Digital Dinosaurs

Dead Media Project takes note of departed technology

May 14, 2001|By Doug Bedell | Doug Bedell,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Technological history is littered with the carcasses of fantastic inventions.

Where are the computer punch cards? What happened to the mimeograph machine on which your third-grade teacher cranked out those daunting tests?

Even more important: How will future generations evaluate the inventions when the machines themselves are extinct?

These are the questions that began vexing Austin, Texas-based science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling and a band of technology enthusiasts in 1995, when they started the Dead Media Project (www.

Born in a cerebral discussion list on, the project grew from a sense of pending panic.

"How long will it be before the much-touted World Wide Web interface is itself a dead medium?" Sterling wrote in his seminal "Dead Media Manifesto."

"And what will become of all those billions of thoughts, words, images and expressions poured onto the Internet? Won't they vanish just like the vile, lacquered smoke from a burning pile of junked Victrolas?"

After watching modern search engines trample text-based predecessors such as Gopher and WAIS, the preservationists churned out a series of documents that is now a definitive electronic source of technological history.

The project shows no sign of decay. This month, archivists at the Guggenheim Museum in New York summoned Sterling as a keynote speaker on dead media. The archivists' object is to develop ways to preserve art created on computers and other systems that are decomposing before our eyes.

A stroll through the Dead Media archive bombards the mind with questions. Why, for instance, did the U.S. Postal Service - in cahoots with the Navy - experiment with a missile-based delivery system?

"Before man reaches the moon," an official was quoted as saying in 1959, "mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles."

The project also causes visitors to ponder the techno-furor over new creations. Will we someday regard Windows 95 as we do Ramelli's Book Wheel?

In the 16th century, Ramelli developed the first workstation for scholars. Eight lecterns holding books were affixed to a wheel that could be rotated using gears and pulleys. Researchers would stand in front, spinning the mechanism to bring their tome of choice to eye level.

The Dead Media List also is a repository of the absurd. Take the cat piano. Developed in Brussels in 1549, this contraption was designed to be played by a bear. Inside the instrument were 20 cats, each with a cord tied to its tail. As the bear pounded the keys, the cords were pulled, yanking the cats' tails and making them meow.

The list also is a window into the way we attempt to fuse disparate technologies. These "convergent" mechanisms, Sterling said, might be better viewed in light of failures such as the telharmonium, a gargantuan electrical generating plant and distribution system invented by Thaddeus Cahill in the 19th century. It was supposed to provide music over telephone lines. But the telharmonium's signals overwhelmed telephone switching systems.

Sterling is watching modern technologies for induction into the Dead Media List.

The watch list includes the Iridium satellite phone system, a $5 billion venture that promised communication "with anyone, anytime, virtually anywhere in the world." Iridium never attracted enough subscribers to support the cost of its 88 satellites.

At one point, it appeared the satellites would be intentionally pushed into flaming atmospheric cremation, much like the Russian space station Mir. But the Department of Defense and a private venture have purchased the satellite network for $25 million.

"It was dead for a year and they, like, they turned it back on and now they're selling phone service again," Sterling said. "It's like a mummy back from the dead."

Equally alarming, Sterling said, are the prospects for the fiber optic networks backed by billions of dollars in venture capital. Those networks, he suggests, could go the way of the underground pneumatic transfer tubes once used to send documents across downtown Chicago.

Already on the Dead Media List is the IBM Selectric typewriter. The Selectric was one of the most widely used IBM machines ever made. Known as the "golf ball" typewriter because of the size and shape of the embossing element, the Selectric was a standard in offices and homes for more than a decade.

High-speed printers still use the Selectric as the minimum standard for correspondence, or letter-quality, output. The Selectric is out of production, and IBM no longer services it or supplies parts.

At the Guggenheim, Sterling lectured on his longtime project. His idea for publishing a Dead Media text has taken a back seat to other writing ventures.

"I'm really saving that for my retirement, frankly," he said with a laugh.

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