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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 convention, FOSS.in.

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 (http://www.blinkenlights.de/).

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 the media.

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 valuable."

This column features those who choose to veer off the beaten track.

ANAND SANKAR

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