Tara Brabazon: The unsustainable shock of the new

We all collude in the hype cycle that turns shiny ‘new media’ into forgotten, junk-generating ‘dead media’, and it’s time to look at the costs, argues Tara Brabazon

October 6, 2010

I smell death.

No, it is not rotting vegetables from an over-eager online order from Ocado. It is not the permanent fog of ageing that comes from living in Eastbourne. Actually, it is the waste of redundant software and hardware, obsolete at the point of release and now cluttering homes and offices.

All media have a suicide pact. The pattern repeats. Invention. Advertising. Excitement. Ownership. Decline. Denial. Decay. Disposal. Death. At the moment of birth, media are dying. This reality is masked by patches, updates and versions. It is hidden by an enthusiastic commitment to the new, rather than a backwards glance at the objects, processes and services being replaced.

Occasionally, there is a sobering recognition that there is a difference between the new and the useful. Radio is a great survivor. It is the vampire of the media world. Television tried to knife it. The web attempted to strangle it. In response to these death threats, radio transformed, sonically weaving around the activities and moments neglected by screen cultures. It gained new life through streaming and podcasting. It whispers its presence but never shouts its importance.

For every new media, there are old media. Indeed, there are many more old media than new. But I am not interested only in the replaceable and redundant. When old media are forgotten and slip out of footnotes, they become dead media.

The phrase “dead media” has an impressive tech heritage. Science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling first used it in 1995 during a speech delivered at the Sixth International Symposium on Electronic Art (ISEA95) in Montreal. He was interested in “the nervous system of the information society” and the “marketplace of the information economy”. His motivation was similar to that of James Carey and Harold Innis: to provide a context for communication “revolutions”.

Sterling’s era celebrated virtual reality and CD-ROMs. I was teaching (with) media during this time and Sterling was right to offer critique. The training seminars I attended transformed CD-ROMs into the answer for information storage problems. These sessions were similar to current evangelical commitments to cloud computing. Sterling asked us to investigate the “aspects of media that corporate public relations people are afraid to look at and deeply afraid to tell us about”. He issued a challenge to probe the unpopular and dissenting, and to explore the cost of disposable ideas and technology.

Much to the chagrin of those who doubt the importance of studying media – or even media studies – Sterling presented a cyberpunk Sermon on the Mount detailing why such research is important. He provided eight reasons why media require research:

• Media are an extension of the senses

• Media are a mode of consciousness

• Media are extra-somatic memory

• Media generate simulacra. The mechanical reproduction of images is media

• Media are a means of social interaction

• Media are a means of command and control

• Media are statistics; knowledge that is gathered and generated by the state

• Media are the means of civil society and public opinion.

In recognising the scale of this impact, Sterling inserted the internet into wider analyses of communication and identity. He issued a challenge to write a Dead Media Handbook that catalogued waste, failure, losses and errors in the history of technology.

Sterling’s speech, published as “The Dead Media Project – A Modest Proposal and a Public Appeal”, triggered discussion and commentary. However, perhaps appropriately, interest dwindled and the mailing list on the subject, moderated by Tom Jennings, died.

But such great dead ideas can be resurrected. Garnet Hertz explores fascinating projects in the Dead Media Research Lab. It was Hertz, a former doctoral student at the University of California, Irvine, who activated Sterling’s vision. In memory of The Dead Media Handbook, he published a small text entitled A Collection of Many Problems. It provides what he describes as “a visual introduction to media archaeology”.

The Dead Media Research Lab repurposes dead media, rethinking the damage created by cycles of planned obsolescence in consumer electronics. While Steve Jobs included an environmental section as part of his January 2010 iPad launch, showing its recyclable elements, he did not include in the product the key functions that would extend its life, such as a camera and USB slot. By intentionally leaving out useful and obvious components from the hardware, Jobs created demand for the next generation of iPad. This planned obsolescence is outstanding marketing. Whether such a decision can be justified economically or environmentally is a different question.

There is a cost to waste and obsolescence. A range of websites logs dead media. In the same year as Sterling made his landmark speech, old-computers.com was launched. Currently 991 computers are lodged in its online museum. Each artefact features a description and photograph. Instructables.com ran a Dead Computer Contest to judge the best use of discarded technology. The results included a cat bed, aquarium and “MacPlanters”.

While such projects demonstrate creativity and humour, it is important to detail the consequences of international rubbish tips filled with dead media. In August 2010, The New York Times reported on the staggering scale of foreign technology dumped in Agbogbloshie in Accra, Ghana. But this is not only a problem exported to the developing world: estimates suggest that 40 per cent of the heavy metals in landfill in the US are caused by electronic equipment. The answer to such waste is not only for corporations to release more environmentally compliant products, but to slow the life cycle of media technologies.

The question is how to reuse, recycle and repurpose electronic materials beyond MacQuariums or sending waste to Africa as some sick form of neocolonialism. E-waste regulations have emerged, but the scale of this obsolescence – of printer cartridges, telephones, computers and television sets – necessitates more than governmental intervention.

We should continue Sterling’s interest in old and dead media. He is not against the new. Neither am I. Instead, he wants understanding of the old. He asked that evangelical promoters, sellers and hypers “ought to eat what you are killing...Perhaps this realisation will free us from the hypnotism of our own PR.”

One equation I use in my research is Old Media + New Media = Now Media. The goal of this slogan is not only to remember history, but also to ensure that any discussion of technology begins with a purpose and goal, rather than – Narcissus-like – reflecting in/on the chrome and shiny screen.

“New media” is a phrase that enables social, cultural and economic amnesia. It perpetuates an assumption that the new is useful. When I completed a qualification in internet studies in the late 1990s, the course was split by dual (and indeed duelling) commitments: an earnest desire for preservation alongside a bubbling joy at the new. Sterling’s talk captured both these desires. At some point, we may need those backups.

In the decade since Sterling’s speech, his concerns have been supposedly resolved by focusing on data (content management) and ignoring the platform onto which information is placed (context management). Celebrations of cloud computing displace the carriers of information. With “everything” in the cloud, the objects on which the ideas are constructed, accessed and transformed are redundant.

The iPad signifies this love of the new, even if we must invent justifications for its use. I own an iPad and use it every day. But every function that I perform on it can be done on another platform. The iPad has replaced my paper-based Filofax, destroyed the Kindle, provided a good screen to watch iTunes U lectures and is an effective portable screen for seminar teaching. However, it is intriguing how often the vodcasts celebrating the iPad now wish for its replacement. Supposedly the next model will have a camera, a USB slot, a larger memory, and support for Flash.

That such an expensive object has consumers clamouring for another opportunity to spend £699 shows that the love for new media is like a fixation on Botox. It is irrational. The assumption that injecting a neurotoxic protein into skin is a logical response to ageing is like spending more than a family’s monthly food budget to support Apple in the hope that it will get the product right next time. For the affluent few, the iPad will be discarded for iPad 2.0, without a backwards glance or regret.

There is a reason for loving media in their youth, rather than in the dustbin. It is similar to the reason why fashion boutiques continue to stock sizes six and eight, knowing that the size 14s will sell. It is why intelligent women spend £60 on face cream: it gives them hope in a jar. Similarly, all new media offer the promise that they will make us smarter, more beautiful, youthful, popular and rich. They will not.

Certain religions believe we do not die. They offer an afterlife, heaven or reincarnation. These words displace the realisation that death is approaching. Calling obsolete technology “dead media” has an honesty to it. What is fascinating after the credit crunch is that there is increasing interest in what is labelled the “life cycle of technology”. Instead of the reality of dead media, the affirmation of a life cycle resurfaces the dead skin of technology with youth serum. It is heaven for hardware.

Intriguingly, the first use of “life cycle” in relation to technology dates back to 1957 and an Iowa State College project to monitor the purchasing patterns of hybrid seed corn by farmers. From its early use in mapping agricultural innovation, this model has been deployed to understand the adoption of new hardware and software.

The corporation GTSI describes itself as an “information technology solutions provider offering a Technology Lifecycle Management (TLM) approach to IT infrastructure solutions”. We now have new initials to throw into meetings. What is our position on TLM? GTSI can help answer that question, because it has a “strategic methodology” to reach “government-mandated performance metrics”. The closest GTSI gets to mentioning dead media is a “retirement strategy” and an “asset disposal strategy”.

A positive reading of TLM is that it increases the consciousness of users so that decisions are based on evidence, rather than moving to the next big thing based on public relations or an excited consumer over sharing on YouTube. More negatively, this life-cycle modelling of technology perpetuates ageism towards people. As a product (or person) ages, it loses value.

Gartner, the information technology research and advisory company, has cut through the marketing language of a “life cycle” to describe the “Hype Cycle”. It delineates five key phases:

• Technology trigger

• Peak of inflated expectations

• Trough of disillusionment

• Slope of enlightenment

• Plateau of productivity.

If hardware or software can survive the brilliantly named “trough of disillusionment”, where technology does not deliver on its promise, then it moves to “the slope of enlightenment” when second- and third-generation products emerge.

Just as disillusionment leads to enlightenment, so dead media can lead to new projects. Sterling went on to establish the Viridian Design Movement, offering new initiatives in citizenship, environmentalism, technology and progress. From cyberpunk to futurist, he is currently professor of internet studies and science fiction (what a tremendous combination) at the European Graduate School. He has left researchers disruptive ideas to ponder and develop. But there is a problem.

Sterling made a commitment that the Dead Media Project would be open-access knowledge. But sadly its website at www.deadmedia.org remains stubbornly non-functional: the landing page reads “temporarily offline – upgrades in progress”. Given its current state, the research completed by the members of the mailing list is therefore unavailable.

And if there is anything sadder than dead media, then it is dead links from a website on dead media. Perhaps that is the point.

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