this weekMissed Messages

April 19, 2005

Dead Media

Preserving past communication for the future

For several years, I’ve been in dire need of some new gadgets. My PDA is so old it died of shame. My TV is an old hand-me-down donated by a friend when my previous TV, which I’d purchased for US$10 at a garage sale eight years ago, went kaput. My home stereo, if you can call it that, is a 13-year-old boom box that was outdated when I got it. And so on. What’s keeping me from updating my tech is not desire, knowledge, or even money—it’s fear of early obsolescence. Long ago, I went through the process of replacing all my 8-track tapes with cassettes, and then my cassettes with CDs, and then my CDs with MP3 files, which now seem quaint compared to some newer digital audio formats. The same is true of all those videocassettes, floppy disks, and many other assorted media that used to seem so valuable to me but are now unwanted trash. So if I buy a new PDA or digital camera today, will the memory cards or computer interface it uses be obsolete tomorrow? If I buy a new TV, will it support next year’s higher-definition video standard? I know that all gadgets, and all media, have a finite lifespan, but I’m tired of having to convert massive amounts of information into new formats every few years. And so I keep putting off purchases, thinking that maybe the next generation of devices will give me confidence that the standards they support will stick around for a while.

It’s Dead, Jim
When a type of media can no longer be decoded, displayed, or presented readily, it’s said to be “dead.” So 8-track tapes, for example, have been dead for a long time. Even though you can, with some effort, still locate a working player, new media is not being created in that format, and the existing media is deteriorating—sooner or later it will be completely unusable, even if you have the necessary equipment. This process is not unique to modern times. Media formats have come and gone regularly for as long as humans have had the ability to communicate. But although technology must march on, we still lose something valuable every time media dies: the words, images, sounds, or ideas it contained.

This may not seem like much of a problem when it comes to bad pop music from the ’70s, but think about older media. Computer punch cards. Wire recorders, which predated tape recorders. The wax cylinders used in early phonographs. Stereopticon images. Magic lantern slides. Over the millennia, thousands of varieties of media have been used to record and exchange information, and as many of those media have died, the information has slipped from our grasp too. Never mind that modern media are quantifiably better in almost every respect; if the only recording of someone’s voice, say, from over 100 years ago is in a fragile and rapidly disintegrating medium that can only be retrieved with nonexistent equipment, that does us no good today—and yet it’s clearly something of tremendous historical interest.

Book of the Dead
In 1995, well-known science fiction author Bruce Sterling presented a manifesto called “The Dead Media Project: A Modest Proposal and a Public Appeal” at the International Symposium on Electronic Arts in Montréal. Sterling described the urgent need for someone to catalog all the forms of media humanity has created and then allowed to die off, documenting their successes, failures, and all the elements—cultural, political, financial, and technological—that may have contributed to their demise. This project would not only provide an important historical record, but crucially, would help technologists of the present and future to avoid the many mistakes of the past. Every medium in use today will surely be superseded or replaced someday. New media are appearing (and disappearing) at a shocking rate, and this is only likely to continue. Perhaps paper books will still be around long after DVDs are no more than a faint memory; perhaps blogs and other Web sites will survive for decades or centuries. But sooner or later, the world will move on to new ways of communicating.

Sterling proposed, specifically, that someone undertake the task of writing what he called The Handbook of Dead Media—as he put it, “A naturalist’s field guide for the communications paleontologist.” And as a tiny incentive, he offered a crisp, new $50 bill to the first person or group to produce such a book. He even offered his own notes on the subject for anyone to use freely, and started an email discussion list and Web site called the Dead Media Project where members of the public could contribute their own information about dead media. All this data was there for the taking, royalty-free, for anyone willing to sit down and do the research, track down all the relevant facts and images, and produce a nice coffee-table book that could be used as a reference for people like Sterling, who imagine future technologies for a living.

What Don’t You Know?
As Sterling admitted, such a project is full of ambiguities. What counts as media, anyway? Does it include, for example, delivery mechanisms such as carrier pigeons, pneumatic tubes, or the telegraph? Does it include ephemeral means of communication, such as Native American smoke signals? What about media production devices, such as unusual typewriter designs? Or particular methods of encoding information—say, obsolete computer file formats? For that matter, what does it really mean for media to be dead? Are there degrees of deadness? If media can still be recovered somehow, does it make the cut? If a few scattered hobbyists actively use a medium that’s otherwise dead, should it be included? If the Vatican uses smoke signals to indicate the selection of a new pope, does it mean that medium is still alive? The questions, to which there are no definitive answers, go on and on. One could spend months simply trying to define the scope of the project.

Now, ten years later, The Handbook of Dead Media still does not exist. The Dead Media Project itself is, if not dead, barely kicking—the Web site hasn’t been updated since mid-2001, and the mailing list no longer functions. Other programs and Web sites devoted to the preservation of old media, especially early audio recordings, are in operation, but as yet, I’ve seen no signs that anything approaching the scope of Sterling’s manifesto is even in the works.

Needless to say, I myself find this project enormously interesting and inspiring—linguistically, historically, and technologically. Compiling The Handbook of Dead Media would be right up my alley, a project I could really sink my teeth into. And if I ever become independently wealthy with absolutely nothing to do for a year or two, I’ll get right on it. The problem, of course, is that there’s almost certainly not enough money in such a book to reimburse an author for the time required to research and write it. That, like the death of media, is a great pity. —Joe Kissell

More Information about Dead Media…

This article was featured in Carnival of the Infosciences #45.

The first place to go for information on dead media is the Dead Media Project Web site, which includes Sterling’s manifesto, an FAQ, and notes on many media that readers submitted before the site seemingly went into hibernation. You may also enjoy reading Bruce Sterling: the Dead Media interview by Alessandro Ludovico at neural.it or Dead Media list tracks forgotten revolutions by Elizabeth Weise in USA Today.

A similar project, also called the Dead Media Project, is being run by students of the Vancouver Film School-Multimedia. It appears to be slightly more alive, but has far less material.

NPR’s award-winning series Lost and Found Sound covers (and broadcasts) many examples of audio recordings that would be considered Dead Media. For more information on old sound recordings, see The Sound Recording Technology History Site.

Phil Sandifer at the University of Chicago proposed a Dead Media Taxonomy Model.