Confessions of a digital immigrant – Part 1: The 70s and 80s

Confessions of a digital immigrant – Part 1: The 70s and 80s

– Personal reflections on the development of communication and it’s technology throughout my life –

On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web and the associated discussions about the hopes and visions that this technology would bring with it and the current reflections about the dangers and social changes that are associated with global digital networking, I would first like to take you to a time when mediated communication was rather an exception than an every day matter:

The 70s

The first time I came into contact with a voice transmission via a cable was through a tin-box telephone to talk to my neighbours. The instructions came from a kid’s magazine that also delivered background information that you had to read. Mediated entertainment existed in the form of visits to the theatre and time-restricted TV-shows like this one that introduced us to the wonders of technology:

You had to use your imagination not to get bored, meet friends to fill dolls with character, do sports, built or invent something. In the school we had a blackboard, an overhead projector, which threw mostly hand-painted graphics onto the wall and the handouts were reproduced by means of a matrix. Everything else was communicated orally. I especially remember geography lessons. My teacher had travelled far and reported pictorially from remote areas. I stared at maps and vividly imagined these areas and dreamt of going there. The weirdest map was that of Germany which was detailed on the Western side and completely grey on the Eastern side which was called the ZONE. I therefor had a particular interest in it and due to my relatives in East Germany it was not as grey as it was promoted in the West. At home we had a rotary phone that was mainly used by my parents. Our telephone number was hammered into my head, so I could use it in case of emergency and I can still remember it. When I left home alone, I was always equipped with a coin that I would have to insert into a phone box and that would pay for my call. You had to get in touch with strangers to ask them for help, for directions or how long they wanted to use the phone box you needed. When you finally dialled the number you wanted to reach it was possible that the line was busy and the other person did not even know that you have tried to call. Something that millennials can rarely imagine like you can see in this video.


The 80s


Today’s kids do most probably also not understand that I had to get accustomed to answering machines. Although it was invented in 1938 it only became popular in the late 80s in Berlin.

My communication was based on empathy that evoked from hearing the voice on the other end of the line and now I had to talk to a machine and leave a one-way message that would be recorded and replayed later without an immediate reaction? This form of communication has not only bridged the distance between me and my conversation partner, but has also decoupled it from the time context by means of a machine recording. On the one hand a great opportunity to leave a message containing information on the other hand a challenge in communication to switch to delivering information one-way.

TV Tower – Oil on wood, found at Danziger Straße 2019 – artist unknown

I remember endless talks on the phone, writing and waiting for letters and the joy of receiving post cards. The walkman added a soundtrack to my life and helped me to learn English from the lyrics. Mixed tapes were added to or replaced letters and expressed feelings towards friends and lovers via the meaning of the lyrics that were composed to create a mediated collective feeling. Access to music was limited and you always had to listen to the whole song to record a mix tape. This attention and the time spent on creating a mix tape made it very precious and to get hold of the right mix sometimes meant visiting several friends to get access to their records. Just to give you an idea of how much effort you had to spent to get hold of music, I will share my story behind the song of Charles de Goal that I like to share with you. I had to fight (8 hours) with my father to get permission to visit a friend who was 14 years older than me that had an adorable record collection. Within that time he recorded a mix-tape for me that I was finally allowed to pick up (under surveillance of my father) and it contained a song that I thought was made by Tuxedomoon. So I couldn’t find it in the internet until I found the mix-tape, repaired it and put Shazam – the great “find me this song” – app to it and here we go – enjoy a song that addressed problems with modems that at that time only a rare number of people had ever seen, heard or even heard of:

Another way to get hold of music was to record it from the radio – which meant listening to it and press the record and the stop button in the right time. Some radio DJs were so excellent that it was worth to record the whole show like the unforgettable John Peel Sessions. Video clips became popular and the first private TV channels opened branches in Germany. TV also delivered pictures from suffering African children in the Sahel region and not only Band Aid raised money to help. The need to help was widely discussed and climate change, dying forests and the catastrophe of Tchernobyl brought on a green movement.

Back to media in private live: To remember very special moments, you made a photo or slide mostly on holidays. Someone who loved to put his face into the camera was called a “poser” which was a swearword because this person was considered to be vain (a bad habit at that time) and was therefore suspected not to have the best set of social skills – imagine that in this Instagram and Facebook reality of today.

Copy-machines gradually replaced the matrix and made it possible to produce flyers in copy shops and spread the same information to more than one person. That gave birth to fanzines, copied photos and lots of flyers to promote all sorts of information that you could find everywhere. My own sense of mission had a peak in my school career when I decided to hold a speech on antisocial fatalism in Speaker’s Corner on a school trip in London. I have to admit that I had imagined a speech as a one-way message that I normally didn’t appreciate very much, but it became a hot discussion where not my classmates, but English democracy enthusiasts challenged me. I countered in my mix tape English and this form of direct discussion with strangers was a democratic enlightenment for me because I got in touch with opinions that I might otherwise have never heard of. Is Twitter a new digital speaker’s corner?

In school we had a video recorder and watched “The Living Desert” over and over again. But there was also an old projector and we repeatedly had to watch a film from the 70scalled the “Ovulation Inhibitor” which is the concept behind the contraceptive pill. This form of sexual education was unfortunately diametrically opposed to the reality in which we grew up as teenagers in West Berlin – the capital of AIDS as it was also known for, that produced an almost paranoid chain of causation: Love – Sex – AIDS – Death. Klaus Nomi was the first prominent victim I have heard of. Here is his last performance:

Two years later we had to exercise how to put a condom over a broom stick without further information on the usefulness of this practice. Furthermore I recall the fear of an atomic war as common sense and the public space was filled with demonstrations. The end of the world was still ahead. All these tensions and contradictions mirrored in Berlin’s scene life, which I was looking for when I reached the age of majority. I dived into a life full of musicians, writers, journalists, artists, philosophers and self-proclaimed prophets. Here is a trailer of a film that describes this scene and it spreads the rumour that Techno, which at that time was still a subculture in Berlin, was was born out of the sound of the transit route. The transit routes (three motorways) connected West Germany with West Berlin and were made of large concrete slabs on which one was permitted to drive only 100/kmh and that made a monotonous sound that found it’s way to the dancefloors.

Between existentialisms, nihilism, dandyism, dissolution and struggle of the sexes, philosophies about the approaching end of the world, which were discussed among other things in the Ex n Pop one of my favorite clubs at that time, I also remember a discussion about isolation with Nick Cave. He found that the Walkman would prevent people from talking to each other and condemned this device as an antisocial element that should disappear from public space. I did not really agree with him as I loved my Walkman. One of these long nights began with a visit to the disco and ended with the end of the world order that had prevailed until then.


One November night we staggered from a West Berlin disco after midnight and the streets were overcrowded with people, apparently from eastern Germany. They laughed, cried and hugged everyone who got in their way. They told us that the wall had fallen. THE WALL! We laughed and cried for a while and then decided to inform another friend and wanted to hear news because we were obviously not up to date. In the car and switched on the radio in full anticipation but to our surprise we heard a recorded loop that claimed “Bananen her!”, literarily meaning give us the bananas – an object of desire for east Germans only available in the West. Arriving at the friend’s place, his TV had no further information for us either because the station had closed down already. We headed off to the Brandenburg Gate to find out what is going on there – still “Bananen her!” on the radio. We climbed onto the wall and asked the east German front soldiers if we could also come to the East without a visa – they shrugged and said they wouldn’t shoot so we jumped to the east side. I was standing under the Brandenburg Gate for the first time in my life. Later I found out that I have missed my east German relatives who were also there around the same time and I talked to a friend who worked in the radio station who let me know that the whole editorial department grabbed every recording device to catch as much material as possible about this moment and put the first thing they had on loop to have at least something on air. There was no use for anyone to stay in house because the phone-boxes where all busy. When we climbed back onto the Berlin wall we watched the crowd, sucked in the atmosphere and I have to admit that I still get goose bumps and tears in my eyes when I remember that moment. A moment of empathy with the ones that had been fenced in, not allowed to travel and now experiencing liberation. By the way, we do not have a single photo that documents this moment because we didn’t buy films for our cameras beforehand but the memory is filled with pictures that I will remember forever and I guess it is because I sensed and felt it. Besides the intense feelings, we were aware that this is the end of an era were imagining on how the world and especially capitalism would from now on develop without a competing political system on the other side and our visions were not as bright as the vibe around us.

Bye bye West-Berlin – hello to a brave new world – whatever that means.

You are welcome to comment on this, share your thoughts, enlight me and follow my entry into the digital world in the next post.


  1. Elle

    Bjela, I LOVE this post! It’s a great personal history of communication, and really evocative. Loads of interesting food for thought too, relating to today.
    I was born in 1990, so not quite a digital native but almost. I remember making back-up plans involving pay phones and the excitement of receiving letters, but most of the rest of your memories are before my time – still fascinating though.
    I’m curious about something. I remember my mum telling me about the very real fear of nuclear war that existed before the fall of the Berlin Wall, which you also mentioned. Do you think current fears (e.g. climate change) are comparable, or do you feel overall more optimistic and less fearful of the future in 2019, compared to back then?

    1. Bjela Prossowsky

      Thank you for your comment, Elle. That is very encouraging. I thought it would be easier to write something personal than to reflect on a subject from an outside angle but regarding the lack of distance you might have to your own personal experience it turned out to be the opposite. Now to your question: I remember the fear as a common supressing sense as well as the fear of climate change and nuclear disaster especially after Tchernobyl. If I compare it to today I think the concerns are more widly spread. The overload with information sometimes leads to more distraction and though the problems are much bigger today I sense that ignorance or helplessness has grown as well. The load of things that are polluted today (just compare Tchernobyl to Fukushima) is enormous and the responsibility is spread among producers, politics and consumers and the problems are split into pieces as well. You have activists, that engage for unpolluted food, others for animals, others for very specific regions and the load of petitions and information is sometimes leading to fragmentation rather than to unity. I love Lilie Chouliaraki’s reflections in “The Ironic Spectator” about solidarity towards vulnerable others and you can apply some of it to our own problems as well. My fears today are definitly different from the ones I had in the 80s. I think you can compare the fear to the concerns of the Fridays for Future movement. I have written about my teenage years and the teenagers of today seem to feel that their future is threatened as well. If you liked the post, I invite you to read part 2 that contains some more thoughts about the shifts I see:

      1. Elle

        Thanks for the reply 🙂 This particularly resonated: “the load of petitions and information is sometimes leading to fragmentation rather than to unity.” That makes sense, and I definitely do feel pulled from all sides on many issues. I can easily see how this fragmentation can lead to a different kind of fear…
        Somehow despite hearing so much about it on this course, I STILL haven’t read ‘The Ironic Spectator’… must find time to do that soon!
        I’m looking forward to reading your other blog post, off to do that now…

        1. Bjela Prossowsky

          Happy that it made sense – I was not too sure about that. It is hard to express the fragmentation vs. common sense based on less information in numbers but more information about the background… I tried to focus on simlyfying messages I read or watched to keep it simple and relink it to feelings – a weired concept for academic work:-) I would love to have a comment on my last post, where I tried to reclaim the call for action rather than to understand the complexity of a matter…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You are using the BNS Add Widget plugin. Thank You!