"All good work," wrote Wendell Berry, "remembers its past."
The past which those of us working with information tools must remember is full of dead media. For almost ten years, Worldchanging ally #1 Bruce Sterling has been studying why media die, what happens to them in the process, and what the implications are for media we are currently creating. In this speech (transcribed in the fine journal HorizonZero), Bruce lays out why we should care. An excerpt:
"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 Superceded.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. ... 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.
"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... 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. ...
"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 fiber-optic pipes and found a mirror."
Read the rest: it's well, well worth the time.
I used to read these dead media archives called Making Of America:
Apart from antique issues of Scientific American, I really enjoyed Punchinello!