Tim Pritlove ... Blinkenlights Project
Across two ends
Computers are the lifeline for German programmer Tim Pritlove and he
even uses them to create art on a public scale
PHOTO: MURALI KUMAR K.
MACHINES AND MACHINATIONS Tim Pritlove: `Today computers are full of
malware, bugs and viruses and are open for errors and manipulation'
For a computer wizard, Tim Pritlove, is pretty fussy about his
appearance. I suggest that he ditch his woollen jacket because it just
too hot, but he offers: "I think I look better with the jacket." Not
many in India will know Pritlove but he is one of Germany's top
computer programmers and an artist. He was in the city to deliver the
concluding address at the recent free and open source software
Pritlove's tryst computers began with Lego, which he calls "lovely and
deeply logical toy stuff", and led to a "strange affliction towards
the digital system." With child-like enthusiasm, he adds: "As kids,
computers have a fascination (for us). I looked at the screen and had
to just go for it."
Browse his home page (http://tim.pritlove.org/) and he takes you
through every computer he went through in his early years. Machines
that looked like nothing more than oversized typewriters right through
his first Mac.
What brought Pritlove to Bangalore was the activist and artist in him.
He is a member of the world-famous Chaos Computer Club (CCC) and one
of the architects of the Blinkenlights Project
It all began while celebrating 20 years of the CCC in 2001. That's
when the Blinkenlights Project was born. The CCC was looking for some
symbolic way to celebrate and chanced upon a building in the heart of
East Berlin, the massive Haus des Lehrers, from the Sixties standing
right at Alexanderplatz.
Pritlove decided to convert the façade of the building into a giant
interactive computer screen. "We looked at the building and thought we
could write CCC on it. Then it was totally obvious that the windows of
the building were a matrix that could be made into an 8x18 pixel
monochrome screen. The building was empty and the owner wanted to
renovate it, so the situation was ideal," recalls Pritlove.
It took five weeks and each window was rigged with a floodlight, all
controlled by five kilometres of cables, massive relay switches and a
computer. But the beauty of the project was that it was not to just
display CCC, it was a public art installation, which anyone could
access to display their messages. "We wanted a billboard for the
average guy. There are advertisements all over through which someone
is trying to push their ideas. We wanted to reclaim the public space."
Centre of attraction
For the next six months the building became the centre of attraction
with people sending their messages and animations through their mobile
phones. There were love messages or two people could actually dial
into the computer to play a game of ping-pong on a giant public
screen. "We were totally overrun by the appreciation. The project
became a part of the city but we had to take it down. People actually
thought it was there forever. It was an intense and a warm feeling to
see it being used and watching the creativity it spawned. A lot of
cute animations were contributed."
Also the installation proved to be a focal point for East Berlin,
which emerged as the creative centre of Berlin after the
re-unification of the two Germanys. And with Europe being the home of
public art installations, it did well to showcase German creativity.
"Art is about doing things without looking at money first. Yes, people
do think differently but art is much more inspiring than a few common
products. Art is creating an idea of sharing and good ideas getting
transmitted," opines Pritlove.
True to his word, all the planning for the project has been put up
online so that it can be replicated in other parts of the world and
program used to control the computer is distributed freely.
The CCC became famous for its hacks, especially the one where they
hacked the German Bildschirmtext computer network and succeeded in
getting a bank in Hamburg to debit the online account with DM134,000
in favour of the club. The money was returned the next day in front of
Pritlove says that the role of hackers is invaluable in the
information world. "We see the term hacker in its own meaning, finding
out how things work and achieving new stuff. Hackers built the
Internet and the computing infrastructure we have today. Unless you
know how things work, you will be a slave of the system. Only if you
have the knowledge you can make the conclusions."
Though it might be a computer club, the CCC's present campaign is
against electronic voting, which Pritlove says does away with the two
basics needed for fair elections — secrecy and freedom. "Paper voting
ensures that there is no oppression and there is transparency.
Everyone can count a cross on a paper but not one guy will tell you
how actually a computer works and whether it is foolproof. Today
computers are full of malware, bugs and viruses and are open for
errors and manipulation. I know in India you have logistical issues to
go for electronic voting; but systems on any scale should reach out to
people. Internet voting is an even worse idea than voting machines. We
are aware of what we can and cannot do with computers."
The buck stops there
Finally, I point out to him that hackers are today blamed for
everything bad. Every day we are warned of people about to take over
computers and stealing private data. So are hackers going to find
themselves increasingly isolated by the law? "You have all this
hoo-hah with hackers and bad guys. Hackers were there before any
network. True, we have lost the media war, but we are very proud of
this name. It is like being proud to be gay today. Being a nerd is not
negative nowadays, nerds are proud. Societies need hackers, we are
This column features those who choose to veer off the beaten track.
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