SCROLL / NETWORK / HACK: A Poetics of ASCII Literature (1983-1989)

Joel Katelnikoff
2013
SCROLL / NETWORK / HACK is a poetics of ASCII text files published and distributed by means of electronic bulletin board systems from the early-1980s until the mid-1990s. This medium offered computer users a means to share information and opinions with one another, but it also gave rise to an innovative literature shaped by the material conditions and technological environment within which it was produced. This writing, influenced by Hacking/Phreaking/Anarchy/Cracking manuals, sought to hack,
more » ... reak, and crack the technologies of writing and the conventions of discourse. SCROLL / NETWORK / HACK is the product of my experience as a reader, writer, and editor of ASCII text files, and also as an instructor of literary analysis and creative writing. The project is, in part, driven by a desire to courier these obscure texts to my audience, but it is primarily inspired by a need to investigate the constraints of these texts, their extralinguistic signification, and the ways in which they hypermediate, modify, and disrupt code. Perhaps most importantly, I am interested in how we might further extend the artistic practices that are described and implemented in these hackerly texts. SCROLL / NETWORK / HACK treats all writing as textual material rather than as an access point to a transcendental signified. Screen captures from ASCII text files are incorporated throughout the study, which might include more or less material than is required for any particular analytical response; this allows me to not only describe the tactics of the courier and pirate, but also to enact them, simulating my own struggle with these unwieldy networks of literary code. Furthermore, the work of critical theorists (e.g. Shklovsky, Barthes, McLuhan) will be treated only as textual material-this material will be valuable to the extent that I am able to repurpose, extend, modify, and riff on it, but the material will not be interpreted, contextualized, nor respected in terms of its authority. Ultimately, the project must be a dissertation, becoming descriptive, informative, and at times neglectful of the frame of reference, but it strives, through a discourse bound by convention, to help readers to discover and produce a new, hackerly, style of discourse. ACKNOWLEDGEMENT My Neo-Comintern collaborators, with whom I published ASCII text files, hawked zines at the Saskatoon Fringe, and tried to write something that people could enjoy. The ASCII writers with whom I worked and from whom I learned: Mogel, AIDS, Kreid, Trilobyte, aster, the GNN, the Prime Anarchist, Jamesy, the Mentor, and Kilgore Trout. My HERMEN collaborators and our esteemed champions, who produced ephemeral art objects and promoted the literary experiment in the city of Edmonton. Those who read the dissertation-in-progress (Tim Johnson, Natalie Helberg, Rebecca Fredrickson), and those who read chapters (And most importantly, Rebecca Fredrickson, for helping so much to make it possible. 6 dedicated to recipes for the construction of incendiaries and explosives. Although the first screen (twenty-four lines of text) doesn't provide the reader with any specific technical instruction, it contextualizes itself within the discourse of the computer underground. For the initiate reader, this selection of text might provide a useful node of entry into the network of ASCII text-although the particular passage will not tell us how to make fire fudge, it will serve to introduce us to the textual and technological materials that constitute ASCII literature. The title contains two words, "ANARCHY" and "EXPLOSIVES," which could be read as dangerous, polemical, or revolutionary. To say the least, these are sensational words, emphasized in a particular way by means of their rendering in capital letters (a throwback to ancient stone carvings, more blunt, more authoritative, and more aggressive to the eye than their miniscule counterparts). The two words are separated by a flippant and informal 'N', distancing the word "ANARCHY" from its potential to be read in an official political sense, and distancing the word "EXPLOSIVES" from its potential to be read as a component of a legal or sanctioned exercise, such as that of the quarry. The text states that it is "By" Doctor Dissector. The multiple levels of play in this name seem to suggest that it is a pseudonym rather than a proper name. Both words have the same first letter ("D") and the last four letters ("ctor"), the repetition of which provokes the question: how is the word "Doctor" like the word "Dissector," and by extension, what are the similarities and dissimilarities between the actions of the doctor and of the dissector? The name suggests a specialized knowledge (required to attain the title of "Doctor," whether medical or professorial), and also, in the word "Dissector," an attention to the finest details, and an ability to deconstruct, decompile, and cut apart. The two parts of the name also work to limit each other's range of signification; "Dissector" limits the range of "Doctor," at least in the sense that "Doctor" can no longer lend itself, for example, to the character of a trusted pediatrician. Furthermore, while "Doctor" can be a symbol of authority in the professional world, in this context, it renders the potential first name of the writer conspicuously absent, demonstrating perhaps a lack of professional accountability. In so far as this text is "by" Doctor 16 the BBS was an automated service that allowed computer users to dial in to a system featuring localized services such as electronic mail, games, and file areas. By the mid-1980s, a significant BBS culture was beginning to flourish worldwide. A phone line, once designed exclusively for the purpose of vocal conversation, could now be used as a means for a person to connect to a cultural hub without having to leave his or her computer. The BBS was a world outside of the world, where every node was its own centre. Every BBS was a kind of barony, a region of its own, operating under its own authority, hosting its own unique community. It seemed to be a world of limitless possibility, with numerous territories operating outside of conventional geographical, material, social, and legal constraints. As Bruce Sterling says: Boards can be mysterious entities. The activities of their users can be hard to differentiate from conspiracy. Sometimes they are conspiracies. Boards have harboured, or have been accused of harbouring, all manner of fringe groups, and have abetted, or been accused of abetting, every manner of frowned-upon, sleazy, radical, and criminal activity. There are Satanist boards. Nazi boards. Pornographic boards. Pedophile boards. Drug-dealing boards. Anarchist boards. Communist boards. Gay and lesbian boards (these exist in great profusion, many of them quite lively with wellestablished histories). Religious cult boards. Evangelical boards. Witchcraft boards, hippie boards, punk boards, skateboarder boards. Boards for UFO believers. There may well be boards for serial killers, airline terrorists, and professional assassins. (The Hacker Crackdown 69) His prose demonstrates the vision (which was also popular among computer enthusiasts at the time) that the BBS world is full of possibility, providing an environment for any kind of culture, any kind of art. But since computer users can only call BBSes that they have the phone number for, the sense is always one of a network that extends far beyond one's reach. The computer user's own vision of the BBS network will include very detailed impressions of the BBSes that they frequent, partial visions of BBSes that they have accessed a few times, glimpses of BBSes that they have seen a friend log on to, opaque boards that they have read
doi:10.7939/r3pg1j01c fatcat:bcqwq4ce5zawnkviftt3nayjru