THE ABC OF NEW CULTURE: J as in Joystick
Atari joystick concept, illustration: Joshua Mahan, flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0 license

J as in Joystick

BY Mirek Filiciak / Alek Tarkowski

When the first 8-bit computers appeared in Poland the joystick seemed to be the most obvious delineation of the border between the work machine and the play machine

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Gatekeeper, hypertext, interactivity… Perhaps the time has come for something a bit more fun. And when it comes to combining new technology and with fun, what could be better than a joystick? The deprecated joystick has all but been replaced by the computer mouse and its gaming console equivalent, the gamepad. We thus treat the joystick more as a symbol: an interface between man and a machine, a symbol of the pleasure derived from culture, and the dark objectives that sometimes lie beneath. Culture 2.0, as a “joystick culture”, may thus be described as:

Interface culture. The joystick lets us influence what we see on the screen, even if it’s just an obstacle-jumping mustachioed plumber. Only when we grasp the joystick (or mouse, or keyboard) do we actually use media, instead of merely experiencing it. The joystick is an interface, a tool that shapes our interactions with media. Of course, the importance of the joystick is now greatly superseded by the user interface: a layer of software that controls that interaction. Take a close look at any browser window (like the one in which you’re reading this article), or any TV news channel. You’ll find that the interface sometimes dominates the content itself.

A culture of internalised technology. Interfaces are disappearing. Sometimes quite literally. Try finding a computer with a joystick hooked up to it. Sometimes, these interfaces simply become transparent: obvious, invisible, intuitive. It is only when they disappear that we become alarmed, like when a little girl, failing to find a mouse in front of the TV, assumes that the set is incomplete, or broken. This is what Heidegger meant when he noticed that we do not stop to consider the nature of the hammer until it ceases to function properly. But the history of technology internalisation can be misleading. In the past, content and form were regarded as one and the same. Digital media are different, because their content can be freely transferred between contexts. How we view images and stories then depends on the choice of interface. In the case of digital media, all cultural content can be treated as an enormous database where interfaces mediate access to the information.

Game culture. When the first 8-bit computers appeared in Poland — through private means and imported by stores such as Peweks, Baltona, and Składnica Harcerska, which dealt in foreign goods — the joystick seemed to be the most obvious delineation of the border between the work machine and the play machine. The keyboard was used for work, and the joystick was used for fun. Games are no longer the pariahs of culture, and have become an enormous industry and a popularly-accepted form of entertainment, not just for teenage boys. One might even venture that they are to the 21st century what the cinema was to the last century. Walter Benjamin wrote that film addressed the needs of industrial society by combining art with technology and movement, which symbolised dynamic city life. Games have certainly augmented this bond with technology, while the joystick, as an extension of the human arm, is one possible symbol of this bond.

Culture intertwined with the military-industrial complex. The joystick represents the dual nature of new technology developed by the so-called military-entertainment complex. Computers were developed with help from the military, which financed the efforts of scientists working — often in a playful and hacker-like spirit — on technology that could later be used by the army to kill enemy soldiers. This is why the joystick, an input device used for fun, may also be used in alternative applications. The joystick itself is derived from the airplane control stick, and following a brief stint in video games, it is once again being used mainly in fighter jets (as well as excavators). Interfaces designed with play in mind are simply the most polished. And if they’re good enough for games, they’ll definitely pass muster when used for things other than fun.

Pleasure culture. The name says it all. Culture 2.0 allows us to say what might not always be appropriate in high culture: that pleasure is what it’s all about. The new hacker work ethic is based on pleasure, and it’s left its mark on the entirety of digital culture. “Just for fun” is how Linus Torvalds explained his motivation for creating the Linux operating system, a task comparable to that of writing a multi-volume modernist novel.

Of course, the “pleasant” aspect of Culture 2.0 is not entirely unambiguous. Critics, especially those with a Marxist approach to the subject, point out that the pleasure of creation can be exploited by industry to coax internet users into providing free labor (giving us yet another dark underlying objective). But since the letter “J” was supposed to be about joysticks and fun, let’s disregard that for now. Creators are motivated by a number of factors that cannot be reduced solely to the financial aspect. Culture 2.0 is going to be a culture of enthusiasm, not a culture of complaining.

translated by Arthur Barys