Building the Technologies You Desire: The Inspiring Case of Voja Antonić
Voja Antonić is a legendary Serbian inventor, writer, and radio journalist that grew up in Yugoslavia and is passionate about electronics and digital technologies. Along with Dejan Ristanović, he designed and built the first DIY personal computer, the mythic Galaksija in the ‘80s. He has also engaged in programming systems that were capable of rendering animations in 1979, built a battery-powered computer for improving the precision of time measurement in skiing competitions (1982), generated video signal with a CPU without using video circuitry, adapted drones to support the demining effort, developed DIY bookscanners, created fun LED pieces of art for exhibitions, and looked into retrocomputing. This is just a small sample of his awesome inventions that he has always carefully documented and later shared in the public domain.
I had the chance to meet Voja Antonić in 2014 when he came with members of the project MEMORY OF THE WORLD to our community. It was amazing to have such a fun, kind, and humble inventor agree to be with us for one week as he was handcrafting our bookscanner. Later in 2017, we were editing a second book1 about the panorama of technological sovereignty (TS) and we were planning to include one article about “pioneers” in that field. The book intended to go more in-depth into the political analysis of some of the intrinsic challenges and revolutionary potential that technological sovereignty initiatives (TSI) embody and we were particularly interested in digging deeper into the lack of community-based documentation and collective memory about the past. We wanted to reclaim the trajectories of several people2 that dreamed up and built technologies for the people by the people, and advanced social and political transformation throughout their work. Technologies for autonomy and liberation, ecology of freedom, and advancing revolution were the keywords we had in mind. By highlighting these trajectories and achievements we also intended to partially correct the wrongdoings caused by the “official” Northern (Silicon Valley, MIT, Stanford) – military/academic/entrepreneur – narrative of how science and technologies have been developed.
The history of Voja Antonić is especially relevant for reclaiming the contributions made by individuals and civil society to the development of technologies that matter, and for highlighting why their contribution have a Do Not Harm and liberatory potential that others tech inventors might not have. Even if Voja is also an inventor “working in his garage or cellar,” he has chosen to dream and build technologies for the public domain and the public good and did not engage in becoming an entrepreneur/start-up hipster that would “change the world” while becoming an ill-intentioned multimillionaire. Initial motivations matter indeed, as much as the ethics and politics of the designers and inventors of technologies. And Voja Antonić’s motivation when planning many of his most well-known technologies have dealt with the cheerfulness of curiosity, exploration, and hacking, coupled with the desire to share with others the knowledge that resulted from these processes. As Voja told us at the end of our interview: “I strongly support open hardware and open software projects. I’ve published somewhere around 100 projects in various Yugoslavian and Serbian magazines, all of them in the open domain, with standard Creative Commons CC-BY-SA license.”
Other elements that are a part of the recipe of most technological sovereignty initiatives are the intention to play with technologies and along the way to create new forms of technological (re)appropriation and reconfiguration. These are part of Voja’s explicit motivations to engage in creating technologies:
“I have been in love with digital electronics for fifty years now. It was a marginal domain at the time, and nobody expected it would be so dominant today. So my inner motivation was very personal, and I didn’t expect anything but pure satisfaction. But what satisfaction it was! Sometimes I would get so excited I had to take a walk until the adrenaline rush had died down before I could get back to work. Nothing compares to the moment when parts of the controller click together, and suddenly it has a life of its own. After the DIY project Galaksija, suddenly everybody wanted to know more about computers, and me and Dejan were the people to address this. We were invited to many radio and TV shows, and the newspapers and magazines were also full of interviews.
The situation would take another turn during the 1990s, when the civil war started and Yugoslavia was broken up. Nobody cared about DIY projects, computers were smuggled in like everything else during the embargo. At one point in 1995, I threw away all my Galaksija prototypes and tried to forget about everything.
At the beginning of the 21st century, everything turned upside down again. People began to get interested in old computers, started studying their concepts and a hardware renaissance of a sort took place. I was asked by the Museum of Science and Technology in Belgrade for a prototype of Galaksija and, luckily, found one buried deep in my cellar. And in 2017 I was also asked to donate another one to the Computer History Museum, which is in Mountain View, the heart of Silicon Valley, between the Microsoft and Google buildings. Now both are on permanent display – an exhibit I'm very proud of.”
At the same time, every technology exists in a historical and spatial context that encloses how much a tech developer or an inventor will work in isolation or dependence of others and how the technology will be valued for autonomy or will be criminalized by institutions in place. Voja Antonić’s early inventions took place in former Yugoslavia before the war started and they were enclosed by diverse limitations including the importing of foreign goods. This also meant that it was difficult to identify other individuals interested in the potential of digital technologies and that most of the work was achieved by Anton starting from scratch. There was no world wide web back then, and it was hard to find networks of passionate individuals that were eager to gather around spaces like hacklabs or publish in hacker magazines. So naturally, access to foreign resources and knowledge was scarce and highly appreciated. These elements came together to shed a special light on Voja’s work that makes it all the more impressive.
We can say confidently that he started the personal computer revolution in Yugoslavia, but he also contributed to the local hacker revolution by documenting and sharing his invention of the 4kb Galaksija personal computer so that others could do the same. Thanks to his generosity, 8000 other models were created, a whole community of people passionate about digital technologies could therefore emerge, identify with one another, and start to create spaces and networks of support and knowledge sharing among them. The creation of a culture of mutual learning and technical education is the first step to paving the way so that people can develop technologies themselves.
When I asked Voja: “Could you briefly explain what your contribution to the development of technologies has been in your own circumstances?”, he told me the following: “It’s not a simple thing to unwrap without understanding the context of the early 1980s. Most people didn’t even know what a computer looked like, let alone what it could do. Hardly anyone in Eastern Europe and in the Balkans could afford it, and in some countries, it was not even allowed to import one. It was similar in the former Yugoslavia – while computers were not banned, it was forbidden to import anything that cost over 50 Deutchmarks. The price of an average 8-bit microcomputer at that time was about ten times that sum. In 1983, I built a very simple microcomputer with a Z80A microprocessor and published it as a DIY project in a special issue of Galaksija (Galaxy) magazine – which is where the computer got its name from. The author of the issue was Dejan Ristanović, who also helped me with an OS concept and Basic interpreter for Galaksija.
A simple software trick with R and I registers in the Z80A removed the need for a complex and expensive video controller, so Galaksija was easy to build. It had 4K of Program Memory (later upgraded to 8K) and 6K of static Data Memory. The standard mass memory media at the time was the audio cassette, so Galaksija had a very simple cassette interface.
The whole thing started as one enthusiast’s labor of love, but now it’s safe to say that it started the digital revolution in my country. According to the first feedback, more than 8000 readers succeeded in building their own Galaksija, and the interest in computers changed dramatically over the following few years. I still receive e-mails from people who thank me because their experience with Galaksija changed their lives. They mostly come from people who lived in the former Yugoslavia, and are now IT experts somewhere, predominantly in Western countries.”
Voja was in touch with some people who inspired and enabled him to advance his work, but we can also say that he did a lot of the work on his own and this element of isolation seems to be part of the way most inventors worked prior to the advent of digital technologies:
Voja Antonić: “There were only a few people interested in digital electronics at the time, so I mostly had to work alone. I was in constant contact with Dejan Ristanovic, who is now the editor-in-chief of the leading Serbian computer magazine PC, and also with Zoran Modli, who was (and still is) a famous radio host. Modli’s contribution to Yugoslav computer education was significant, as he had a lot of radio shows about computers and technology. He had a special sequence in his shows when he published software over UHF radio. So we had wireless (and even Modli’s digital magazine) in 1983! This was possible because the only mass storage media at that time was the cassette, so all software, and data files were actually in audio range.”
Spideralex: Who inspired you? You can quote other inventors, theorists, people, collective, networks, organizations, etc.
VA: “My first interest in electronics came from the Radio Club ‘Mihailo Pupin’ YU1EXY in Belgrade. The field of interest in Radio Clubs at that time were mainly tube transceivers, so, sadly, nobody was interested in digital technology and I was left to my own devices. It was in the middle of the 1960s (I was in elementary school) when I ‘invented’ the flip-flop (how could I have known it had already been invented earlier?). It was the same with Graetz bridge, also one of my early ‘inventions.’
In the 1970s, I got my hands on some bundles of Elektor magazine from Germany (thanks to my friend Mitja Vuković) and Byte magazine from the US (thanks to Zoran Vasiljević). Those were some real inspiration! It felt great to know I wasn’t the only person invested in the digital domain. The first shock came in the late 1970s, when I found an issue of Byte magazine on Conway's Game of Life. I had no computer at the time, but all the walls in my room were covered in papers with many generations of Life cells.
As soon as the first Z80 appeared on the market, I bought two pieces and started with my first project. As you may have guessed – it was the Game of Life, with a 16×16 LED matrix. I couldn't afford more than an 8×8 area in the beginning, but the software was completed, and it worked before I could buy the full matrix.
I programmed 2708 EPROMS on my DIY programmer (driven by bare hardware), writing the software and assembling it ‘by hand,’ using pen and paper only. That was the moment when I fell in love with Assembler, the programming language I still use and consider the premium choice for small ‘bare metal’ projects."
If you want to go more in-depth concerning the different technologies Voja is discussing here, you can find most of them properly documented on the internet and you can also check out more about him through the different links and references we have hyperlinked in this article. In the meantime, we hope you have enjoyed this introduction to the trajectory and contributions made by Voja to the history of technological sovereignty and autonomy made with love by the people for the people. As we are living in a world where there is an increasing tendency by governments and companies to blackout the internet in its entirety, or social media during election time or social protest, we might yet again see emerge the development and use of technologies made by and for social or liberation movements. But first we have to start with the collective memory of that history and we hope you’ve enjoyed exploring it with us.
Voja Antonić (1952) is a Serbian inventor, journalist, and writer. Togeter with Dejan Ristanović, he created Galaksija, the first DIY personal computer. http://www.voja.rs/
Spideralex is a cyberfeminist, lover of free technologies. She has edited two volumes on the topic of technological sovereignty initiatives and she organizes speculative fiction workshops (feminist futurotopias) with friends and activists.
Co-founder of the collective Donestech that explores the relationship between gender and technologies, she has coordinated an international network called the Institutes of Gender and Technology that developed trainings and contents to include gender in privacy and digital security. She is currently working with rapid response networks on issues such as holistic security for activists and human rights defenders.
*Cover photo: Galaksija, DIY microcomputer from 1983. Courtesy of Voja Antonić.
 Books on Technological Sovereignty:
Volume 1 (2014): Available in Spanish, French and Italian. Half of the articles were also translated to English for the following publication “For Free Information and Open Internet: Independent journalists, community media and hacktivists take action”: https://www.coredem.info/IMG/pdf/pass11_an-2.pdf
Volume 2 (2018): Available in Spanish, French, English. Link to english version: https://www.ritimo.org/IMG/pdf/sobtech2-en-with-covers-web-150dpi-2018-01-10.pdf
Both books are also available in multiple languages in the git repository: https://sobtec.gitbooks.io
 Voja Antonić was logically one of the “pioneers” we had in mind along with Onno Purbo in Indonesia, Tim Jenkin in South Africa, Roberto Verzola in the Philippines and Ann and Alexander Shulgin in the USA. We could not end that article but did dedicated our second volume on TS to all of them.