When the Data Learned to Travel

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Hardly any technology in the computer sector is really new. Most of the things that appear as innovations either have direct forerunners or, under their surfaces, relationships to the past show up as traces of ideas that sometimes go far back in history. For example, the fact that the logic circuits of computers are based on ideas that were invented in Greek philosophy 3500 years ago, as well as the origin of pixel graphics from weaving technology and the order of binary numbers from Chinese I-Ching philosophy.

Searching for such traces represents a kind of archeology – an archeology of the present, because it does not dig in ruins for the relics of past generations, but for hidden ideas in current technologies.

I would like to explain this idea below for the media format of the diskette magazine (in short: Diskmags) and show which technologies, ideas, and cultural conditions have given rise to it. This will take us from US students in the 1950s through various networks in the 1980s to today’s data distribution technologies, in which the Diskmags are finally “stored”. (This contribution represents the slightly revised version of an essay, which is published in Issue 108 of the diskmag “Digital Talk” has been published.)

Diskmags as media

Before doing this, you should first clarify what is meant by “media”. When one speaks of “the media” today, it mostly means the mass media, their producers, formats or contents: television and its programs, the print media and its texts, Hollywood and its films etc. But I would like the term to be a little narrower summarize and designate media as specific apparatus for processing, storing and transferring information; instead of “television” so “the television set”, instead of “the print media” so “paper” and instead of “the computer” (in the collective singular) the computers and their specific functions.

Most historical media are now “absorbed” in computer processes: either one uses a television, which is actually a computer-controlled pixel display, or one reads the online edition of a newspaper directly on the computer screen. With this disappearance of the individual, specialized media technologies, and devices, a conversion takes place: digitalization means the computerization of Media content, algorithmization the computerization of Media functions.

Seen in this way, disk magazines were never a medium, but always a format in which specific content can be reproduced: texts, images, sounds. But as with all media formats, the technical dispositive also influence this content. Unlike newspapers, articles can be hypertextual here because they allow you to jump to certain content at the touch of a button. You can get from the first page to the second as quickly as to the thirtieth page.

And yet they are still “less” than websites because the jumps cannot go as far or beyond the system: There is a storage limit on the floppy disk (n side), which requires a specific “flip” when it is reached: turning over or changing the Diskette. And there is a system boundary that cannot be skipped (for example, to a text that is stored on another computer). And unlike printed media content, the number of characters and styles are limited, and the options for illustration in terms of resolution and color depth are limited.

The technical system (here the C64 and its peripherals) clearly defines the limits and possibilities of the Diskmag format and its contents. You could say: The C64 inscribes itself in my contribution and contributes to it by referring me and my readers to its 1982 limits.

SX-64 monitor. Menu of the Digital Talk (edition 100), 160 by 200 in 16 colors. / Public letter in the Digital Tals (issue 107), 16 lines, and 40 characters. Images: Stefan Höltgen

This knowledge may seem trivial at first, but it can be used to show the “hybrid” status of Diskmags. They exist in a media-technical space and one In the meantime: They are not websites yet, but they are no longer just newspapers. They are more similar to bridge technologies such as BTX or Teletext – from which they differ not only in their soundtracks and animations but above all in their distribution.

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