When I entered High School, we got the Internet at home. Wow! I can remember the dial-up modem that was directly plugged to the telephone network, so we could not surf on the Internet and receive a phone call at the same time. People were most of the time offline, and they would connect for only a couple of minutes to retrieve all their emails, then disconnect, take the time to answer and connect again to send the messages they just wrote. I was counting the minutes to estimate the bill my parents will receive: it was damn expensive to be online. Only the persons who had a leased line[1] could always stay connected, because for them it was the same price. But they were missing the sound of the modem establishing the connection, that would last about 30 seconds and you could hear a funny tone modulation.[2] How exciting that was!

The first things I did on the Internet? Downloading some music, for example. It could take more than 30 minutes to get a single song. Everybody was talking about MP3, and how to compress a 50 MB audio track ripped from a CD to only 3 MB. I can remember this conversation I had with a schoolmate:

– I downloaded 2 new MP3s yesterday! Now I have 6 of them!
– Cool! I think I have more then 15 already.
– Really? You’re crazy!

The exact numbers I forgot but it was something like that. At least I can remember that I played my less-then-10 MP3 files in loop for hours, learning them by heart. At that time I owned a few CDs so I actually had much more songs to listen to, but it was funnier to listen directly from the computer, and I was enjoying too much the fact that I could switch from one artist to the other without changing CDs. The Internet changed my vision of the computer: it was no longer me and a machine, but me and THE machine. It was very special to use a unique tool for such a diversity of usage: doing the homework, play video games, seek information about everything, communicate, listen to music… not only the computer gave the time but it was also possible to synchronize it with an atomic clock somewhere I don’t know!

I was also discovering a new world: people would build websites, create mailing lists and organize themselves into communities to discuss about the many applications of that new technology, share knowledge and spread ideas. There are recipes for baking cakes and others for making bombs, programs to chat with your friends or to spy on their computers, articles giving tips and tricks to win at video games, others explaining how to steal credit card numbers. That’s cyberculture, as I discovered it.

Now you can imagine that, as for other kind of cultural expressions, cyberculture consists of an overground and an underground. The overground part is accessible to everybody. That’s typically the smileys that we use when chatting or writing messages. Before them existed the ASCII art, the art of drawing things with the characters of your keyboard or some more special ones. For example I used to have this on top of my email signature:[3]

                                     (O o)
|                                                                      |

You can have much more complicated stuff, like a Mona Lisa automatically generated from a picture[4], or even a Star Wars movie[5]. Some people write programs to make not the result but the code itself look good. To write a very complicated program in order to achieve something simple (obfuscation) or to use as less instructions as possible – ideally it would take a single line (one-liner) – are also parts of the programming art. Playing video-games over the Internet when it’s 8pm at your place but 8am at your friend is another aspect of the overground. I used to play a turn-based role-playing game, when I was really into it I happened to wake up with an alarm during the middle of the night to play my turn and return to sleep afterwards…


Hosting a small LAN party in my garage, 2005

The underground part is even more interesting because it’s in the shadow and there’s a mystery around it. In the beginning, it takes its inspiration from the cyberpunk movement. You would get more familiar to robots and cyborgs after having read some science-fiction books from Isaac Asimov or William Gibson[6], who by the way invented the term cyberspace. Blade Runner belongs to cyberculture. So do The 13th Floor, Matrix, Dark City and Inception. Then you may want to get more out of your computer, learn how it works and try to use it like Jimi Hendrix playing his guitar with teeth. People getting active usually need a pseudonym to make the distinction between their real and virtual lives. It also allows to operate (partially) anonymously, if ever they want to deface a website (to take control of a webserver in order to change its homepage) or write sensitive articles for an e-zine (electronic magazine). Sometimes they prefer to make videos and wear a mask.[7]

Now the history of personal computing shows that cyberculture is like the 2 faces of a spinning coin expressing a duality that could not be ignored. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, information technology was propelled by hackers[8] and phreakers (people doing crazy stuff with a computer and the telephone network, legally or not) who used to meet in garages.[9] ARPANET, the ancestor of the Internet, was developed by the US army.[10] The free and open-source software movement was born in the academic circle.[11] Hackerspaces are associative rooms, the garages of our time, where computer geeks share knowledge and innovate the alternative software and devices of tomorrow.[12] Google believes in transhumanism: if they had the opportunity, they would probably make a Terminator out of you.[13] Whistle blowers from the last years gained public attention and clearly showed that the cyberspace is at the same time a powerful weapon and a war field in which it’s difficult to choose your side.[14]

This is cyberculture. It’s complex, wonderful and evil. Sometimes misunderstood.[15] In the image of us all. (Adrien, dieKulturvermittlung, 27.04.2015)

P.s.: No hyperlink to an external website has been used while writing this article, because this is how we used to do when sending HTML message was not well seen: one reason is that it was increasing the message size too much. Even today, many persons still prefer raw text messages. When in doubt, please follow the netiquette and send plain text message.

Sources and references

[1] Dedicated line with a high-speed permanent connection. Before the ADSL arrived in our homes, sole a few companies could afford that.

[2] Listen and read about it with The Mechanics and Meaning of That Ol’ Dial-Up Modem Sound.

[3] Anna mentioned while reviewing this article that the character in my email signature has an history and a name, what I never suspected.

[4] Mona Lisa in ASCII art.

[5] Star Wars movie in ASCII art.

[6] Read about William Gibson on Wikipedia.

[7] Reference to the Guy Fawkes mask that is worn by the Anonymous people.

[8] Hackers are often classified with a symbolic hat color representing what they use their skills for, and where they situate themselves regarding the law. Sometimes they can wear several hats at the same time.

[9] You can watch The Secret History Of Hacking from Ralph Lee, 2001.

[10] Read about ARPANET on Wikipedia.

[11] Read History of free and open-source software on Wikipedia.

[12] Read about Hackerspace and Metalab (viennese hackerspace) on Wikipedia.

[13] cf. (2014): Are the robots about to rise? Google’s new director of engineering thinks so…. In: The Guardian [WWW],

[14] cf. the WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden cases, respectively from 2010 and 2014.

[15] Read The Conscience of a Hacker, that is also known as the Hacker’s Manifesto.

Picture credits: (cc) dieKulturvermittlung

One response to “Cyberculture”

  1. gapi says:

    toller Artikel! Hat mich bis zum letzten Satz gefesselt!

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