ZX Spectrum, or Decentering Digital Media Platform Studies approach as a tool to investigate the cultural differences through computing systems in their interactions with creativity and expression

Piotr Marecki (piotr.marecki@ha.art.pl), Jagiellonian University, Poland and Michał Bukowski (yerzmyey@poczta.onet.pl), Jagiellonian University, Poland and Robert Straky (hellboj@centrum.cz), GH University of Science and Technology, Poland

The point of departure for our paper is the statement that “The computer is not a tool to help us do whatever we do, it iswhat we do, it is the medium on which we work” (Dene Grigar, Electronic Literature Organization), and that the Platform Studies approach is essential in the Digital Humanities field to better understand rules of the contemporary digital world. Our goal is to present an output of our 2-years research project devoted to the 8-bit computer ZX Spectrum (especially the ZX Spectrum 16/48K and 128K models). According to Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost: “Platform Studies investigates the relationships between the hardware and software design of computing systems and the creative works produced on those systems. Particular platform studies may emphasize different technical or cultural aspects and draw on different critical and theoretical approaches, but they will be united in being technically rigorous and in deeply investigating computing systems in their interactions with creativity, expression, and culture.” (http://platformstudies.com/)

One could imagine a narration about the ZX Spectrum platform as the official history of the British company Sinclair Research Ltd., in which the official and copyrighted market products of the company would be presented (both the hardware and the software, like games, word processors, graphics processing programs). Sir Clive Marles Sinclair created the ZX Spectrum at the beginning of the 80s as a machine that first and foremost was meant to serve educational purposes. As is the case with the inventions of many creators, Sinclair’s broke away and began a life of its own. This unofficial grassroots and human story is the one we wish to tell.

The starting point for our narrative is the belief that the ZX Spectrum platform is unique as compared to other 8-bit machines. Its uniqueness lies in the reception of the platform by users on a scale which is incomparable to that of any other platform. The traditional way of using platforms (not only the 8-bit) is based on their consumption, or the use of the official equipment, as well as programing, delivered by the manufacturer. And although the stories about platforms such as the C-64 or Atari are no strangers to creative and bottom-up approaches, these are based on the creation of independent programs. Besides the ZX Spectrum, none of these platforms generated the same hardware systems or clones on such scale and creative level. This is related to the simplicity of the computer’s construction and the cheap cost of the accessories as well as the geopolitical conditions in the world in the period of the platform’s popularity, the 80s and 90s. It should also be added that the UK platform was popular mainly in Europe (despite attempts, the platform was never popularized in the United States).

One of the novel aspects of the output of our project is the attempt to compare the East and the West - two worlds with different approaches to the same platform. The story of the Spectrum is used as a focal point that will enable us to describe the differences between the two sides of the Iron Curtain, also after its fall, in the period of political transformation in the countries of the formerEastern Bloc. Briefly, in one of these worlds software and platforms were easily accessible commercial goods, while in the other they were coveted symbols of a different reality in a situation where legal software was almost inaccessible and the platforms were sold only in special stores with foreign goods, or distributed illegally. Both financial and political matters, and the aforementioned simplicity, decided that the platform was cloned en masse. Creativity in both naming the clones (ZX Evolution, Didaktik, Scorpion – just to mention a few), as well as ways of tuning the equipment, is the subject of our study and description. It is also worth noting that no other platform inspired as many equipment parties, bringing together fans of platforms that to this day create clones of the hardware, or magazines devoted to it. Currently, clones of this platform can still be purchased.

By describing the ZX Spectrum platform, we try to tackle trends that are relevant to contemporary studies on digital media, taking into account and affirming the local perspective, different from the dominant one. We are interested in the aspect of creation in the field of digital media, as well as the use of computers for artistic purposes or programing for fun. During the several decades of the existence of digital media, a number of creative fields and worlds bringing together users of different platforms, used for their creative purposes, have flourished. Alongside the fields of electronic music, video games, new media art and electronic literature, there is the demoscene, separate from and not having many links with the rest of the digital world.

What is the demoscene? This phenomenon is apparent to those with advanced understanding of digital media. In the book Freax. The Brief History of Computer Demosceneit is stated that “almost all modern art genres have an underground stream that can not be found anywhere, or bought in shops, and only insiders know of its existence.” (Polgár, 2005: 6) Adjectives such as illegal, grassroots, independent are often related with this field and practice. The term itself is derived from the word “demonstration” and refers to the demonstration of the capabilities of a platform and the skills of a programmer. A basic understanding of the demoscene will treat it as “a subculture in the computer underground culture universe, dealing with the creative and constructive side of technology" (Demoscene FAQ).

The reasons, however, for telling the story of this particular platform through this perspective are several. Among the platforms, the 8-bit Spectrum is widely considered to be the cheapest(this aspect is important to taking up the issues of accessibility, universality and democratic nature of the platform). This is a very important factor considering the fact that the prices of other platforms could be added up to a number of monthly salaries. One of the objectives of the demosceners is to circumvent the technical limitations of the platform. Demosceners fell in love with the ZX Spectrum, more or less because it is recognized as a platform characterized by the simplest technical solutions, so it was natural to perform impossible operations on it.

Our proposal can be compared above all to recent approaches from thebook series on platforms studies. To indicate the most recently published, among them are Now the Chips Are Down: The BBC Micro Alison Gazzard(2016, MIT Press, due to the British local context) and The Future Was Here: The Commodore Amiga(2012, MIT Press) by Jimmy Maher. Another work that addresses the issues of a local approach to personal computer is an Electronic Dreams: How 1980s Britain Learned to Love the Computerby Tom Lean (Bloomsbury Sigma, 2016). The book by Tom Boellstorff, Bonnie Nardi, Celia Pearce & T. L. Taylor, Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method(Princeton University Press, 2012), mainly the ethnographic research by T. L. Taylor, is a reference point for our ways of working with the community that uses digital media.

Our paper will present the findings of a two year research project devoted to the platform. The research work will involve semi-structured interviews (with 20 demosceners from Russia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia), centered around the creative possibilities of the platform.

Appendix A

  1. Polgár T. (2005). Freax. The Brief History of the Computer Demoscene. Winnenden: CSW Verlag.