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'Dead media' never really die

An NYU professor explains how experimental and 'dead media' can teach us much about product development

By Joab Jackson, IDG News Service
June 16, 2011 10:00 PM ET

IDG News Service - 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."

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