Way Back When
This article was written as part of Black Hole Club's commission to guest edit the Dec 2020 a-n Artist's Newsletter, 40th Anniversary magazine. The theme was a look at the state of the arts in the 1980s, when a-n launched it's first printed newsletter.
...kruse was a young single mother back then. Our first paid job in the '80s was illustrator for a software company.
We recognise that this article is unabashedly nostalgic...
You are standing in a Dark Wood, two paths lead away from you through the trees.
Which one will you take? L / R
“What’s all this then?”
You are standing in a Dark Wood, two pa..
“Yes, I read that, but what’s going on?”
I’m writing an article about the rise of digital in the 1980s in the style of a
‘Choose Your Own Adventure Story.’ It’s called Back to the Future™ Again.
“Oh, good grief!”
“Well, it’s a bit naff!”
Hey, the 1980s were naff! Koons! Saatchi! The Glass Spider Tour!
“Ugh. Horrible decade.”
It was not so bad. After all, it started with the ZX80 and ended with The World...
You are standing on a straight-as-a-dye road that glows with neon lights and is lost
far ahead in the darkness that surrounds you. A Korean American gentleman stands beside you, smiling.
“Do you like it?” he says, pointing at the road. “I made it. It’s called the Electronic Superhighway,”
“Where does it go?” you ask.
“Forward,” says the man, pointing. “Don’t go that way,” he says, pointing back, “it’s in a Flux and there’s a Cage.”
You look at the glowing road, it seems a long way to walk.
“It is a long way to walk,” the man agrees, reading your mind. “It goes all the way Back to the Future™.”
“Don't you start,” you growl.
You start walking and the road begins to pulse with coloured lights moving along under you and away into the darkness. The ground around you is absolutely flat, coloured in gradients of pink and purple. Above, the sky is black and tiny stars fall from it over and over, twinkling brightly before vanishing halfway down the sky. It’s pretty and very annoying.
As you walk, a greenish light looms out of the darkness ahead of you. As you get nearer it resolves into words, hanging in the air and made of an uncomfortably bright green light:
Current date is Tue 1-01-1980
The IBM Personal Computer DOS Version 1.10
(C) Copyright IBM Corp 1981, 1982
PROTOCOL COM RUNTIME EXE MATRIX COM KEYBOARD COM MOUSE COM
MONITOR COM BUGS BAS PARTITION COM HACKER BAS
You reach up and touch one of the glowing words...
Nothing happens.You touch another word. Still nothing. Then the words blink out and are replaced by the legend:
Error 501 Not Implemented
A disembodied voice, friendly with a hint of Brummie, says: “Sorry about that, bug in the system. Old tech. Just carry on down the superhighway will you?”
Feeling that this article is not going the way you expect it should, you stand, hand on hips and say,
“Look! I’m a busy artist, I haven't got time to waste on this guff. Are you going to inform me about 1980s digital and its relationship to contemporary practice, or are you just going to keep mucking about?”
“Sorry,” says the Brummie, “I know no one has enough time anymore. Shame, we had loads of it in the 80’s. Hang on though, I thought you were in the middle of a global pandemic? Aren’t you all stuck inside?”
“That’s beside the point.”
“We had our own epidemic in the 80’s. People tend to forget about it now, but we lost a lot of very beautiful, creative people back then and many of us were scared. No lockdowns though...”
Somewhat chastened you ask, “What was that thing with the words back there?”
“The green words? Well I was going to do something clever with hypertext and
then I didn’t.”
“Oh, you know, it’s probably a bit passé. So I thought I’d do something with words. The way words changed in the 80’s.”
“They did, and for a few years only a few people knew about those altered words and then suddenly, really suddenly, those changed words changed the world and a lot more people knew about them. Then even more people, everyone really, was affected by them, even if they didn’t know it.”
“Oh, bus, browse, bugs, mouse, drive, cache, network, spam, scan. Floppy.
Once upon a time those words meant something very different. Now they mean something... other.
And we made up new words: hard-drive, word-processing, dial-up, graphical-interface, operating-system, vector-graphics. They were good, those words, they were harbingers of a New Era of publishing and there were comparisons to the Gutenberg press and how important that had been in disseminating information (Europe-centrically because there had already been printing in China for hundreds of years) and how this new technology would change things. And it did change things.”
“Well back in the day, if you printed a newsletter it was an expensive, professional affair; plates had to be made and letters typeset and distribution was difficult. More difficult than now anyway. But then DIGITAL arrived (though we didn’t use that word so much back then) with desktop-publishing, word-processing, and home-printing. Stuff got cheaper to produce, though distribution was still an issue, until... Until The World.”
“The World. The first commercial Internet Service Provider. I think in some ways it was the Most Astonishing Thing That Happened To Humanity, although it only happened because of All That Went Before, you know, with the changed words, ‘partition,’ ‘protocol,’ ‘command’ and so on. I suppose if it hadn't been The World it would have been some other ISP.”
“What’s with all the Capital Letters?”
“Oh, well The World ushered in the Internet and the dawn of the Digital Age and after that a lot of things were given capital letters, or became acronyms. I think it was a way of showing how Important Digital was.”
“Let’s see; WWW of course and computers running various OS and using OMS hardware and all the RAM, REM, DPI, JPG, GNU and WYSIWIG; the digital world is full of TLA’s. IT came to stand for more than it actually means and back in the day there was more FTTP and we still use HTML although it’s so much better now we have CSS. And then there’s the companies who became household names like Apple and Microsoft and the one that also became a verb. They’re not just Capitalised, they’re capitalised (LOL). There's PC and RGB and EVERYONE is talking about AR and VR and AI and wishing the pandemic would go away so they could do something fun IRL but until then they’ll just RT that funny GIF.”
“Yeah. But funnily enough the stuff that people do on the internet tends to come without caps. Like blogging and social media and streaming and screen-time and posting and tweeting. Maybe it’s not so Important, now everyone can do it? Except that texting and podcasting and sharing and influencing and going viral has MASSIVE political implications, hashtag ArabSpring.”
“So it’s been good for disseminating information then?”
“It’s been GREAT for disseminating information! Now you can send people newsletters through email, or build a website and blog or put up podcasts and videos and photographs. Oh my goodness, it’s been great!
And artists love it! They all have social media profiles and Facebook pages to promo their events and Instagram feeds and have esoteric rants on twitter and sell stuff online and like everything and binge-watch Ru Paul and explore their identities and have their own channels and reach their audiences and go global and viral and it’s just great!
Of course, no one’s got enough time for it all and mental health is an issue and everything changes all the time, but our work is interactive and we can create New Worlds in VR ‘cos this one is doomed and one day we’ll all be digital anyway…”
“OMG that sounds awful! Get in the car.”
“This imaginary car here. We can’t have an ending like that, we're going to fix it!”
“We’re going Back?”
40 Words that changed the world
memory (out of)
40 Errors that could be metaphors for your sex life
400 Bad Request
402 Payment Required
404 Not Found
405 Method Not Allowed
406 Not Acceptable
407 Proxy Authentication Required
408 Request Timeout
411 Length Required
412 Precondition Failed
413 Request Entity Too Large
414 URI Too Long
415 Unsupported Media Type
416 Range Not Satisfiable
417 Expectation Failed
418 I'm a teapot
421 Misdirected Request
422 Unprocessable Entity
424 Failed Dependency
425 Too Early
426 Upgrade Required
428 Precondition Required
429 Too Many Requests
431 Request Header Fields Too Large
451 Unavailable For Legal Reasons
500 Internal Server Error
501 Not Implemented
502 Bad Gateway
503 Service Unavailable
504 Gateway Timeout
505 HTTP Version Not Supported
506 Variant Also Negotiates
507 Insufficient Storage
508 Loop Detected
510 Not Extended
511 Network Authentication Required
40 Middle-aged Reminiscences
The Legends of Zelda
Super Mario Bros
BLK Art Group
IBM PC 5150
Amstrad CPC 464
The Other Story
History: Media Arts + (1980-)
Request for Comments: Null
Category: Informational / ish Location: B’ham / West Mids
USP: Minor lols
Client protocol: a-n newsletter
Incept date: November 2020