Dead Media Project
An Interview with Bruce Sterling
CTHEORY: What's the genealogy of the Dead Media Project?
Bruce Sterling: My friends and I are interested in understanding
technology, even the embarrassing parts of technology, such as machines that are
badly designed and that no longer work. Unfortunately, we don't get paid to do
this research work, so we have to do it in our spare time, voluntarily. Luckily,
the Internet is good for getting large numbers of people to do a little bit of
work, and then combining the results together in one place. That way, amateurs
can build something large and worthwhile.
So, I edit the Dead Media mailing list. People find examples of dead media
and write down descriptions -- usually very short, maybe one page of text. I
edit the work, put it in a uniform format, make sure it is spelled correctly,
and then I send it to a mail exploder at www.fringeware.com. It is emailed for
free all over the world. We have about 600 people in our mailing list. The
effort is about three years old now.
Thanks to the work of all these strangers and contributors, we have all
discovered media that we never knew existed. No one has ever taken the trouble
before, to compile a "master list of dead media," but thanks to all these
efforts from many corners of the world, we have a very large graveyard now.
CTHEORY: There are some extraordinarily interesting things in your
archives, like Inuit carved maps, Zulu beadwork, Inca quipu. How do you define
these as "media?"
Bruce Sterling: In Dead Media Project we define media as a device that
transfers a message between human beings. So a dance is not a "medium," because
there is no device involved; but a bouquet of flowers can be media. Flowers can
carry a very important message if you can understand the "flower code." People
have used all kinds of things to record data and carry signals: fire, string,
clouds, flowers, light, electricity, ink, wax, vinyl, tape, wire, cloth -- the
list just goes on and on.
CTHEORY: Why "exhume" dead media?
Bruce Sterling: There are thousands of people who are paid to invent
new media and publicize new media. But there is no one whose job it is to
describe media that don't work any more and have collapsed in humiliating,
money-losing ways. But this job needs to be done. Otherwise, commercial
pressures can lead to a grave misunderstanding of the true nature and behavior
Every time a consumer machine fails or becomes obsolete, someone gets stung
-- someone loses money. You may also lose data, and your memorabilia, and your
own creative work. No one will tell you that the "95" in "Windows 95" is really
an expiration date. No one tells you that if you buy a personal computer, it
means that you will have to buy another one, and another one, and another one,
and another one, just to keep up with the trends in computers. No one tells you
that color photographs are much less stable than black and white photographs, so
that color photographs of your wedding will turn strange greenish colors in
thirty years. Instead, you will find yourself explaining to your grandchildren
that you were the victim of a technical misunderstanding.
CTHEORY: Today, it's all digital memories. Aren't dead media
inevitably followed by more advanced and viable successors?
Bruce Sterling: Well, death comes to all of us, but there's no
guarantee that our children are any more "advanced and viable" than we are. Even
the cheapest paperback book has no trouble outliving a contemporary personal
computer, which is basically junk within six years. A Henry Drefuss model
telephone unit was "viable" for decades, while modern desktop PBX systems may be
so complicated that most of their functions are never used.
CTHEORY: In digital futures research, the convergence of TV and PCs is
a key topic. Will TV live on in a "digitally enhanced" form?
Bruce Sterling: I very much doubt that TVs and PCs will "merge." There
are dozens of different kinds of "television." Broadcast television, satellite
television, state-supported television, video rentals, security television,
industrial training television, cable television (on many different networks),
regional television, national networks, television in different languages, PAL,
NTSC, HDTV...Just because we call one glass screen a "television" and the other
glass screen a "computer" doesn't mean that we end up with one glass screen that
holds everything. It's like imagining that bicycles, motorcycles, cars and
tractors will all converge because they all use "wheel technology."
CTHEORY: Should writing and print be prepared for a last public
viewing at entry to the dead media graveyard?
Bruce Sterling: Writing is in no danger at all. There is no society
alive today where illiterates can thrive and achieve power. On the contrary,
literate people have no trouble dominating illiterate people, who mostly see
their inability to read as a source of shame and try hard to hide it.
Nowadays some text is on paper and some text is on screens, but there is very
little trouble involved in moving from one to another. Paper will not vanish
because it is a good storage medium; it doesn't require batteries.
It may be that the economics of publishing and distributing books and
magazines may be in for upheaval, but in the English language at least it is
already in absurd and terrible shape. Publishing has always been a ridiculous
line of work. It makes little or no economic sense. Chainstores, megapublishers,
super-bestsellers; it's all like some kind of terrible joke. But it was bad long
before computers came along. It has always been bad. It will probably always be
bad. With computers, publishing just becomes more complicated.
CTHEORY: What's the likely outcome of this "upheaval?"
Bruce Sterling: I don't know, but sooner or later economic doctrine
will reflect the realities of the costs of publication and distribution. It's
hard to pass a worldwide law that says that intellectual property is always
worth a lot of money, even though it's dirt cheap to reproduce it and move it
around. It's hard to make a cartel stable in the long run.
CTHEORY: Why do you regard the Web as a "highly unstable medium?"
Bruce Sterling: I don't expect the Web to last very long indeed, at
least not in its present form. It is a very young medium, and there are many
obvious "improvements" that are possible. Parts of it are already dead. There
are large numbers of abandoned websites on the Web that were partially
constructed and then left to rot in cyberspace. And have you tried using
"gopher" or "WAIS" lately? And suppose Microsoft's browser becomes the standard
for the Web. We'll all be living at the mercy of Bill Gates. What will he choose
to do with it then? Who knows? But it doesn't sound much like the Web we know
CTHEORY: Are there many other media on the verge of extinction?
Bruce Sterling: Well, there are a large number of what we like to call
"fossil media," which are leftover legacies on the media landscape. Things such
as panoramas, camera obscuras, magic lanterns, which have some small public
attraction or are still preserved by a few devoted hobbyists. The French Army
and the Indian state police force still have a living and working pigeon
service. Prague still has a functional city-wide pneumatic mail system. These
media are rare endangered relics, barely hanging on.
CTHEORY: Has the Dead Media Project attracted the compulsive interest
Bruce Sterling: We have a sister list called the "Dead Media
Collectors' List.", run independently by Seth Carmichael (email@example.com).
It's especially for people who like obsolescent machines. There are strong
collector groups for: telegraph keys, old phonographs, magic lanterns,
typewriters, and old cameras.
CTHEORY: What about further spin-offs?
Bruce Sterling: Actually, the Dead Media Project already comes in
three parts. Besides the two already mentioned mailing lists, the third element
is our "Dead Sounds" effort, which has been undergoing silent, stealthy progress
in the capable hands of long-time Necronaut Stefan Jones (SeJ@aol.com). The Dead
Sounds tape is a standard audio cassette featuring purportedly interesting
noises from dead mechanical music machines, dead video games, defunct office
equipment, and anything else we can sweep up which can be made to seem relevant.
On its completion, this tape will be distributed free of charge to any and
all Dead Media Necronauts. (You are a Necronaut if you have ever contributed a
Working Note to this list). With a little more effort we will be in a position
to distribute this tape, thus rewarding List supporters for their many noble
CTHEORY: Is there a book in the offing?
Bruce Sterling: Writing a book has always been the ultimate aim of the
Dead Media Project. The raw material, in theory at least, is supposed to be free
to anyone. The idea of Dead Media is also "free." But you know, just because you
have the ideas and the raw material, doesn't mean you can write a good book.
Authorship does not come that easily. It's as if someone had given you all the
instruments in an orchestra in a big tangled heap, and then said, "Here, write a
symphony! It's free!"
Then comes the problem of selling the book to a publisher. My agent thinks
that I can do this. I think I would like to do it, but there are two major ways
to go about it. The first would be an encyclopedia of dead forms of media, a
Dead Media Handbook. The second would be a work of media theory which describes
what the life and death of media means, and why media behave in the way that
they do. In other words, the two basic pillars of science: fieldwork and
experimental investigation; and theory and the formulation of natural law.
Anyone can do fieldwork (though good fieldwork is hard to do). Unfortunately,
there aren't many Charles Darwins in the world. I don't think I can write this
book properly unless I achieve some kind of powerful and novel insight about the
nature of media. I don't have any such insight yet.
CTHEORY: You're a SF writer, a journalist and non-fiction writer. How
would you define the main interests of your work today?
Bruce Sterling: I think that the most important aspect is that I am an
artist whose theme is the impact of technology on society. So I am a novelist,
but also a journalist, and a futurist, but also an antiquarian. I really want to
understand how technology works on some deeper level; I want to know not just
how it functions technically, but what it means and how it feels, which are
basically literary questions. I've found that I do well if I just pursue that
basic understanding and don't worry too much about whether it is called "design
studies" or "technohistory" or "corporate forecasting" or "computer journalism"
or "science fiction." These are taxonomical distinctions, they don't have much
to do with my central problem as an artist. Any field of study that can give me
fresh and relevant insights will be welcome. I spend most of my working life
Dead Media websites can be viewed at:
Bruce Sterling is the author of Islands in the Net and The
Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier. He is a
member of the Editorial Board of CTHEORY.
Arpad Bak is a freelance journalist in Hungary. This interview was originally
published in Hungarian in the net magazine Internet Kalauz.
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