printer friendly version of article
raising the dead : built on digital sand
View this article in flash requires flash 7 >
Built on Digital Sand
A Media Archaeologist Digs the Lonely Shores of Binary Obsolescence
by Bruce Sterling
In 1995, science fiction authors Bruce Sterling [www.well.com/conf/mirrorshades] and Richard Kadrey set out to accomplish a peculiar but intriguing goal: to widely encourage the study of so-called "dead media", by starting something called the Dead Media Project. [www.deadmedia.org] In a series of early writings and lectures on the project,1 Sterling explained that it was motivated by the observation that the world is presently "experiencing a profound radiation of new species of media" which is scarcely being tracked, let alone understood. "We have no idea in hell what we are doing to ourselves with these new media technologies," he exclaimed, "and no consistent way even to discuss the subject. Something constructive ought to be done about this situation."
Citing the computer industry's dollar-centric proclivity for developing countless new media species only to immediately kill them off in lieu of newer models, and an overall abiding sense that "as a society, we have bet the farm on the digital imperative" without giving much thought to backing up the system, the project sent forth a rallying cry for the development of "a coherent understanding of media" - in essence, a deeper historical sense of how media forms live and die. Of central focus in this new research directive would be a seriously enthusiastic study of devices, new and old, that had been relegated to the dustbin: failed media, martyred media, murdered media, "freakish and hideous media mistakes", media that "died on the barbed wire of technological advance". Invoking numerous metaphors from palaeontology and the study of ancient civilizations, Sterling reasoned: "One understands evolution by studying the fossil record…The dead precursors of later successes." Perhaps new media's evolution and entropy could be studied this way as well.
Limiting itself to a material-oriented definition of "media" as physical objects used for human communication, the Dead Media Project began by positioning itself as a kind of open-source "field-work" stage in the eventual creation of a "Dead Media Handbook", a "naturalist's field guide for the communications palaeontologist". Neither Sterling nor Kadrey actually wanted to write this book - they just wanted to read it. So, abandoning any concerns about intellectual property, they simply invited scholars and hobbyists at large to contribute unpaid research to a public-domain online database devoted to eulogizing defunct media technologies. To date, the project's Web site has compiled dossiers on an incredible variety of anachronistic devices - from the Edison Kinetoscope and the Intertek Superbrain II to defunct elements of the Internet itself - and new contributions are still irregularly distributed to subscribers via an email newsletter, The Dead Media Mailing List.
Today, nearly ten years after the Dead Media Project began, new digital media forms are still multiplying and dying off with ludicrous fecundity. As of yet, no Dead Media Handbook has been composed or printed on old-fashioned paper. Yet worldwide interest in "media archaeology" is growing. Web sites like Steve Baldwin's Ghost Sites [www.disobey.com/ghostsites/] have appeared to editorialize and epigraph online digital decay. Hobbyists have continued to be fascinated by old-timey PCs [http://oldcomputers.net/] and supercomputers. [www.paralogos.com/DeadSuper/] Artists have invented initiatives like Vinyl Video [www.vinylvideo.com/] and BOLT [www.blasthaus.com/bolt.html] to explore the creative uses of obsolete technology. The question of digital archiving has become a hot topic from the corporation [www.techexchange.com/thelibrary/DAM] to the museum. And in the halls of academe, the search for a coherent understanding of media life and death has become a matter for serious analysis.
In February 2004, Amsterdam's De Balie [www.debalie.nl]
Centre for Culture and Politics hosted An Archaeology of Imaginary Media.
This "mini-festival" saw international media studies luminaries like Siegfried
Zielinski, Erkki Huhtamo, and Bruce Sterling noting that, as with the study
of palaeontology or ancient civilizations, the study of media archaeology is
no longer simply about contemplating material extinctions, but also unrealized
futures. The following text is an edited transcript of Bruce Sterling's lecture
at De Balie, in which he offers a contemporary update "On Dead Media and Never
Realized Media Histories", [www.debalie.nl/dossierpagina.jsp?dossierid=10123]
and discusses why, in 2004, channeling digital media's spectral ancestors may
be more important than ever.
~ Angus Leech
A Lecture On Dead Media and Never Realized Media Histories
Technology affects society in two ways: by its presence and by its absence. The twentieth century was the nineteenth century with automobiles, but without horses. People rarely pay attention to technological absences. New technologies attract a frenzy of interest, while dead technologies are curiosities or embarrassments. That's because we live in a commercial society, and it is hard to sell dead technologies. Dead technologies have fallen out of the revenue stream. They lie beached on the deserted shores of obsolescence. It is hard to promote or sell a technology that no longer exists. Except for the occasional hobbyist or intellectual eccentric, no one wants to retail the defunct.
I am a science fiction writer. When we first began the Dead Media Project in 1995, we were climbing the dizzy heights of the Internet boom. My interest in dead media was odd and even a little perverse. Which was why science fiction writers like myself and my friend Richard Kadrey were pioneering this field of study. When Richard and I first explained our intentions in a manifesto for dead media studies, many people seriously wondered if there were any forms of media that could possibly be dead. Time, however, has lavishly favoured my analysis.
Mass Media Extinction
In the year 2004, it is blatantly obvious that so-called new media - digital media - die much faster than any previous form of media. Digital media are dying in such numbers, and in such profusion, and in such variety, that it is impossible for anyone to keep up with the death toll. They die without even stabilizing long enough to establish a subtle terminology. The "Information Superhighway" was not about information. Nor was it ever a publicly owned superhighway. And yet it's already defunct.
Some forms of media are blatantly dead. Bypassed. Superceded. Irrelevant to daily life. It's very hard to send a telegram these days, even though telegraphy was the Victorian Internet, and Morse code once circled the globe. If you are on a sinking ship, and you send out an SOS radio message in Morse code - as the Titanic once famously did - you will drown in the 21st century, because nobody anywhere is listening for Morse code anymore. You cannot send a message by "rocketmail" or "balloon post". Such technologies were invented, but they do not exist now. There are no pigeon services ready to carry your urgent messages strapped to their small bird legs. There is no longer any Lipkens System of Optical Telegraphs in the Netherlands sending Dutch messages to clerks with telescopes by waving huge wooden arms in semaphore signals. You cannot order any music in a café through a telephonic jukebox. You cannot pay for television signals over the telephone with the Zenith PhoneVision.
These media are dead. But it's harder for us to fully comprehend that high-tech, expensive, sophisticated digital devices, so recently referred to in hushed tones by major news organizations, are also going fast. It's very hard - and getting harder - to find or use an Apple 2E, an Apple Newton, Microsoft DOS, any Commodore computer, a Sony Bookman, a Rocketbook, or any kind of virtual reality system. On the Internet you can no longer use Gopher or WAIS. FDDI and token ring networks have been surpassed. The life span of the average Web page is about fourty-five days. The holocaust is all around us now. We are bathing in the inferno of dead media.
Digital Decay (or: The Blue Screen of Death)
The preservation of digital media is an extremely difficult problem. Those of us who work in digital media are working in a torrent of unstable ones and zeroes. We are building on digital sand. My friend Jon Ippolito is the Curator for Digital Media at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Like many of his fellow archivists and curators, Jon Ippolito is very concerned with the subject of digital preservation issues in the digital art world. That situation is worsening steadily. There are no simple answers or simple solutions for the digital world. The computer industry has been built to be complicated, and designed to frustrate attempts at repair and maintenance.
Paper is simple. If you are an archivist who is trying to preserve a document of ink and paper, you can put the paper into a dry, dark place that is fireproof and sealed against vermin. Then you have only two serious problems basically: the ink, and the paper itself. The paper can rot or the ink can fade. Or the ink may have some acid in it which will eat the paper, and that is sadly common. Paper documents do die, rather slowly. But the alphabetical symbols on this paper can be copied fairly cheaply and quickly, and without much loss in fidelity.
However, if you have a computer with digital data inside it, you have not one problem, or two problems, but level after level after level of sophisticated instabilities. Basically, you the lonely archivist are trying to support and preserve an entire cybernetic post-industrial system.
This enterprise was not built for the convenience of librarians. You, the museum curator, have to become the tech support for the entire cybernetic enterprise. And oh, what vistas of woe and decline, what fretful hauntings of threatening ghosts and phantoms: The central processing chip can fail. The operating system can fail. The language that supports the operating system may be discontinued and no longer supported. Unlike paper, which degrades rather gracefully, computers have sudden catastrophic failures. If that central processor fails to move its electrical current, due to any of many thousands of possible microscopic flaws and faults, that computer suddenly and totally stops working. Catastrophic failure means the blue screen of death.
It gets worse. You may lose the subtler forms of adjunct software, such as the screen display software, the printer drivers, the audio chips. The keyboard format may not work. The application may fail. The data storage formats for the application may no longer be supported. You may have different screen dimensions, or different graphics formats that fail to display for various bulky, difficult, inexplicable reasons. The material you are trying to preserve may be encrypted. The key may have been lost. There may be digital rights management difficulties that forbid copying. And, the storage media themselves are physically unstable.
There is no archival, long-term medium for storing ones and zeroes. None. It does not exist. We have yet to invent one. Long-term storage for software - fifty years of storage, one hundred years of storage - that is an imaginary medium. Paper tape, punch cards, reel-to-reel magnetic tape, cd-rom, floppy disks, dvds - these are all temporary stopgap solutions. And they all have serious flaws. As they grow smaller and more compact, storage media also inherently grow more delicate, more fragile. This should be a great public scandal - a scandal on the grandiose worldwide scale of the greenhouse effect.
But the greenhouse effect isn't a scandal either, and for a lot of the same reasons. We are not thinking our issues through. We are exporting our own unsustainable problems onto future generations for the sake of a present day economic advantage. But the clock of history doesn't stop ticking merely because we are running twice as fast.
Planned Obsolescence (or: Why Study Dead Media?)
Instead, I would like to convince you that, although it does have many arcane and fantastic aspects, the subject of dead media is not a remote one. Media obsolescence is an ongoing civilizational process with broad implications that ought to be intimately familiar to anyone in this room. People involved in digital culture have made our bed, and now we are lying in it. We imagined that our bed was a clean, abstract, mathematical, Euclidean , platonic, computer science, rational, electronic kind of bed. But we were deceiving ourselves. The bed of digital culture is a very rumpled, dirty, makeshift, anarchic kind of bed. It smells of viruses and worms. And it is surrounded by vast, ever growing heaps of our discarded trash. The sheets are owned by other people, and they want us to rent that mattress by the hour. The digital media industry - the computer industry - looks and acts a whole lot like other forms of highly polluting, poorly regulated industries. It's got robber barons, and corruption and pollution, and rampant speculation, and, well, many other classical technical phenomena that one can easily recognize from the wildcat boom days of aviation, or automobiles, or railroads, or nuclear power.
We lack a good methodology with which to recognize our technology's engagement with the passage of time. We lack a proper long-term view. And this lack of insight leads us to repeat ourselves. Anyone who has seriously used computers for any length of time has found that the technological sublime is shot full of personal humiliation. We've all suffered these classic dead media moments of shattering disillusionment and stupefying squalor over our computers. These are the lethal moments in which we realize that the crash is finally here and our back-ups simply don't work. Or when we suddenly know that our new machine can no longer retrieve and display all the mail that we industriously wrote with our older mail reader. Or that a new word processor can't, won't , and doesn't smoothly interoperate with the files of the old one. Or that an old spreadsheet turns to garbage when we try to open it with the new Office suite.
These used to be mere accidents due to computation's rapid, pell-mell advance. Nowadays, however, these snags have been rationalized and built into the business model. In these monopoly days, computers do not advance, except in fresh methods of digging money from the pockets of users. We have been cruelly trapped on a treadmill of purported upgrades - a cycle designed to lure us into the system and then to demand endless payoffs for the supporting infrastructure. We have come to expect, as consumers in an age of technological decadence, that the landscape of the computer industry will be full of deliberate roadblocks, potholes, and barbed wire.
Dead media - our older computers - were not simply superceded by improvements, but killed off as industrial policy. It's not enough to create the new for the sake of improvement. The old must be actively annihilated. The hard bedrock of the technological imperative has been eaten away, eroded by the revenue streams of a wide variety of interested parties. Software monopolies, movie companies, music companies, postal and telecom monopolies, regulatory bodies, standards bodies, non-governmental groups of software activists, national governments, regional governments, non-governmental organizations, and various criminal enterprises engaged in virus writing or computer intrusion, or spam, or fraud. We fail to recognize how and why our society rewards all of this behaviour.
In believing the platonic mythology of the cool, clean electro-world, we have brought all this lively squalor directly onto ourselves. We sought the absolute and we found only products. They are not user-friendly products, because the users are not the kings. The users are the prey. And the users are not innocent either. The users are us - they are just like the rest of us. We stared into the fibre-optic pipes and found a mirror.
People have many folk mythologies about technological development. The foremost myth is the ideology of unbroken technical progress. This is often called the "Whig theory of history". In the Whig theory of history, every event in the past has a rather simple and direct explanation. All of that complicated activity in the past existed in order to create us, you and I, the happy people of present day. We are the proper measure of all things. We are the crown of creation. Our time, this time, is the best time ever. Our technologies are the best technologies ever. Because all previous versions were halting, unworthy versions of the fine things that we use [today]. They were primitive technologies, not yet fully developed. And if certain amusing mistakes were made in the past that are no longer [available to us as media], then those were blind alleys that were best abandoned anyways. They failed because the past was insufficiently like us - the present.
Now as you might guess, my own technological studies have led me to a rather different conclusion. My idea of technological development is not this Hegelian march toward the sunlit uplands of historical determinism. That's because I actually know some engineers personally. And I consider technologists to be those peculiar, vaguely congenial people who buy and read my fantasies. So given these facts on the ground, I consider technology to be a fertile, squalid orgy of invention and caprice that is always teetering on the edge of chaos. I may be a futurist, but I write what I see, dear people. And the past is this place - it is this very place at a different time.
Every historian is an imaginative author, engaged in an act of retro-diction. When it comes to media palaeontology, I favour the ideas of biological evolution developed by Stephen Jay Gould. Now, according to Gould's ideas of punctuated equilibrium, our current moment in evolutionary history was never any matter of destiny. In Gould's idea of nature, there is no teleology, no divine single guiding force to development. Nature is not destiny. There is no predetermined, so-called "natural" way of life. The idea of the "natural" is severely under question. Nature is the result of repeated contingencies. If, for instance, the dinosaurs had not been wiped out by a random asteroid, then it's unlikely that we human beings would have ever existed in anything like our present form - this form we have inherited: bipedal, mammalian, upright, ten fingers, two opposable thumbs. It has some clear operational advantages, but it is not any perfect or ideal solution. It is a workable, emergent compromise, this rugged, optimal, animal body we have.
The body is a result of many biological revolutions, shake-outs, purges, wild cards, upheavals, genetic bottlenecks. And the same is true for the shape and functions of our artifacts, including media artifacts. Serious technologies are shaped by forces beyond the imagination of their inventors. No rational battle plan can long survive contact with the enemy. Here is a cogent example: In the media world of analog videotape, there was once a mighty struggle for survival between Sony Beta Max and the VHS format. Beta Max was better engineered in almost every way. But VHS vendors were willing to sell pornography.
Now it's a little bit difficult for us to comprehend that these very human, depraved, semi-legal, sexual urges can be a matter of life and death for media technologies. In real life, though, this is quite often the case. New media that can attract pornographers almost always survive and flourish. Pornography is a profound sign of health for a new medium. The Internet? Absolutely saturated with pornography. There is pornography in daguerreotypes. When the Magic Lantern Society of London holds its historical magic lantern exhibits, there is always fierce interest in magic lantern erotica. In the Franco-Mexican war of the 1860s, there was microscopic pornography, created and smuggled for 19th century microscopes.
From the Squalid to the Sublime
After working in dead media for four years, I derived a general theory of media life and death. Why do some media live while some media die? Clearly any media theorist who could answer this vital question would be in supreme command of the field. That was my ambition, that was my primary interest in the Dead Media Project. And after years of thought and effort, I reached a firm conclusion. I call it the "Dairy Products Theory" of dead media.
Now, in this Dairy Products Theory, media is understood to be a primeval human need. Something like milk. Milk we always have with us. We live on milk. We need milk. Milk even comes right out of the human body itself. Milk is older than the human body, much like language is older than humanity - and symbolic representation was clearly used by pre-human beings. The palaeontology of media is older than the human race. Neanderthals buried their dead with rituals, and pre-humans almost certainly danced, spoke languages, had rituals, and blazed and marked trails with symbolic abstractions so that they themselves could successfully migrate across the planet. Milk is old, and milk technology has had a long, varied, complicated, contingent history. Milk has wide variety. Human milk, cow milk, horse milk, goat milk, sheep milk. Thousands of different cheeses, yoghurts, fermented alcoholic milk, pasteurized milk, canned milk, dried milk, freeze-dried milk, milk from cloned sheep, milk from cows shot chock full of growth hormone. Dairy products may seem cheap and humble and quotidian, but when you look at their technical details you will find that entire industrial histories are involved. But although milk is the constant factor in the technological history of milk, milk is never the determining factor. In a similar way, media does not rule the development of media. Like milk, media is determined by its surrounding technological and social circumstances.
People handle communication they way that they handle milk. They make media in the way they make war - with anything at hand. People have created media out of smoke, silk, braided yarn, flowers, stone, wood, palm leaves, wax, skin, and hair. There is media for the wilderness, the tent, the home; for horseback, cars, trains, and aircraft; for towns and massive urban centres. Media is a highly variegated set of specialized substances. Like dairy products, it can be liquid or solid or gas; cheese, syrup, or mush. It can be for immediate consumption or preserved for the long term; for the individual diarist or beamed to the global masses. Media we always have with us, and we do best and most wisely if we do not valorize media as media, but look upon it in a humbler and more pragmatic spirit. If we seek the absolute, we will mire ourselves in the squalid. But if we study the squalid with an accepting spirit of scholarly engagement, we may discover the sublime.
Balloons and Pigeons
In extreme social conditions, media reveals its ductile nature most clearly. There is no better example of this than the heroic story of the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. Paris was the capital of the 19th century. Paris was a highly mediated city, full of sophisticated technological invention. The city of Jules Verne and Albert Robida. In the Franco-Prussian War, Paris was surrounded and entirely cut off by the best troops in Europe. The result was a tour de force of explosive media invention. It is really without parallel before or since.
The Parisians were desperate to communicate with the outside world. They tried methods of media previously unimagined. They tried sending underwater cables on a special telegraph hidden in the bed of the Seine. But the cable was found and cut by the enemy. They tried putting messages into watertight metal balls and floating them downstream with the river current. They tied messages to the collars of dogs. Through trial, error, and ferocious Gallic ingenuity, they finally patched together a functional communications system suitable for a capital city. It involved, as its integral parts, homing pigeons, gas balloons, telegraphy, post cards, money transfers, and microfilm.
On September 18, 1870, Paris was entirely encircled by the Prussian armies. The balloonist and photographer, Nadar - the father of aerial photography - urgently created a Parisian company of gas balloons. Within five days, Nadar's first balloon left Montmartre carrying 125 kilograms of paper dispatches. During the five months of the siege of Paris, sixty-five balloons left Paris. No balloon could return to land within Paris because the winds were too unpredictable. So Parisian balloons landed in various parts of Europe. Some balloons fell near the German lines - their pilots had to scramble for it. One balloon traveled on the winds all the way to Norway. The Germans quickly devised special anti-aircraft balloon guns. One aeronaut told of seeing Prussian cannonballs reaching almost to his basket, then fall back to earth.
The Parisian balloons were made of a thin cotton cloth covered with varnish. They were inflated with gas from the streetlights of Paris. From the city of Metz during its own smaller siege, smaller unmanned balloons were sent up - balloons made of strong paper fired with hot air. The balloons could fly out of Paris on gas or hot air. But how to get messages back to the besieged population?
Nadar contacted another photographer - a colleague named Rene Dagron - a Frenchman who had been experimenting with microfilms and microphotography. Dagron was smuggled out of Paris inside a balloon. In the pressure of war, Dagron rapidly advanced his microfilm process. He was able to place the photographed images of 3000 documents onto a collodium film of fifteen square centimeters. So, thanks to Dagron, this bulk of paper was abolished and the mail of Paris was practically virtualized. Then these microscopic films were carried into Paris on the legs of carrier pigeons.
These birds were smuggled out of Paris in the balloons. Many birds successfully returned to Paris. But many were shot. Some were pursued by special pigeon-hunting hawks brought by the Prussians. Of the 355 pigeons that left Paris inside balloons only fifty-seven pigeons safely returned. But the messages were repeatedly sent into Paris until the people of Paris acknowledged their arrival. Some message packets were sent as many as thirty times. When the microfilms finally reached Paris, they were plucked off of the legs of the birds, projected onto an enlarger, recopied, and distributed to the people receiving them. Hundreds of thousands of documents arrived by bird and microfilm, with the record being held by one heroic pigeon that transported eighteen microfilms with 54,000 documents.
Now, this use of microfilm as a mass postal medium is sometimes considered the first use of microfilm as a communications system. But it was not. Hobbyists in England were making and selling microfilm entertainments for microscopes as early as 1853. And in the American Civil War, years earlier than the Franco-Prussian War, British agents spying for the Confederate States were arrested moving from Canada into the northern United States and carrying secret microfilm messages concealed inside buttons on their clothing.
We will likely never know the true origin of microfilm as a favourite medium for spies and couriers. How can we know? We are not meant to know. The truth was hidden in the world of international espionage. It has been deliberately concealed from history. Spies are even more secretive and ubiquitous than pornographers. This story of the Paris balloon post is a heroic tale of the life a death of nations. But these newly invented forms of ingenious communication were swiftly forgotten once the pressure of the war was over. Once the siege of Paris had lifted there was no Balloon Post established. There was no regular Pigeon Post, no mass microfilmings by the Paris postal authorities. Except for a bronze monument to the pigeons, which was later destroyed by the Nazis, there was very little record left of this feverish experiment in media. It simply folded up and vanished as if the entire episode had been dreamed.
The Cahill Factor
In the Dead Media Project, particularly odd and bizarre forms of dead media are appraised for their "high Cahill factor". I should take a moment to explain this "Cahill factor" and why we dead media connoisseurs find this of interest. You see, some historical efforts are simply so improbable in retrospect that they defy the imagination. High among them was the invention of Thaddeus Cahill. The Cahill factor was named after Cahill because his story is so thrillingly incredible, so near to legend, so intriguingly odd, and so revelatory to us moderns.
Thaddeus Cahill was an American entrepreneur and inventor who is one of the unknown fathers of electronic music. Thaddeus and his brothers constructed the Cahill Teleharmonium, a massive musical instrument plus electrical generating plant plus musical distribution system. This Teleharmonium was designed and constructed to provide pure electronic music to a mass audience using telephone lines - in 1906. Cahill placed the first of his five US patents in 1895. He completed three Teleharmonium instruments, including commercial models in 1906 and 1911. Dazzled industrial investors sank millions of dollars into Cahill's teleharmonic music services. And by 1907 Cahill was successfully piping live electronic music into Manhattan restaurants.
But the Teleharmonium was massive and powerful, a gigantic multi-tonne device with its own generators. It distorted telephone voice services by overwhelming switching stations, and telephone users complained. And because he was a musical whiz as well as an electrical genius, Cahill insisted on a high-tech, thirty-six-note-per-octave electronic keyboard. People - and musical performers - didn't much care for this musical innovation of Cahill's, however. Electronic music simply sounded too strange. There was a financial panic in 1907. His finances fell through. The Teleharmonium died slowly in a welter of licensing problems and business disagreements. There was an abortive Teleharmonium comeback in 1911 that struggled all the way to 1918. And the last physical vestige of the Teleharmonium machine finally vanished in the 1950s.
The Cahill factor was named after Cahill because his dead media story is so exemplary. It is daring in conception, colossal in scale. Widely publicized, it trembles on the brink of mass acceptance - and then it vanished utterly. It is now easy to understand this adventure of Cahill's as a precursor of the dot.com bust. "Who would pay for this so-called service of his? Music on telephones? Where is the business model? He's building his business on mere hype - where is his common sense? Were his investors all crazy?"
Maybe. Until you consider the industry of ringtones - for cellphones, that is. Cellular ringtones: tiny scraps of music. Ringtones are one of the most successful parts of the modern cellphone business. They're certainly one of the most successful aspects of the faltering modern music business. Is the ghost of Cahill in those ringtones? Would he smile to see people's pockets and purses suddenly playing bursts of telephonized electronic music?
Quipu Rockin' in the New World
Did the Teleharmonium die for its own inherent inadequacies, or was it killed off before its due time? Some forms of media are violently annihilated by events that are beyond any possible control of their designers or engineers. The most interesting of these - a truly alien parallel universe of communication and record keeping - would be the quipu system of the Incas in Peru.
The very first notes in the Dead Media Project were about the Incan quipu. (And incidentally all of these notes are still publicly available on the Web site www.deadmedia.org.) A quipu was not pre-literate, it was para-literate. Not only did it lack an alphabet, it even lacked written symbols of any kind. It was not a writing system. The quipu was a collection of chords with knots tied into them. These chords were usually made of cotton, and they were often dyed one or more colours. There are other methods of using knotted strings to make records. It is a natural idea that has occurred to many different cultures. There were similar efforts in Egypt, Hawaii, Tibet, Bengal, and Formosa. Besides the Incan quipu, there was the Tlascaltec nepohualtzitzin, the Okinawan warazan, the Bolivian chimpu, American Indian wampum, and Zulu beadwork. But this Incan quipu was by far the most elaborate development of this string-based media concept.
This was a society without ink. The Incans were investing their entire need for agriculture, governance, taxation, record keeping, and literature into knotted yarn. Quipu-makers knew which end of the quipu was which. Quipu had a knot on one end and a loop on the other. They had vertical directions. The strings hung down or up out of a central woven backbone. Quipu have levels - chords are attached to the main chord, there's a second level of subsidiary chords, a third level of chords off of the second chords, and so forth. Each chord also had a colour, and extra chord colours could be created by spinning two coloured yarns together. So a quipu is basically a chorded network, in three dimensions, with colour.
Nobody knows how to read quipu now, because the Spanish destroyed all the quipu they could find as instruments of sin. This was a cultural holocaust very like the destruction of the Mayan books, the codices. The Incans were a young civilization, but they were achieving surprisingly sophisticated results with their quipu systems. Quipu were light, portable, sturdy, made of natural materials, difficult to forge. What might they have achieved with this if left to their own devices? We cannot go back there - we don't even quite know what we have lost by losing quipu.
Now, a Whig historian might argue at this point that it's rather silly to mourn such things. Of what practical consequence is a quipu? Will anyone in the future ever feel a need for such a halting, difficult, alien medium? Have we lost anything that could genuinely benefit us? And if the loss is of no practical consequence, why should we fuss? We can leave dead media to the world of imaginary media - curios that may be fun to think about, or entertaining for fiction writers to write about, but which are quite properly left in the tomb. Let the dead bury the dead. And that is a good question.
Raising the Dead
One has to ask: are there any dead media that were really unjustly killed, and that should rise and walk once more among us? To conclude my speech, I would like to suggest a few. These are forms of media that may be revived in the future. If they are revived, I can almost guarantee that they will not be revived under their original names. They will not be received in quite the same context. History does not repeat itself. But history does tend to rhyme.
In the heyday of Hollywood cinema, movies were shown in large, sumptuous, cavernous movie palaces. These were not just places to watch films on a screen, but air-conditioned social centres with refreshments and uniformed ushers. They had huge screens, and peculiar film formats such as Panavision and TODD-AO. And specialized sound systems. If the Motion Picture Association of America fails to keep films from being widely pirated digitally, I think they might very well find it advantageous to quietly return to the days of the movie palace. These events would probably no longer be called "movies", and the movie palaces would not be called "palaces". I envision them as something more like gated high-tech communities. Movie malls that offer Disney-style, thrilling, branded entertainments complete with costumed characters and movie-associated souvenirs and so forth. But the point would be to get the population to congregate and spend money for a single, irreproducible cultural experience.
And what if recorded music dies as an industry? My friend William Gibson speculates that there may be a seventy or eighty-year historical window in which music was a commercial commodity. If no one pays to listen to packaged music, because it is so easy and cheap to obtain digitally, what about live music within live venues, complete with star appearances and variety acts - perhaps spinning plates, trained dogs? This might be called a rave, or Lollapalooza, or Lilith Fair - but it would be Vaudeville. It would be a return to the world of entertainment before the radio star, before the movie star, before the television star, or the video star. Live entertainment by dancers and singers hoofing it in crowds from city to city.
And then there is the interesting historical figure of the town crier. The humble town crier, this man who simply walks through the town shouting the city's news aloud with his own un-amplified mouth. People trust the town crier because they are used to him. If he lies about the news, you simply find him and kick him.
It may seem weird to get your news direct from the physical human lips of some trusted individual, instead of from media - radio, newspapers, television, the Internet. But what if you know very well that radio, newspapers, television, and the Internet have all been debased? What if your best and most reliable news really does arrive personally, hand to hand, from people you trust? After all, that was how Vaclav Havel and his dissident friends from the Charter 77 movement had their Velvet Revolution in 1989. It was obvious that the Czechoslovakian regime media were debased, and entirely detached from popular reality.
John Perry Barlow is an American writer and journalist and sometime musician. He is rather famous for once saying that the invention of the Internet was the most important invention since the invention of fire. And John Perry Barlow is saying some rather interesting things these days. To conclude my speech, I would like to quote you one of the things that John Perry Barlow recently said:
Some of us believe that another four years of the Bush administration might turn America into something so oligarchical that it will make Mexico look like Sweden. So broke that the dollar will buy less than the Hungarian pengo. Surveillant enough to make East Germany look like a good start. And puritanical enough to make Cotton Mather feel at home. Some of us want a president who is straight about his real reasons for sending our kids off to die and kill other kids. A government that is of, for, and by more people than will fit on the Forbes list. And a military that isn't simply a private security force for the Fortune 500. We want to give our grandchildren something more than a crushing debt, and a country too stripped of resources and opportunities to pay it off. The stakes seem high to us. But if we feel that way, and many of us do, then we will have to knock on doors and persuade the folks inside to turn off their televisions and talk about what's really going on - just as we will have to turn off our computers occasionally to have such exchanges. If we are to restore democracy in America we will have to get out amongst them and engage in it. I believe our arguments are persuasive, but we have to present them in-person to the people who don't already believe us.
In other words, John Perry Barlow, of all the unlikely people, is encouraging his fellow citizens to abandon mediation and show up in person to discuss the issues of the day. This is the town crier model of news media. Is there anything new about this? Or anything dead about this? Should we be surprised to see media cyberpundits showing up as human beings? Maybe we could just sit together, breath the air we jointly breath, have a beer in the bar. Maybe we can be human. Why not give this a try? Let us savour these brief, delightful, historical moments when we are alive, and our technologies are alive, and our societies are alive.
And maybe that's what I've been doing with you here all along.
Bruce Sterling is a science fiction author and media writer whose novels include Holy Fire (1996) and The Difference Engine (1991), a book about Charles Babbage's anachronistic Victorian invention co-written with William Gibson. Sterling's non-fiction books include The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier (1992), and Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next 50 Years (2002). With Richard Kadrey, Sterling started the Dead Media Project in 1995, and has since continued to pursue a serious enthusiasm for the defunct.
1. All quotes in the editor's introduction are taken from the following sources: a) Bruce Sterling, The Dead Media Project: A Modest Proposal and a Public Appeal, 1995; http://www.deadmedia.org/modest-proposal.html b) Bruce Sterling, The Life and Death of Media, a speech given at the Sixth International Symposium on Electronic Art, ISEA '95, in Montreal, September 19, 1995. Transcript published at: www.alamut.com/subj/artiface/deadMedia/dM_Address.html
More Dead (Media) Links :
Bureau of Low Technology
Capturing Unstable Media
CTHEORY.NET: Interview with Bruce Sterling
Creative Uses for Obsolete Technology
Ghost Sites / The Museum of E-Failure
Media Archaeology Writes Polyphonic History (Erkki Huhtamo)
Link no longer activewww.kiasma.fi/www/viewresource.php?id=3Ls9nGC13LEKyfwh&lang=en&preview=
Stephen Jay Gould on Contingency and Evolution
The Dead Supercomputer Society
The Museum of Retro Technology
The Obsolete Technology Web Site
Variable Media Network (Guggenheim / Daniel Langlois Foundation)
Vancouver Film School's Dead Media Project