The history of technological media is littered with platforms we no longer use. Often called “dead media,” many of them actually live on in technologies that are widely used today, and can teach us much about how to design platforms for the future, according to New York University postdoctoral researcher Finn Brunton.
Brunton, who studies societal and historical aspects of digital technology, presented his idea at the Usenix Annual technical conference this week in Portland, Oregon.
He presented many obsolete and obscure technologies that might seem odd today, but Brunton showed how the basic ideas behind them are hidden in current technologies.
“Along with being fascinating and often funny, looking deeply into the history of media can offer us insights into how things work and fail to work,” Brunton said. “Media technologies offer narratives to us. When we build a media platform, we are offering stories of how we think the future should be, about how we conceive of thinking and communication.”
Radio, television, the Internet, CDs and vinyl records all are examples of successful media, though they represent only a fraction of the attempts to come up with new ways to “store, transmit and represent information,” he said.
The history of successful media “is not a history of teleological progress that ends up where we are, but a constant Cambrian explosion of different and diverse forms, most of which don’t make it,” he said.
Science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling coined the term “dead media” in 1995 for a talk at a new media conference, as a way to remind technologists and marketers that their creations would not always endure. It was a time, just before the Internet took off, when a lot of creative effort was being put into CD-ROMs, a platform that was rapidly displaced by the Internet.
“Much of the new media in Sterling’s time was an attempt to sell something and move on. Sterling came to speak against the new, new hotness, by pointing his audience to … the obsolete, the dysfunctional, the has-been and never-was,” Brunton said.
Perhaps the canonical example of the dangers of dead media was the BBC’s elaborate Domesday Book project, the results of which the corporation unwisely chose to place on LaserDiscs that ran only on Acorn Computers.
The original Domesday book was a survey of England and Wales in the year 1086 to assess the land, owners and livestock in order to levy taxes. The BBC decided to re-render the book on LaserDisc in 1984, with new input from thousands of people.
“It became virtually unreadable within less than two decades,” Brunton said. The Acorn computer was not a successful platform, nor was the LaserDisc.
Yet the work remains available today, though rescuing it from this platform was no easy task. Because the JPG format hadn’t been invented yet, all the pictures were rendered as single frames of video, and the underlying code was written in the now-obscure Basic Combined Programming Language.
“This was not just a matter of copying some stuff off of disc to salvage it. This was a huge and expensive project to save this thing,” he said, before noting that “the original book, which is now 900 years old, can still [be] read perfectly fine.”
Brunton ran through many truly obscure technologies, such as the Dream Machines of the 1960s and 1970s, elaborate contraptions that produced rapid light flickers that people experienced through closed eyes.
The idea was that the flickers would produce images in the viewer’s head.
“Why watch reruns of ‘Gilligan’s Island’ when you can watch the endless patterns generated out of your own visual cortex,” he said. “So we have … a piece of abstract art only meant to be seen with your eyes closed.”
Columbia Records actually considered marketing the devices. While it may not be possible to buy a Dream Machine today (though Brunton has spied a few homemade models still working in aging Northern Californian hippie communes), the idea of enjoying abstract visual patterns lives on in today’s screensavers.
Brunton questioned whether any media is “truly dead,” except in rare cases, such as the Rongorongo tablets found at Easter Island, which no one now knows how to read or even decipher the reason they were created.
“Total non-recoverable death is really rare,” he said. “We use the term ‘dead media,’ but most media is in a strained other state.”
Even successful media is rarely used for its intended purpose. The TV remote control, for instance, was originally developed to mute out the sound of commercials.
“People often build things for very culturally specific reasons that might then go away. But the hardware is still there, to get taken up anew,” he said.
Thomas Edison thought his phonograph would be used to cut sound recordings that could then be mailed to others, effectively making letters one could listen to. Many of the original phonograph cylinder machines had shavers that allowed people to reuse the discs. The idea lives on today in the form of voice mail.
At around the same time, people were thinking up ways to use the telephone to transmit music. One idea was the Telharmonium, a 200-ton electric organ located in a concert hall in New York City, with enormous tone wheels that produced loud sounds that could be used to recreate symphonies. In effect, Brunton said, it was the first synthesizer, and the service was an early example of music streaming.
The idea behind the Telharmonium was that people would subscribe to a service that would allow them to call a number and listen to Telharmonium music being played live. Users would hook up a horn to the phone to listen, and the music was piped into restaurants in lieu of live bands.
“It seems bizarre to us now to think of telephones for music, and records for voice, but it makes sense culturally if you are still thinking of music as a live phenomenon, and think of letters as the fundamental means by which you engage in distant communications with people,” Brunton said.
Sometimes technologies are saved by emulation within a new technology. For instance, the software for a legacy PDP-11 micro computer emulator can still be run in a browser. Others get taken up as hobbies. “Plenty of people still know how to do calligraphy, raise carrier pigeons and practice semaphore,” he said.
In still other cases, technologies find the niche they are best suited for. Morse code, for instance, “is fantastic for bad, noisy situations,” he said. Ham radios and military units still use it to communicate when other methods are impractical. Prisoners use it to tap on walls and pipes. “This is a format where you can communicate by blinking your eyes,” he said.
“It’s almost as though in the process of dying out from widely adopted casual use, [the media] actually found a space for which it is uniquely suited. Many media do this — they find a niche after their death that is actually a better fit,” he said.
Sometimes the idea driving the media is resurrected in a new form.
He pointed to an 18th-century version of Photoshopping, called black mirrors, or Claude Glass, which were tinted mirrors that transformed reflected images into painterly hues, giving the scenes a picturesque quality.
“This is 18th-century augmented reality. The mirror would subtract the confusing details, distort the perspective, make some colors brighter and others darker,” he said.
Often older media offers us a way to understand new technologies. “Prior forms are needed because they act like gateways and handrails” to some new technology, he said.
For example, some digital cameras have a sound file of a shutter clicking that plays as the image is captured, replicating the sound of a mechanical camera.
When it first was introduced, photography itself was often considered “the pencil of nature,” as it offered the ability to create instant paintings. Early photographs replicated still-life paintings. Only after a while did people “begin to understand photography as a form in itself.”
Other platforms live on specifically because of their obscurity, seen in the trend among some music labels of releasing music only on cassette.
Thanks to the age of MP3s, “there are no obscure albums any more, or obscure bands.” Such easy availability, however, can hamper how “cool” a band is viewed by an audience. “Coolness in subcultures has a lot to do with difficulty. How do you separate out the newbies? How do you figure out who really belongs. There has to be kind of a learning curve,” he said.
By using cassettes, labels are “deliberately re-introducing friction. It’s the work that bonds people together in subculture. It’s the work that makes the music feel special and secret.”
With the development of new media, basic concepts tend to get invented over and over again, “often independently and in different places,” Brunton said.
“Look for moments of flourishing where all these different people are collectively exploring some research space. It’s normal for most of them to not make it,” Brunton said.
Although Brunton spoke at a conference of technically minded computer programmers and administrators, his lessons were not lost on the audience.
“What was fascinating was the breadth of information and the interrelations between various components, and how things that I barely knew of are strongly pervasive in the systems we are using,” said Usenix organizer Dan Klein. “Everything old is new again, and things that are very old we are still using, just under cover.”
Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab’s e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com