J. G. Erdogan: Avantgarde der Computernutzung

Avantgarde der Computernutzung. Hackerkulturen der Bundesrepublik und der DDR

Erdogan, Julia Gül
Geschichte der Gegenwart (24)
Göttingen 2021: Wallstein Verlag
Anzahl Seiten
392 S.
€ 34,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Patryk Wasiak, Insitute of History, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw

If we look at the history of hacker cultures in the late Cold War era, there were two main concurrent developments: the prolific culture in the United States and a patchwork of different local cultures in European countries. The developments in U.S. hacker culture have been previously discussed by Douglas Thomas and, more recently, by Kevin Driscoll in his Ph.D. thesis on bulletin board system (BBS) networks.1 In the last decade, a variety of studies, book chapters, and journal articles examining diverse European hacker cultures have been published. For now, the most comprehensive collection of such studies is the “Hacking Europe” volume from 2014.2 Such studies offer close examinations of specific milieus or more generalized nationwide overviews of currents related to computer hacking practices.

When it comes to the scale of activities, public presence, and even political impact, the most prolific hacker culture emerged in West Germany. This topic has been briefly discussed by Kai Denker.3 However, Julia Erdogan goes much further with her book Avantgarde der Computernutzung: Hackerkulturen der Bundesrepublik und der DDR. She not only delivers a comprehensive investigation of several aspects of hacker culture in West Germany, and, to some extent, similar cultures in the GDR, but she also provides the most detailed existing study of the repertoire of the activities, social structure, and political and public significance of any hacker culture. Erdogan delivers an almost four-hundred-page-long theoretically informed scholarly investigation that provides an example of how one could study any hacker culture, both as a social phenomenon and as a social organization with a political agenda. Particularly impressive is the extensive body of sources that includes interviews with key figures in the hacker community from both sides of the Berlin Wall and a collection of both published and unpublished sources.

First of all, it is necessary to address the obvious discrepancy in Julia Erdogan’s book between the space dedicated to West Germany and the GDR. This is not a critique of the author, who researched both sides of the Berlin Wall with the same diligence. It is merely a fact that there is an obvious qualitative difference between the scale of operations of West German hacker milieus and small circles of East German “computer fans.” Erdogan notes (p. 80) that this term was used in the GDR for computer hobbyists and that the term “hacker” itself was relatively unknown. The book primarily covers the concurrent emergence of hacker cultures in both West Germany and the GDR and, when relevant, Erdogan highlights the differences between the two cases: the West German scene was dominated by the Chaos Computer Club (CCC), while the regime in East Germany officially supported computer hobbyists through communist youth organizations and the state-owned technical press. One of the most interesting parts of the book is Erdogan’s description of the “unification” of the hacker cultures shortly after the fall of the Wall with the “Kommunikations-Kongress ’90” (p. 321), equivalent to today’s DEF CON in Las Vegas. The Kommunikations-Kongress ’90 was a hacker convention held by the CCC and the Haus der jungen Talente (HdjT), a state-sponsored computer club from East Berlin.

The book is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of digital cultures in both parts of Germany. Ergodan offers a broader discussion of the diverse practices of hacking in West Germany; hacker culture as a social movement; and the diversity of political orientations that impacted this culture, from far left and libertarianism to a small representation of the far right. The author also addresses the under-investigated topic of the hacker cultures’ social structure and also touches on two main social issues. The first is hacker culture as a generational experience for young adults and those in their thirties, a generation that witnessed or even took part in building the flourishing German counterculture of the 1970s. The second issue is gender, and here Erdogan insightfully explores the overlooked issue of the performance of masculinity in hacker cultures. This book also provides an extensive discussion of the emergence of practices related to the Bildschirmtext-System (Btx), an online communication system operated by the Bundespost and a counterpart of BBSes particularly popular in the US, as well as of the French Minitel system. More broadly, this work also reflects on the tensions that developed over whether a home computer was considered a commodity, similar to a television set or a stereo system, or a special artifact that offered the possibilities of personal and social development, as proposed by U.S. counterculture.

This is an important contribution to the history of computing and digital cultures in Europe. Due to an extensive contextualization of hacker culture in a broader social and political context, it would also be useful to those interested in the social and cultural history of the divided Germany late in the Cold War. The book was published in German, so it will be primarily accessible to German-speaking audiences. However, I hope that there will be an opportunity to publish an English translation because the author offers a new perspective on the history of hacker cultures, which is still dominated by narratives related to U.S. hackers. To summarize, due to the contextualization of hacker culture in the broader context of late Cold War Germany, Julia Erdogan’s study would definitely be useful to a broad audience of historians interested in the cultural and social history of West and East Germany in the 1970s and 1980s.

1 Douglas Thomas, Hacker Culture, Minneapolis 2002; Kevin Driscoll, Hobbyist Inter-Networking and the Popular Internet Imaginary. Forgotten Histories of Networked Personal Computing, 1978–1998, PhD Diss. 2014, University of Southern California.
2 Gerard Alberts / Ruth Oldenziel (eds.), Hacking Europe. From Computer Cultures to Demoscenes, London 2014.
3 Kai Denker, Heroes Yet Criminals of the German Computer Revolution, in: Alberts / Oldenziel, Hacking Europe, pp. 167–187.