Hacking Europe: From Computer Cultures to Demoscenes

Edited by Gerard Alberts and Ruth Oldenziel. London: Springer-Verlag, 2014. 277 pp. $109.99 (hardback). ISBN 978-1-4471-5492-1.

Hacking Europe expands our understanding of information and culture in two ways. First, the book offers a set of rich case studies from European authors who draw on German, Dutch, Greek, Polish, Czech, British, Finnish and Yugoslav experiences and perspectives that significantly counter the too-often-prevalent Anglo-American bias. Second, with its focus on computer hackers and gamers forming powerful and consequential user groups, the book significantly extends our understanding of countercultural influences on computing. It is a necessary complement to earlier U.S.-centric treatments by John Markoff and Fred Turner.

The conceptual key to this book is the concept of appropriation, which European scholars have effectively used to highlight the agency of non-dominant groups in technology development. In two earlier books, Ruth Oldenziel fruitfully employed the concept to understand European experiences with American domestic technology as well the impact of non-elite actors on the social processes and cultural meanings of European integration.[i] Her partnership here with computer historian Gerard Alberts is a welcome one since computing has typically been approached from producer-centered perspectives and, even when users have been considered, rarely with the degree of theoretical sophistication employed here.

The take-home is this: Europeans did not passively adopt personal, home, gaming, and early networked forms of computing, even when the artifacts (hardware and software) came straight from the United States; rather, there was a creative, open-ended process of appropriation in which “cultural scripts” interacted with varied social and political movements. Chapters in this book make three distinct contributions.

Several chapters present “surprising” stories of European or British commercial successes in computing that upend the habit of conceiving computing as an American story. Sinclair’s thriving personal computing venture in 1980s Britain, the subject of Thomas Lean’s well researched chapter, may even have led to “the highest level of computer ownership in the world” (49) owing to its entry model’s rock-bottom price of £99 (or around $175). Lean concludes with a brief discussion of the company’s measured success in the U.S. market. Another surprise is Yugoslavia. The country’s active mainframe computing created a network of research institutes and wide-ranging computing savvy. Its healthy consumer economy, coupled with a supportive alternative music and cultural network, led to massive importing of home and personal computers and a vibrant “home brew” computing scene. Early home computers often stored data and programs on cassette recordings as did the Yugoslav-designed “Galaksija” or Galaxy computer, home built from kits by some 11,000 people (and later more conventionally mass produced). Radio Beograd took the next step and scheduled radio broadcasts announcing a chosen computer program and platform (Galaksija, ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64), when at the appointed time “the ready listeners could then turn on their recording equipment and record the computer program” (123). Users sent in their own programs to the radio broadcast.

Many of the chapters touch on the key role played by “alternative” cultural movements or “scenes” in creating supportive networks and institutions for personal, home, or early networked computing. Some of these networks were assertively local, such as the Warsaw computer bazaar. But many were impressively transnational such as the video-graphics demo scene, which, according to Antti Silvast and Markku Reunanen, “flourished mostly” in western and northern Europe (152) and not elsewhere. And the Amsterdam-based Digital City movement interacted deeply with squatters, AIDs activists, and Eastern European computing networks. Several authors even raise the question whether a U.S.-style “counterculture” was necessary for personal or home computing. Theodoros Lekkas points to an “open” culture in Greece while Thomas Lean emphasizes the distinctive educational culture in the U.K.

However, not all of these prominent experiments persisted. Some, such as the Czech-based Ronja network using homebuilt infrared roof-top routers, were overtaken by cheaper or easier to use technologies. Dutch development of a computer programming “Esperanto” with Basicode, as well as local manufacturing by Philips and Tulip, eventually gave way to the Wintel monopoly. Amsterdam’s Digital City received periodic state subsidies over two decades. More ominous was the overt criminalization of alternative “scenes,” software sharing, or public-minded computer hacking, the subject of an incisive chapter on Germany by Kai Denker who discusses how the “shift from [German] hackers being some kind of consumer protection activists to becoming criminals occurred in a surprisingly short space of time” in the mid-1980s (168).

An attentive reading of this book yields rich insights into the varieties of countercultures as well as the varieties of European computer users. Ultimately, it offers a compelling view of the complex interactions of information and culture. An excellent introduction by the editors frames the issues, periodic illustrations enliven the text, and the extensive bibliography is a treasure trove for further research. Sadly, the index is deficient. Prospective readers might investigate a library subscription to SpringerLink for an affordable print-on-demand copy.

Thomas J. Misa, Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota

[i]See Ruth Oldenziel and Karin Zachmann, eds., Cold War Kitchen: Americanization, Technology, and European Users (MIT Press, 2008); and Ruth Oldenziel and Mikael Hård, Consumers, Tinkerers, Rebels: The People Who Shaped Europe (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).