THE ABC OF NEW CULTURE: W as in Westernisation
photo: Ingrid Lichter, flickr, CC BY 2.0 licence

W as in Westernisation

BY Mirek Filiciak / Alek Tarkowski

The members of the Toruń underground obviously didn’t identify with hacker culture, but one would be hard pressed to find a better example of the creative use of technology in anti-systemic activity

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As anyone with the slightest interest in the history of the web knows, the internet’s roots lie in ARPANET, a university network created with funding from the US Army, which, spurred by Soviet technological developments such as Sputnik, decided to invest in new communications technology. The internet is thus unquestionably American in origin. Such figures as Douglas Engelbart, Alan Kay, Steve Wozniak, and Steve Jobs (not to mention Bill Gates, Richard M. Stallman, an many others) — all of them Americans — played an undeniable role in the development of digital technology.

Yet the truism that there is no single version of history applies as much to the internet as it does to the physical world. Our choice of which facts to emphasise, and which to downplay, does matter. The French thus like to remind us that the internet borrowed a handful of technological solutions from CYCLADES, a telecommunications network developed by the French INRIA in the early 70s. Another oft-mentioned service is Minitel, an early network, accessed through telephone lines, that was made available in France in the early 80s. But why does the nation place such an emphasis on its own achievements? Despite appearances, it’s not just a question of pettiness or a defensive reaction to American hegemony. It’s also about retaining an original way of thinking about new technology — and by the same token, original ways of using that technology. And it is history that gives us the fundamental metaphors with which to describe the development of digital culture.

To illustrate this claim with an example, let us examine one of the key figures in the history of technology: the hacker. What images does the word “hacker” bring to mind? We’re willing to bet that most people will think of the characters in the movie Hackers, starring Angelina Jolie, the “console cowboys” in the novels by William Gibson, the famous hacker Kevin Mitnick, or perhaps even American computer clubs or Captain Crunch. Few are likely to associate the term with “Solidarity TV”, an act of sabotage committed in 1985 by a group of astronomers from Toruń using a ZX Spectrum computer hooked up to a television transmitter. Thanks to them, the inhabitants of Toruń’s Rubinkowo neighbourhood saw a modified version of the show 07 Come In, where lieutenant Borewicz shared the screen with anti-regime slogans.

The members of the Toruń underground obviously didn’t identify with hacker culture, but one would be hard pressed to find a better example of the creative use of technology in anti-systemic activity.

Of course, the issue isn’t limited to long-forgotten historical facts; our way of thinking about technology is also shaped by literature. Sadly, Stanisław Lem remains the only Polish author brought up in discussions on local technology and the future, and even his legacy appears to strike us as ambiguous. Rather than inspiring us, Lem is often used as a means of compensating for our own insecurities: everything that seems new to us was already predicted by Lem years ago. What’s more, the writer’s visionary side is often eclipsed by his grumbling about the “digital dump” of the internet in his later years.

Simply put, Poland lacks a technological mythology of its own: an origin myth for Polish digital culture. Some claims are, admittedly, a bit far-fetched, such as the one about Jacek Karpiński, who, some believe, would have become the next Bill Gates if only he had been born into a different political system. But perhaps even far-fetched observations are worth making if they convince Poles that they have great minds of their own.

Despite being a global technology, the internet is something we always use locally. The claim that the web has erased all differences between far-flung corners of the world is patently false, despite what the enthusiastic prophets of virtual reality would have us believe: the technology, content, and practices of the “Polish internet” differ, to a certain extent, from those of the “American internet”. Nationality is by no means the only, nor the strongest, differentiating factor: cyberspace has balkanised into millions of tiny niches and groups, each with their own specific culture. And yet nearly every discussion of the web refers to foreign (largely American) examples — communities such as Second Life receive far greater coverage in the Polish media than Nasza Klasa does. This westernisation of our common notions about digital culture are an obstacle to its creation here and now. It’s as if one were trying to navigate Warsaw holding a map of Silicon Valley.

This raises the question, why aren’t we seeing such dynamic adoption of new technology in grassroots civic activism and independent art here in Poland? Perhaps the problem lies not in our historical differences, but in our relentless application of the same model to incomparable cultures. Perhaps, in this area, imitation is merely another manifestation of a post-colonial mentality, one that dooms us to a future of reproducing the interests and behavior of others. Philip E. Agre claims that the vision of cyberspace of the 80s and 90s played a similar role to that of the Western frontier in American history: a new territory, ripe for colonisation, that stimulated the imagination. It sometimes seems that we try to apply these American myths and notions in Poland, regardless of whether or not they are truly applicable. If we were to dig a bit deeper, we could construct our own mythology. Marshal Piłsudski (who would have thought?) left us an audio recording (in Polish only — ed.) of his rather astute observations on the impact of new media. Bohumil Hrabal once stated in an interview: “Having no access to the sea, we can never experience the vastness its sight imparts. Every Central European hopes to one day look upon the sea, and is shocked once he does. Lacking the sea, we had to have a sea of information.”

The earlier mention of the hacker-astronomers was no random example. Rather than copying e-business ideas, conquering cyberspace like the Wild West, or speeding down the “information superhighway” along trails blazed by others, we would do well to focus on such ideas as solidarity, and use it as a foundation for our own digital mythology.

translated by Arthur Barys