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Billet de blog 17 déc. 2021

Berliner Gazette
Abonné·e de Mediapart

Black Box East: The “Communist” Borders of the Computer Revolution in the 1980s

Just buy your own computer? Unimaginable in Yugoslavia in the 1980s. Assembling a computer yourself from parts brought back secretly from "visits to the West"? Possible! Technology researcher Darija Medić shows how geeks and hackers shaped a computer DIY culture that launched the digital revolution and, despite the "communist" conditions, never operated entirely outside of capitalism.

Berliner Gazette
Abonné·e de Mediapart

Ce blog est personnel, la rédaction n’est pas à l’origine de ses contenus.

Several months ago news broke out about an illegal cryptocurrency mining facility located in the former house of Draža Mihajlović, a controversial historical figure. Convicted and executed in 1946 for war crimes, he is also the mythical father of the Četnik movement, a controversial Yugoslav royalist and Serbian nationalist movement that collaborated with both sides of the war. Why is his house of particular interest to crypto-mining endeavors and how does this relate to the image of a computer user in Serbia?

This text will attempt a few exercises in unboxing computation in 1980s Yugoslavia, especially as it was shaped by the influential Računari magazine. Doing so, I will explore how the computation discourse mixed with a geopolitical and economic perspective.

The goal is not to make judgments about morally just behavior nor to create a direct link between reading the magazine Računari and learning how to break into a facility in order to steal electricity. However, I do acknowledge the limitations of access and regulation that people have had to deal with in the 1980s and how DIY culture played a key role in building personal economic security.

The mythic and the pragmatic

The case of the former house of Draža Mihajlović as a cryptocurrency mining facility is a poetic one, to say the least. It reveals a cultural matrix of operating on two fields in parallel: the mythic and the pragmatic. Draža Mihajlović, like Miloš Obilić, like Dušan the Great are figures in an epic mythos, maintaining romanticist notions of grandioseness, chivalry, and land as property, as well as an obsession with the mythic past in general. They are symptomatic of a response to the deficit narrative present in the so-called “periphery of Europe.” They are also a response to socialist ideas that opposed property and wealth in favor of the commons and collectivity.

Revisionary perspectives often aim to speak through instances of restitution, a reappropriation of ownership, especifically that which was taken away around and after WWII. In this context the story of Draža Mihajlović is telling because of the court case for his rehabilitation in 2015, painting a picture of the importance of this figure for political narrative, in spite of political consequences such a court case might have for Serbia’s EU integration.

In terms of property, Mihajlović’s former house is owned by the public municipality and has been closed for years. By breaking in, it was possible to extract large amounts of electricity from the public good, spending an estimated 55.000 kW hours of electricity amounting to a bill of 20.000 Euro.

This case reflects some characteristics of what can be traced as a common ethos of the local geek and entrepreneur scene in Serbia. With typically libertarian tendencies, a culture of opportunist hacking in accord with an affinity for programming has had a long presence in the region and built somewhat of social class scaffolding, attracting many companies from around the world to open their offices in Serbia and the whole region throughout the transition period. The work force is cheap in comparison to alternatives in Western Europe. Engineering schools are good. And with the IT industry flourishing, many companies in Belgrade are outsourced directly from business centers like New York and London.

The class differentiation is strikingly visible between those who work for companies or clients in the West and others who are doing, for example, administrative jobs or working in education. In recent years, the crypto-currency market has offered a pathway for many in Serbia – a country that has still not developed frameworks that would support small scale companies, instead incentivizing businesses to either become large scale, bankrupt or illegal. This connection between monetization and computation has been a part of computer culture since its very beginnings, which can be dated and linked to the inception of the computer magazine Računari. This magazine educated thousands of people during years that were key to home computer culture, namely the 1980s.

Domestication

“We can realize a computer revolution only if we have a personal computer,” was a programmatic sentence from the time in which journalist Dejan Ristanovic wrote his most influential work. In January 1984, Ristanovic published the book “Racunari u vasoj kuci” (“Computers in Your Home”), which appeared as a special edition of the popular science magazine Galaksija. It was the first publication about personal computers ever published in Yugoslavia. Retrospectively it seems safe to say that this was the initial capsule that fired a whole scene of computing and users in need of computing literature: Over 8.000 people assembled a computer from reading that particular special issue.

While Yugoslavia was experiencing the tender beginnings of its own computer revolution, Galaksija’s special edition “outgrew itself” to become the magazine Racunari. It is against this backdrop that the following questions emerge: How was the magazine Racunari an interface for the process of computers entering the home in Yugoslavia? And who was the computer going to be for?

“Pink geometric coordinates on a black background, promises of the future and ever better, faster and cheaper devices and...”. These were the 1980s for many computer magazines around the world. One of them was Racunari, literally meaning computers. In fact, this word conveys the same meanings as in English: those who compute or that which computer, as računati in Serbian means “to count.”

High and low culture

The magazine became world-famous for starting from a widely adopted self-built computer as an example of DIY progressive culture. At the same time, it was infamous for a striking oversexualization of female bodies in interaction with computers on covers. The clash of highly gendered representations of roles in relation to technology versus a progressive spirit in engineering approaches present in the magazine, as a whole, offers rich material for unraveling how the image of the computer user was built and communicated culturally.

The computer magazine of the 1980s can, I argue, be perceived as the graphical user interface of the 1980s, observing the medium of the magazine as an interface to technology as a whole. This process was enacted on several levels in the pre-WWW era. On one level, the magazine provides a medium for translating the language of computers into more human-readable expressions, while it also had literal instructions for assembling parts into whole computers. Through its letters section, the magazine served as an interface for interaction prior to networking, providing a space to visualize and imagine both technology and other users, when computers were only starting to become accessible. It also provided images of the users themselves, projecting back the usage of computers into a self fulfilling prophecy.

The magazine itself served as an educational tool. Računari carried with it a tension present in public discourse in Yugoslavia, tightly connected to the tension between the bourgeoisie and socialism, that of high and low culture, that transposed into all levels of cultural production, including the production of knowledge. The figure of the hacker derives here from an ordinary user, and not the professional, educated programmer. And Računari offers a perspective on how this tension was an active antagonism present in some articles between that of high and low programming.

There were certain branches of coding practices that were stemming from engineering spaces and showing sophisticated principles, while others were introducing quick and dirty solutions. There were various speculations on the future of computing, some saying that whole systems will fall apart, without proper engineering practices, dismissing whole programming languages.

The home (in the periphery) vs. the real world

The 1980s discourse in computer magazines globally was about commercialization and power. Its translation into the Yugoslavian context was how to develop that discourse in a closed, isolated market. The aforementioned special issue of Galaksija that served as the starting point for Racunari was devoted to building – and thus owning – a do-it-yourself computer. It caused a lot of attention (and is still causing it today, with DIY kits available again). At the same time, considering the closed market of Yugoslavia and the price ranges, owning a personal computer was mostly in the realm of fantasy. News of the possibility to assemble a computer of one’s own spread like fire, and thousands of copies were assembled across Yugoslavia.

After that, the demand further increased. At this juncture, a DIY culture began to rise, based on learning, assembling, and exchanging of knowledge, through the medium of the magazine. In other words, DIY culture came out of an act of survival, as computers couldn’t be bought in Yugoslavia. Parts had to be imported and were expensive. It was cheaper and physically possible for people to travel to Germany, buy parts there and assemble everything at home. In the course of this, they were taking back home stories of how markets were developing in the West. This reinforced the binary narrative of “the world” versus “us,” as people were imagining the “real world” as the market, a place to get goods from and to sell goods to.

Rancuri as such provided an avenue for creating substantial discourse on developing software and selling it in the West. Having contact with magazines in the West, there was a constant comparison, both within the editorial board and with the consumers, who also influenced the content of the magazine through open expressions of interest.

In sum, the computer magazine Računari played an instrumental role in the informal development of computer literacy capacities across Yugoslavia. It also facilitated a bridge to the expanding markets in the West. This was period of growing businesses. A fixation on the future, compatibility and compression of services were commonplace. The 1980s were also the years of increasing competition, since time was money, accelerating a race for software and hardware development. This is where entrepreneurial culture meets “communist” borders meets DIY culture in an adaptive mentality that is Western and profit-oriented in a transactional relationship that is present, if not more so expanding to this day, making the news of an illegal cryptocurrency mining facility being located in the former house of Draža Mihajlović a symptomatic footnote of history.

****

This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s BLACK BOX EAST text series; its German version is available on Berliner Gazette. You can find more texts, artworks, and video talks on the English-language BLACK BOX EAST website. Have a look here: https://blackboxeast.berlinergazette.de

Darija Medić
Darija Medić is an explorer of (un)coded behavior through poetic media in the networked world. Finding meaning through making and experiment, she develops exhibition and knowledge exchange formats as an artist, curator and researcher. She is currently DiploFoundation’s Digital Art Project Coordinator. Since 2012. she is a member of CBK Rotterdam (Center for visual arts). She is the founding member of Interkultivator , an organization that focuses on the decentralization of cultural production in Serbia through creating experimental educational platforms, and a member of Napon, institute of flexible cultures and technologies. More info: https://syntaxerrror.com

Ce blog est personnel, la rédaction n’est pas à l’origine de ses contenus.

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