computer culture

The first infographic of computer user types ever created! (circa 1974)

I just bumped into the first known infographic about “computer user types” and wanted to share it with you. That, my friends, is one of the joys of studying computer culture from an archeological point of view.

Click to enlarge

The infographic is featured in Ted Nelson’s 1974 cult classic Computer Lib (South Bend, IN: published by the author). The book was actually a double feature, and it read both forwards (and in this case the title was Computer Lib: You can and must understand computers now) and backwards (as Dream Machines: New freedoms through computer screens—a minority report). (more…)

A History of Virulence: The Body and Computer Culture in the 1980s (part 2 – with illustrations)

From viral marketing to computer viruses, the cultural logic of virality permeates the Web. The December 2010 issue of the Sage journal Body & Society will publish my long-awaited 36-page essay “A History of Virulence: The Body and Computer Culture in the 1980s”. The text that follows is the second  part of the “author’s cut” version of the article: an archeology of computer-mediated moral panic, autonomist marxist hacking, and AIDS activism. Click here for the first part.

Computers – Viral or Visceral?

This ‘viral turn’ in mainstream computer narratives was absorbed in a somewhat paradoxical way into users’ milieus. The symbolic coincidence of the body and computing machinery, as well as the related viral motives, were enthusiastically adopted by computer amateurs. This appropriation can be read as a typical ironic strategy mirroring hegemonic taxonomies (Ang, 1985; Storey, 2006), a way of transcending labelling through self-stigmatization. In this sense, virulence developed into a cultural process of unapologetic ‘counterpride display’ typical of youth subcultures (Richards, 1988). In the context of 1980s computer culture, this can be interpreted as something that aimed not only to empower autonomous social practices through political recognition but also to normalize personal motivations and behaviours through the inscription of technological activity in the intimate sphere of the body. The mimicking of the media hype was not only performed with satirical intent. It also performed a deliberate distortion and amplification of the viral discourse into one of ‘viscerality’. The classical Cartesian superposition between body and machine – implied by the mainstream rhetoric of computer viruses – expanded into a thematic sequence that came to be dominated by the image of the machine penetrating the body.

Understanding how computer culture adopted the stigma of being a ‘virus’ and turning it into an asset requires first understanding the relative place and status of the computer in late 20th-century consumer culture. The process of miniaturization of computing technology that had led from the 13-ton UNIVAC (1951) to the 30-odd kilo IBM 5100 (1975), was also a process of re-territorialization. While the post-war ‘electronic giant brains’ (Berkeley, 1949) occupied military bunkers and industrial basements, the 1980s saw the infiltration of computing machines into the private sphere. Decades before ubiquitous computing, homeand family-computers took up residence inside the houses of a new generation of electronic amateurs1. Commercial names changed in step, evoking everyday life and homely informality. The most successful products had common male and female names like Lisa or Vic2. They conjured up the unthreatening pleasures of family life: children (Junior, Piccolo), small animals (Pet, Bee), and fruits (Apple, Acorn, etc)3. Products designating power, luxury and imposing size were destined to sell poorly4. Specialized press targeting computer users developed these motifs. Home privacy became synonymous with personal, bodily intimacy. In the media, there was an increasing trend to emphasize the association between autonomous computing and bodily performance, beauty and health. The well-known Apple 1984 TV commercial (Scott, 1984)5, for example, staged the liberating power of personal computers by opposing a young female athlete to a crowd of senile users living under the rule of an Orwellian Big Brother.

These initial remarks are corroborated and extended by the analysis of visual sources. At first glance, the depictions of computers associated with sports and physical activities duplicate this buoyant bodily imaginary. For example, Figure 2 clearly places the computer in a family setting. The presence of a father and his son suggests intergenerational unity and family ordinariness. The father wearing sports gear further indicates that computing can be seen as a substitute for physical exercise.

Figure 2. Family computer and physical exercise (Anon., 1983a – courtesy of


  1. The domestication of computers, which some commentators date back to the mid 1990s (Cummings and Kraut, 2002; Frohlich and Kraut, 2003; Kraut et al., 2006), was actually a distinctive phenomenon of the previous decade.
  2. One of the milestones in Apple’s rise to commercial supremacy was a computer christened Lisa, named after Steve Job’s daughter. In the 1980s, another big hitter was Commodore’s Vic20, whose name, according to its creator, ‘sounded like a truck driver’ (Bagnall, 2003).
  3. Among the best-know nexamples of computer names inspired by childhood are: the IBM PC jr, the Japanese Junior100 and the Danish RC Piccolo. Animal and fruit names were also commercially successful: for example, the Commodore’s Pet was followed by BWV’s Husky and by Applied Technologies’ MicroBee; early European competitors of Apple included Acorn computers and Apricot PC.
  4. After 1982, a number of short-lived home computers with pretentious names popped up: the Welsh Dragon Data, the English Atom, the Belgian Charlemagne 999, the French Orchidé́e as well as the American Vixen were all forced out of the market by 1984.
  5. For a complete description see Linzmayer (1999) and Friedman (2005).

A History of Virulence: The Body and Computer Culture in the 1980s (part 1)

From viral marketing to computer viruses, the cultural logic of virality permeates the Web. The December 2010 issue of the Sage journal Body & Society will publish my long-awaited 36-page essay “A History of Virulence: The Body and Computer Culture in the 1980s”. The text that follows is the first part of the “author’s cut” version of the article: an archeology of computer-mediated moral panic, autonomist marxist hacking, and AIDS activism. Click here for the second part.

Ubiquity, Embodiment, Virality

The emergence of ubiquitous media and the focus on pervasive computer networks seem to have introduced a major shift in the way information and communication technologies are practised and represented in contemporary societies. Since the early 2000s, the consensus around theories of a virtual humanity ‘homesteading on the electronic frontier’ – the ethereal cyberspace where users were to be ‘uploaded’ (Lévy, 1994; Rheingold, 1993) – have progressively given way to approaches to computer-mediated social interaction centred on mixed realities. According to these new theoretical stances, digital technologies are to be regarded as a domain of affordances extending and enhancing physical presence rather than superseding it (Hansen, 2006). Significantly enough, the author who popularized the very notion of ‘cyberspace’, William Gibson, acknowledges this momentous development in his novel Spook Country: if the pre-ubiquitous technological paradigm can be described as ‘a state in which ‘‘mass’’ media existed, if you will, within the world’, in the ubiquitous one they ‘comprise it’ (2007: 121).

Ubiquitous computing does not transcend everyday experience, rather it pervades reality by saturating the actual space of the cities and by infusing physical bodies. Featherstone (2007: 320) describes this media ontology by suggesting that ‘as media become ubiquitous they become increasingly embedded in material objects and environments, bodies and clothing, zones of transmission and reception’. After Simondon, Bernard Stiegler defines social and ubiquitous media as a ‘human techno-geographical milieu’ (in Venn et al., 2007), that is, a socio-technological process converting human corporeality into information. Following Stiegler’s emphasis on the need to harmonize symbolic, technical and material milieus, new couplings of the body, social imaginaries and social practices come into view.


"How come it's BLUE?" The origins of James Cameron's Avatar

By: Antonio A. Casilli (Centre Edgar-Morin, EHESS, Paris) [1]

By now you all must have a pretty clear opinion of James Cameron’s Avatar. Is it the new Star Wars? Or is it just another CGI-ridden crapbuster movie? You are entitled to your own opinion. As I am not a film critic, my job is not to change it. What this movie represents to me, and to many a colleague of mine, is a chance to resuscitate some forgotten pieces of cultural analysis written in the last 15 years – approximatively the time this movie has been in the making. As a concept, the avatar has a long history.

Visual genealogy: left The Lawnmower Man (1992); right Avatar (2009)

And a long history also means a lot of bibliographic references. And some of them still come handy to understand what the hell Cameron’s film is about. It’ like a garage sale, where I give away those old records I used to cherish a lot, so that some freshman neighbour with deejaying penchants can make a mashup mp3 out of them.

A few years ago, for example, the French journal Communications published an article of mine whose title, quite self-explanatorily, would read something like: Blue Avatars, about three strategies of cultural borrowing at the heart of computer culture.
Antonio A. Casilli (2005). Les avatars bleus, Autour de trois stratégies d’emprunt culturel au cœur de la cyberculture. Communications, 7 (1), 183-209

Yeah, well… maybe not that self-explanatorily, after all. Anyhow, in this article I gave form to a socio-visual genealogy of the avatar, as one of the main archetypes of contemporary culture.

Now I assume some of you don’t speak French. Also, some simply can’t be bothered to go through 30 pages of socio-babbling. So here I provide a summary of the main results of the article.


Alberto Camerini, prophète du spaghetti cyberpunk

1983. Le magazine Time attribue le prix “personnalité de l’année” à un ordinateur. William Gibson travaille encore le manuscrit de Neuromancien. Steve Jobs regarde dubitatif le prototype du premier Mac. Les hackers du Chaos Computer Club de Berlin préparent l’hold-up électronique de la Hamburger Sparkasse. Donna Haraway se demande qu’est-ce qu’un cyborg.

Le chanteur Italien Alberto Camerini, compose “Computer Capriccio”, chanson qui préfigure les communautés virtuelles, les MMORPG et les médias sociaux.

Voilà un extrait live (en playback, Eighties obligent)


Dans la revue Esprit mon dossier sur "Le corps dans la culture du numérique"

La dernière livraison de la revue Esprit (mars 2009), est entièrement consacrée aux impacts sociaux d’Internet. Elle contient le dossier Le corps à l’épreuve des cultures numériques que j’ai coordonné.

Flotando - by Lampeduza (c) Creative Commons