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We don’t have Users, we have Listeners

Updated: Apr 6, 2023

Overhear Co-director and Creative Development Lead Adrian B. Earle sits down to reflect on his history of engaging with the internet, why the language we use to talk about technological communities matters & how, when you choose to make it matter, the world changes.

This is my first Blog for Overhear! So I think it's worth you all knowing I am just about older than the internet. Literally, just. But I don’t think I have ever been a ‘User’.

I was born at the tail end of ’89 and the first browser, ‘WorldWideWeb’ (later renamed Nexus… much cooler) was the only way to access the nascent internet.

I got to grow up with the promise of all the world's information at my fingertips, the utopia of information set free, if only you could spend the time to grasp the technology involved in its emancipation.

My childhood internet was a whirring clicking settings-rich mess of incomprehensible acronyms, a community where even the most accomplished achievements often had the ability to be picked apart with a left click & a few button presses. You could nearly always see under the hood. As a coder, a builder, a ‘hacker’.

I vividly remember a computer fair in maybe 1997 at Wolverhampton racecourse. This guy with a thick black country accent, long grey beard, purple-tinted sunglasses, a Grateful Dead t-shirt and a stall selling hand-wound vape coils (yes, in 1997) was giving away Floppy disks with a custom tool to run called 'EnterTheGrid.Bat.' He promised all you needed was a connection to the internet & this tool would show you the real network.

( i wish you well tech hippie if yet, you still live, I wish you all the best)

I had no idea what 'the real network' meant & I had no notion of computer security because I was 8. So, I loaded this 3.5-inch bit of plastic up on the family computer when I was supposed to be using the Encarta CD for homework.

Running the file with the command prompt the way my uncle showed me. I saw a black screen with strings of text, numbers and IP addresses, streaming unbidden and in real-time. I could press the space bar to slow the stream. Shift to pause it. otherwise, there was nothing to do except watch the streaming log of message packets flowing to and from computers on our regional network node.

You couldn’t see the contents, not that I remember. I had no idea where the IP addresses linked to physical locations apart from my own. I remember sending an email to and from the family address; then, watching over a few lines as it flew away somewhere and then a second or two later came back. A few Megabytes, a pebble in an ocean.

There were many people like me then, watchers, readers, & archivists, who built tools to see the new network and the people in it in new and interesting ways to capture moments in time and space as the network had existed. There still exists archives of internet save states time capsules of the net as it was, glimpses of the people who built it that way.

Once you see the workings of a world, The Real Network, it shifts something in you that will never resettle to what it was. For instance, the idea that ‘The Cloud’ is some amorphous incorporeal ‘thing’ your data goes into and out of; the idea of apps as unitary discreet tools for distribution of content, divorced from function, free to slowly become whatever will hold attention for fractionally longer than its competitors, or social media as a 'free' playground or the town square of unlimited freedom, aka the narrative sold to us that the internet & its technologies were akin to magic beyond the ken of mere mortals, was hilarious to me.

a close up view of a server rack
This... this is the 'cloud'.

My younger brother and I built our first servers as pre-teens. Using bits we scavenged from second-hand PCs and shareware software that was just as likely to turn your new creation into a house brick as it was to function correctly. We got that the ability to access data, images, music, & games on the internet required power, cooling, hard drives that could ( & would ) fail as well as file management practices diligent enough that your client system could find what you were looking for.

We would rent DVDs for cheap from blockbuster, or from the 50p shelf in charity shops, rip them to AVI, save them on a hard drive and stream them from the family PC to whatever laptop or console we could get a web browser working on. We quickly ran out of storage space for two musically inclined boys worth of CDs so we would rip anything we bought to a server and then re-sell it. we used the files to update our second-hand Zune & Creative Zen micro respectively. It felt a lot less morally dubious than downloading & it was a hell of a lot more convenient.

When LoveFilm, became Netflix, & Netflix, or at least its operating model, became everything, we were probably two of the least surprised teens outside of the silicon valley bubble. Of course, streaming was going to catch on, it's just better. In our world, People like lots of options & the convenience to engage with the content they are interested in wherever they please. That is what the internet had taught us, inevitably people, if given the right tools, will just build the thing that they want to interact with the world in the way that they want.

We knew that beyond temperamental tech & buggy net code were people. Forums, Trade shows & Tech Repair shops full of interesting people. People who would help you out with driver CDs for obscure brands of LAN card, ask you to test the newest Doom clone they were making for fun, or ask you to contribute character dialogue to their pixel art narrative flash adventure.

These people too, were, archivists, & builders, but also artists, players, writers and designers.

The internet was a connected group of people using the same tools to experience the world in new and interesting ways & it was beautiful (and occasionally terrifying)

None of them were ‘users’ in the modern sense. They all engaged openly and actively in the things they were part of. Semi-open tools that people turned into communities, businesses and entire industries.

Remember Myspace? Probably not. But know this, it was a social media site that encouraged you to tinker with the HTML of your own page. pop it open & see how it worked. Could you imagine Facebook being anything even slightly as open?

I cannot stress enough how that approach to technology, that approach to the people using technology affected everything about me. It is part of the way I think, the way I create, & the relationships I have with the world around me. It’s the driving philosophy behind my writing & media. The reason I took the chance to come & build Overhear.

When I came to Overhear, I brought this view of the world with me. I see the App, the listeners, & the relationships between them as one interconnected entity. A network comprised of sound, space, motion, personality & memory.

It’s my job as Creative Development lead to tinker with that network, be it through community projects that make the most of the technology we have built or technological features that our listeners will utilise to experience space in a new way.

It’s led us to workshops recontextualising the legacies of our public art, the statues, and the subjects of those statues infamous and famous; allowing Overhear listeners to hear the contributions of other voices not present on the plaques and honorifics.

It has taken me to the stroke ward at Sandwell general hospital, working with my fellow wordsmith practitioner Kibriya to capture the experience of stroke recovery and guiding those regaining their grasp on language use to use what they have to create beautiful art with words.

It has led me to dive deep into the structure of the app with fellow technical explorers Tom & Matt to build the most elegant tools we can to fulfil our Just Cause of Moving people physically and emotionally with sound.

It created the opportunity to work with Tom and Kibriya in the first place to bring this wild ideation of an app that works to recontextualise the world through sound to life. Develop a narrative that listeners & investors would understand. Laying out the reasons that we are challenging so much of the established idea of what an App could & should be. (Part of it is that we like making a bit of a ruckus)

It was this opportunity that created the role of the Listener in the app. Overhear has Listeners, it has poets, it has Explorers, Storytellers & Wanderers.

But it has never really had Users. We didn’t build it to be a passive experience in exchange for lucrative nuggets of time, attention or data.

We built it, are building it, to be a new and interesting way to recontextualise the world around us with the use of technology; true technologically augmented reality.

The dream of the old internet.

It’s all connected you see; it always has been. It is only the modern age of Monopoly and technical ringfencing that has disconnected the internet from the real, making the technical a wall between us and reality rather than a clarifying lens.

I did not come to technology as a User I came as a Player, a Creator, a Coder, a Tinkerer & Builder.

the User is not supposed to be any of those things.

In the words of one of my thought pantheon, the American Anthropologist David Graeber.

“The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”

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