Web 2.0 and the spirit of amateur technical culture
The evolution of actual ICT platforms toward a user interaction binding user-friendliness with increasingly capability in the creation, managing and sharing of contents regarding innumerable activities is normally indicated with the term web 2.0. This definition – coined following the typical stylish software upgrading – describes the second new wave of internet technologies. These applications, differently from previous software ones developed during first web phase (1995-2005), exalt in a better way the dynamical, open, relational and distributed nature of network, helping people and groups to enter in digital spaces with their specific expressions, organizing new structures regardless borders between labour and leisure time and according them to our common social logics following peculiar interests and/or the desire of relationships.
The exemption of technical work
The phenomenon of social network, characterized by new forms of cybersocial aggregation, involves by now hundreds of millions of people worldwide, revealing itself as an increasingly success story. The internet sites proposing such kind of activities have a strong appeal because of their free offer of tools and resources, consenting people to immediately operate and easily prepare their specific materials in a “self-service” modality, linking and sharing the several types of applications, services and data available in the rich digital world.
To say one example, it takes only five minutes to sign a digital platform and getting all needs to start and manage a personal site without having any notions about the procedures and their relative information technologies that the process has involved. We can measure the technological leap thinking of what construction and rolling out of a web site needed in terms of specific investments on hw-sw resources and technical know-how only two-three years ago. We could compare this shift with that of photography when – with introduction of amateur portable camera and exemption of most part of technical work by Kodak technology (“You push the button, we do the rest.”) at the end of XIX century – photographic mania boosted worldwide, overwhelming all places with images.
In this contribute we deep in a flashback that could seem vertiginous from our digital era, for returning to a period in which the first forms of autonomous and creative management of electric communication technologies took off. We will see how these experiences, founding for digital age, can help us to think of constraints and opportunities that our relationship with technologies inevitably produces, highlighting not only what appears a kind (in terms of free expression and interaction) of technological manna, but also the most critical aspects that commercial and industrial policies, in the effort to enlarge market, can induce in the ability to intervene on the most “hard matter” of specific medium. In fact, in the wake of the enormous success of web 2.0 applications, begins to loom some critics about diverse aspects of phenomenon.
The digital resources
Many people concern about the precarious but real balance between the offer of free resources by provider, that invests and develops hw-sw services, and its exploitation of user generated contents (UGC). The technology provider benefits of advertising revenues that contents produced by users – data, activities, ideas, opinions, personal contacts, and the whole of their almost infinite articulations – can attract. But gathering and analyzing these data, providers knows and owns even their digital identities, having an very delicate information archive on their personal lives and social behaviours.
Nevertheless, behind this major concern there is a less evident one. The great inflow of people enjoying to participate and sustain the new social spaces – helped by a service designing to filter technical difficulties to focalize users only on contents regarding the various activities – is also seen as an implicit weakening of that abilities to learn and practice the associated IT matters, an engagement that has had the merit to rise in normal people both cognition and capability to move in the digital environment, to participate, address and, in some case, guide its infinite potentiality in terms of development and application.
This new kind of access to digital sphere based on user-friendly, ready-made tools and procedures – that, paradoxically, has been helped by personal appropriation of IT technical practices and languages – could bring a debasement of the desire to face and engage the digital world even in its technological “core” aspects.
Indeed, economy of scale of social network are helping – on the contrary of the typical philosophy of distributed resources of the first digital phase – the concentration of hw-sw infrastructures into enormous, de-territorialized web farms/data centers, involving in their building the big capitals that can be collected only by great corporations. In these sites converge and reside all data and services that – thanks to the increasingly speed of transmission of actual fixed and mobile networks – can be effectively delivered to the “thin” user devices built only to run functional and visual interface operations. Consequently, even research and development functions (R&D) of a great part of internet could return in the domains of few entities, which could face scarcer oppositions regarding its future evolutions because of lack of those typical independent components constituted by people having not only alternative philosophies, but also the specific technical abilities to implement them.
The socialization of technical task
If someone asks us how beginning to explore the human desire to re-engineer the technologies of electric communication according them to its informative and social needs, we have to start from amateur radio hobby. Not only because hams are famously indicated as the first hackers (ICT experts), but even for their great actuality – for us, mobile user, by now implicit – for having conceived and practiced an alternative, open and really interactive wireless network in a period in which radio technology was totally closed in the one-way world of broadcasting dominated by commercial corporations.
Their history evidences many instructive reasons, entering ourselves in the folds of an amateur “technical culture”, and then more autonomous and alternative one from the “iron” logics of production and profit, a very important part of our cultural heritage and a sensitive component of innovative processes.
The scholar Kristen Haring – sister of pop artist Keith Haring – has been a direct witness of ham radio’s appeal. She has completely changed the structure of her work on hobbies: instead of speaking of ham radio as one of examples, it became the main topic of her book Ham Radio’s Technical Culture, as a kind of “ideal case”. Published by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the research is meaningfully inserted in “Inside Technology”, a series of works cured by Wiebe Bijker, Trevor Pinch and W. Bernard Carlson, scholars that have a social and cultural approach to technology study.
It is easy to understand the attraction for this topic.
Every night thousands of men retreat to radio stations elaborately outfitted in suburban basements or tucked into closets of city apartments to talk to local friends or to strangers on the other side of the world. They communicate by speaking into a microphone, tapping out Morse code on the telegraph key, or typing at the keyboard of a teletypewriter. In the Internet age, instantaneous, long-distance, person-to-person communication seems ordinary. But amateur radio operator have been completing such contacts since the 1910s.
The meaning of amateur technical culture
However, what the research finally highlights is the meaning of amateur technical culture; it rises as a kind of challenge and rough talent to finally affirm itself as educative activity that lives out of mainstream course of technology. At the same time, it’s an activity that has to face the evolution of technology as well as industrial and commercial policies, establishing some collaborations to survive dealing with flexibility the various realities acting in technological environments, showing philosophies and practices that have been valid embankments to defend and establish a kind of project autonomy.
Whether service as leaders or provocateurs, hobbyists demonstrated diverse options for technical culture. Hobbyists engaged with technology in a way that was fun, collaborative, educational, intense, and creative. These methods and values were independent from, and at times in direct conflict with, the technical culture of profit-driven production.”. In this sense they are the direct forerunners of digital activists. The letter of Bill Gates in 1976, “Open letter to hobbists” – that in author’s intention would have to stop the free exchange of software BASIC, developed for the first personal computers sold in kit (Altair) – is highly emblematic. Warning the risk to end “state-of-art” software production, the general question was: “Who can afford to do professional work for nothing?.
But hams have acted in this way for decades, making of social appropriation of technology – of black-box opening, of rejection of its user-friendly interface, of self-built improvements and alternative implementation, of sharing of efforts and know-how – their true philosophy.
For the author this spirit is “the legacy of hobbyists and a reminder that there exist alternative ways of using and relating to technology”.
The origin of term “hobby” and the value of “doing”
Until 1880 the word “hobby” was used to indicate every sort of personal “obsession”. At the beginning of 1900 it started to be associated a different meaning recalling activities pursued values as productivity, educational engagement, leisure and structured and recreational time. Unlike of dispersive excitement of pure entertainment, hobbies were conceived as activity that maintained participants busier and in a constant, improving phase.
A popular magazine dedicated to mechanics published in 1925 reports a definition in terms of “thought and care, infinite patience and perseverance” that “coupled with skillful workmanship” produce an important moral lesson.
The value of “doing” was central for learning. The community of hobbyists encouraged activities that engaged in manual operations celebrating the virtue of “learning by doing” as “instructive as well as constructive”. Advices regarding ham radio contained always suggestions to not skip practices; for example, after the rise of photographic labs offering film printing, photo-amateur magazines dissuaded their readers to use these services to not risk the missing of a part of pleasure and the losing of the hobbyist status. In short, there was an implicit vision against the standardization of technical practices, with its logics of user-friendliness and black-boxness.
The make/buy choice was always a dilemma and a struggling open ground for hobbyists and, from this point of view, radio amateurs have been an easy target of derision. They received critics to build things that could be available immediately, spending a comparable amount, often less, of money. But attacks could also arrive from people declaring opposition to industry for principle. On radio technology and its various activities it’s famous the caustic position of German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno. He considered also the amateur activities as internal to the circle of industry domain given that it was impossible to assembly a device without depending on commercial components, and so on the limits fixed by industry policies.
But critics did not have clear the specific position of hobbyists dwelling in a inter-zone between consumption and production, leisure and labour, a tactical position of critical resistance – reminding anthropologist Michel de Certeau – that consented to be productive and creative.
Even if the movements to intervene autonomously reduced with introduction of kits, self-built equipments remained their creatures. Through this productive consumption people could often make alterations modifying devices that industry wanted ultra-simplified but that, in their mind, had the lack to hide functional mechanisms reducing user operations from an vigilant and aware engagement around a process to a superficial pushing of buttons.
This resistance to take ready-made technologies faces hard time in the 70s with the strong integration of electronic components and the relevant reduction of the price between commercial devices and the relative kit version. Nevertheless, devices assembled and used by hams were 80% of total in the 1968; the assemblage was a compromise between being a pure consumer and a producer consenting hams to still boast a specific skill and identity in their technical field.
The evident weakness of technical training that the guide of kit produced was struggled by a greater encouragement to make autonomous changes to original project, a path that could recovery part of qualities of previous practices. The big attraction that the first rudimental computers exercised on hobbyists is too a consequence of this need, that could be revitalized by virginity, mysteriousness and plasticity of new application field. In effect, ham radio handbook and magazines insisted – quite ironically, if we think how sent the message – about the point that “the ‘know-how’ obtained by constructing a piece of electronic gear cannot be duplicated by reading a thousand books!” (1957).
The “hands-on” principle and the desire to go beyond the closed form of ready-made device are so rooted in their culture that a 1973 handbook dedicated to electronic hobby described hams as “the true hobbyists who started the built-it-yourself concept in electronics”.
The anarchic spirit working against industry standardization impinged computer hobby culture. Some phrases spoken by first hackers in a meeting at Homebrew Computer Club reveal this when described themselves as “a bunch of escapees, at least temporary escapees from industry” who appreciated that “the bosses weren’t watching” and who “knew this was our chance to do something the way we thought it should be done”. And they invoked the language of “amateurs” to separate leisure and commercial aims, another question still creating troubles.
The technical identity
For a group of people that are associated by passion of technology – a physical application of scientific knowledge – high-tech works as identity factor in a double sense: as a source of identification and identifier respect to external environment. Becoming ham needed a great technical skill, equipments (transmitter-receiver, antenna, headears, tools of diagnosis) and, of course, free time and money.
There was also another obstacle: the strategical potentiality of wireless communication induced government to regulate radio activities obliging people to get a federal licence before managing a radio station. Issued by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) after various exams, the licence certified ham’s know-how on many matters as electronic theory, radio legislation, Morse code, etc. Obtaining the licence the FCC assigned a specific identification code (call sign) and released technical parameters to set appropriately radio station and starting transmission according the general frequency plan. The law prescribed also to keep a log in which reporting all technical details about the successful calls. Hams were at the same time worried and proud for all these peculiar attentions.
Hams have generally a higher period of formal education than other people but, after the World War II and the introduction of radio study into school programs, this kind of pre-requisite to access hobby softened. The need of Army to prepare a new generation of technicians plays a key role: its typical inter-class composition made technical skill available at large out of middle and high-class dominion.
For a nation as US, that has had and (always) pretends a key role in terms of politics, economics and technology, research is a strategic lever and Army needs is, in this sense, a constant prop, ready to support the continuous challenges magnetizing national energies. The so-called Cold War against Soviet Union during the fifty years puts hams in the particular and delicate position to be both cuddled for their technical skill and controlled as possible agents of enemy. Indeed, being considered a precious resource for their technical skill was a quality linked to the place that technology increasingly had for modern society development; high-tech hobbyists saw their reputation rises but, because of their “advanced” position, were in a critical zone needing control. Under this aspect, the tension between admiration and social control is another of their “natural” dimension.
Despite the great amount of hardware and technical knowledge, ham radio fecundated on work focused on hard matter of medium an intense and new activity of meetings. These contacts happened both as meetings in the air or in the other mediated spaces as ham magazines, and in the physical spaces of urban and regional club through personal meetings. The focalisation on medium, with the exaltation of an active, two-way radio, permitted to unfold it to the content of a pure social interaction. Although the rich anecdotal describing hobbyists as alien to social activities – generally, given the prevalence of male sex, stories are plenty of female claims about their status of virtual widow because of some hobbies, and using definitions as “radio widow”, “hi-fi widow”, “computer widow” – not only the hobby didn’t destroy sociality but started new social, and particularly lively, circles.
Hobbyists describe themselves as a “technical fraternity”; they were fundamentally open to newcomers, even if their technical culture, of which they were proud, constituted a difficult barrier. For being part of community means sharing values and norms, ham radio publishing had the task to continuously recall them, an important function for new adepts. The qualities of true amateur are “inquisitiveness, persistence, improvisation, imagination and open mind”. The exchanges of technical ideas are the proof that “the amateur spirit has always been characterized by friendliness, helpfulness and an eagerness to share one’s knowledge, tricks and pet circuits with others”.
These technical magazines then works also as a powerful source of enculturation. On the other side, as community rises, even the etiquette became an essential factor to not clog the ether. Along with the instructions to well operate with radio station we can find advises to observe etiquette, for example, to not disturb incoming communications because “a sense of courtesy is important”.
Hams sustained themselves as social network but, not less important, as niche industry too. Indeed, at the beginning of radio era their role rising that industry is commonly recognized. The amateur passion, the effective work of technical building and their example – but even the real presence on the air waves – were an important badminton for commercial activities too. In 1930 the mythical RCA president David Sarnoff said that “the radio industry outgrew its first customer – the radio amateur”.
Ham radio seemed to better incarnate the new recreational spirit of hobbies that improved their consideration. During the great depression idea that activities of leisure time could feed positive attitudes pushes social agencies to sponsor them in order to maintain the productive ethics of labour despite of difficulties and high unemployment rate.
The engagement in amateur activities causes many benefits: participation strengthens skill and art of making; finding out acolytes in distant communities; feeling in line with the formidable technical world; reaching out new personal limits, improving career’s opportunities; and all is made in a recreational climate. Moreover, thanks to their specific skill hobbyists had a great influence on technological world, even beyond their peculiar perimeter. As early adopters they were the leaders of their technical field, ready to interpreter events around technology, of which becoming a critical source for defining its identity and explaining uses.
The sunset and the new dawn
The cooling of ham radio mania has been caused from the abrupt breakthrough resulted by the introduction of transistors in the sixty years, that substituted the active component of electronic circuits constituted by vacuum tubes, a first step to integrate all kinds of electronic elements in a smaller scale. Unlike equipments based on vacuum tubes, a technology very familiar to hobbyists “transistors were tiny, opaque, sealed devices – black boxes, literally and figuratively – that made learning by doing nearly impossible in home workshops”.
Of course, producers had different interests. Electronic industry was attracted from the new vantages that solid-state components promised – among others, minor costs and more reliability. Integrated Circuits (ICs) changed radically electronics doing the job of dozen and hundreds components. Electronic devices became very compact allowing the take off of electronic consumer market, producing high revenues with the speed absorption of costs derived from skill conversion and re-engineering of factories. The self-built equipment as strategy of technical critical appropriation was undermined at the root.
Not only ICs were small, compact and sealed entities, but contained a such number of functions that the same manufactories considered useless and complicated offering detailed explanations. “Unlike glowing vacuum tubes and visually distinguishable solid-state parts, the ICs wrapped in opaque, standardized shells gave no clues about how they worked or what they did”.
In the seventy years the sale of kits based on the logic of modular electronic cards collapsed. They permitted only to learn how to make circuit links and sellers too admitted that “the only occasion for learning by doing came if the device failed to work initially and required tinkering, something he otherwise found absent from ‘being and electronics buff today’”. In this period there is the rise of a vintage hobby sub-current recovering the previous technologies with users involving to use old equipments and aligning them to new functions. At the same time, a true cult for vacuum tube sprouted.
“Without the soft glow of a vacuum tube… the electronics based on ICs no longer has a soul… and was functional but cold”. As Haring notes “the emotional attachment of radio hobbyists to the vacuum tube is part denoted a desire to maintain certain community values associated with technology”; it is an evident expression of the care and attention toward the technological core of device.
However, the state of crisis was evident as the comment in an actual magazine reveals: “ham radio just isn’t what it was years ago and we are living in a fantasy world trying to built our hobby on the value of yesteryear”. A community constituted around a technology lives technical changes as a sort of threat or of challenge to its structure. Initially kits have represented an innovation helping newcomers to access hobby even if, at the same, diluting time their technical skill. But the functional integration by microchips was a very mortal hit to the core of their reasons, to their condition of prosumer based on the free curiosity about equipment and its technology, to their desire to control them and devise, in the prolific and creative territory between production and consumption, new solution for old and new needs.
The decline of kit sales was inexorable and indicative of a certain way to think of and live technology, a signal about the end of a certain technological cycle. The end of radio kit sale announced by the US main producer, the Heath Company, was commented by New York Times in a front-page article with the emblematic title “Plug Is Pulled on Heathkits, Ending a Do-It-Yourself Era” (1992). In the same period in which the specific and mono-functional electronic devices were embedded into the powerful microchips, micro-electronics tried to open even innovative prospectives projecting other kind of device, this time in the opposite direction of a general purpose nature – the personal computer.
In the seventy years computers became the natural landing of hams, that found the entire imaginary, in terms of potentiality, future, career and applications (military and civil) once associated with radio. The presence in the market of hardware and software – as Altair 8800, sold in kit in 1975, and Apple II, Commodore PET and Tandy Radio Shack’s TRS-80 in 1977 – allowing to build the first rudimental personal computers attracted technical hobbyists toward computer age. Hams found immediately good reasons to explore it, trying to integrate technologies – for example, to automate some procedures or exploiting the first efforts to synthesize voice – or directly to change hobby for a new promising one.
The interchange between two cultures was evident. The same pioneering computer magazines, BYTE and KILOBAUD, were lunched by the famous ham radio publisher Wayne Green. In that period there was a great emphasis about common ideas, “rarely has there been a better marriage of two hobby than this one” because of mind set and inclination: “the user’s ability to learn about and gain some control over the tool depended on being able to spend some more amount of time probing around inside the equipment”.
Indeed, ham radio spirit, culture and practices flattened the road to the digital universe in which we now operate, and several members of Homebrew Computer Club – the mythical Californian club where people made the history of personal informatics met each others (Bob Marsh, Adam Osborne, Lee Felsenstein, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, etc.) – have had ham radio experiences.
From certain points, the history of ham radio can work to relight attention on the best strategies in order people living in every segments of society having a direct grasp of technologies in all its vital articulations, as a part of their personal culture.
Otherwise, at least, it can suggest to safeguard, socially and economically, as precious resources, people and groups that engage themselves in ICTs with inquisitiveness, work and responsible autonomy.
Haring, K., 2007, Ham Radio’s Technical Culture, Cambridge (Ma), Mit Press.
“Plug Is Pulled on Heathkits, Ending a Do-It-Yourself Era”, in New York Times, 30/3/1992.