find a crew. Now it’s all out there for the taking, the communities, the information, the peers – in the part of the real world we call the internet.