Cyberpunk Dreams Up GarageTech

[First published in The 6th Australian International Video Festival, Electronic Media Arts, Sydney, 1991.]

The desktop revolution that we hear and see so much evidence of today has its roots deep in a history of technological and cultural experimentation that is still unravelling itself before us. Over the last ten years the location of this historical drama has gradually shifted to realms of culture that have traditionally remained quite separate from technological concerns. Yet despite the barrage of optimistic claims and the frenzy of mind boggling speculation so often associated with ‘new technology’, there exists a nascent media whose name has not yet been decided.

Call it multimedia, desktop video, garage-tech, street-tech, virtuality, whatever.

The result of the recent low-tech collision of technologies dreamed up by cyberpunks and infonants of the 1980s has provided the conditions of possibility for a variety of new ways to process, to manipulate and to bend information.

Two distinct possibilities seem to have emerged with the explosion of interest in computers, intelligent machines and other such tools in the video and art worlds. Either new and inspiring ties will be forced between older, already existing subcultures to create provocative and unprecedented cultural forms, or else, and this is everybody’s worst fear, the partnership will be one big yawn, producing a ‘new artform’ utilising new technology and little else to recommend it.

Cyberpunk Dreams Up GarageTech

If new technologies present the possibility of new forms, then it is the role of the artist to invent and develop these forms in the light of what are for the most part well known cultural and industrial histories. In this sense, only an interdisciplinary approach to history and production can help save techno art from itself.

But we would do well to remind ourselves of another engine that has also driven computer technologies into and beyond our present situation. Fueled by a different kind of motivation, this realm empowers the imagination and privileges intuition. Tending to create low-tech applications of hi-tech devices, mostly for the sake of entertainment, this engine of creation (to misappropriate K. Eric Drexler’s term) is the force that ultimately led to the emergence of personal computers and the interactive set-ups that gave all of us access to raw computing power in the first place. What were only very recently the wild and crazy ideas of a bunch of techno wiz kids have become the basic building blocks of today’s user-friendly-computer-in-every-home world.

The invention and gradual low-tech refinement of a number of electronic devices initially developed for corporate use have certainly broken the vacuum-sealed environment of hi-tech. These new enabling technologies have very quickly been picked up, broken down and reconfigured into low-end products. The proliferation of relatively inexpensive computer and video equipment has provided a new generation of garage punks with their own brand of pixelising philosophical toys. Not that these toys guarantee any intrinsic, aesthetic or cultural worth, but that at least the possibility for invention exists.

Text, images, sounds, music, and animation form the principle informational elements of garage-tech. Increasingly personalised, intuitive and interactive systems are defining how these new media are to be used. The convergence of these technologies is further assisted by the welcome fact that as computer and video technologies grow smaller in physical size, they also become less expensive and more powerful in memory and performance. This process of ‘mini-maxing’ has gone so far that the silicon chip in a child’s toy today has a million times more memory at a fraction of the cost that ENIAC, the first electronic digital computer had in 1946. The expensive data gloves used in virtual reality systems a few years ago are now sold as virtually disposable Nintendo games and toys.

The revolution in the ways we interface with machines, whether through a keyboard, a mouse, a glove, touchscreens, voice activated commands, or simple hand gestures, have opened a series of possibilities for those

If there are struggles taking place over the direction that new electronic technologies are heading, one must remember that some of the most important ones have already happened (and will continue to happen) within the corporate and military machines that have been expanding the limits of computer capability since the 1940s.

Hi-tech has always meant high cost: the highest levels of funding, the highest levels of research and the highest standard of human resources have consequently gravitated to these sectors. the economic bottom line has virtually guaranteed that the business and war machines define the parameters within which computer-related technology is developed.

By connecting devices such as computers, keyboards, VCRs, camcorders, videodisc players and monitors together with specialised software for graphics, sound, or for control of the various machines in the system, users open up a system of electronic possibility.

But as we have learned from the history of cinema, television, and popular music, access to new technological means of production guarantees absolutely nothing in and of itself. The real challenge for contemporary makers of computer-assisted productions (of animations, video, sound and text) is not in getting hands on new equipment, but in devising new ways to think with these machines once they are in hand.

The animating philosophy from cyberpunk to garage-tech has been a hands-on guerilla approach that has not been intimidated by the high ground traditionally occupied by computer systems. Cyberpunks stripped these technologies of their glistening aura. garage-tech has placed a semblance of these techno means within the grasp of many aspiring infonauts. All that remains is to invent the artistic methods that correspond to the ever-shifting horizon of technological possibility.

If garage-tech is anything, it is the integration of a number of different electronic devices into a co-ordinated system. Not only are today’s hackers, program makers, artists and other users of technology creating their own work; they are also determining how these programs will be disseminated, screened and consumed in the future. In a complex and decidedly chaotic interaction between electronics, thought and action, blueprints for a contemporary collage of machine and aesthetics are being drawn up.

The influence of the ideas and approaches that twentieth-century inventors and techno-explorers have taken to the electronic realm still pulses through the hi and low-tech machines and software that multi-media artists work with today. So too the legacy of cinema, video, theatre, music and other time-based art finds itself inscribed in the very origins of electro-media.

The convergence of technologies that sit on the desk or in the rack of computer/video studios brings with it a web of connections that scientists, hackers and artists work to discover, untangle, pull apart, or totally destroy.