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Dead medium: Tongan Tin Can Mail
From: kadrey@well.com (Richard Kadrey)
Dead medium: Definitions & Connections

The Dead Media Project list has grown large enough == and now covers so many devices and ideas == that this seems like a good moment to think about where we're going.

Consider this simple question: should we accept an entry on the ancient astronomical device, the astrolabe?

Bruce asked me, "...If an astrolabe is an analog computer and therefore 'media,' then isn't an orrery media, or a navigational clock media?"

We've already had a number of public discussions on the WELL conferencing system about how "dead" a "medium" has to be before it qualifies as "dead media" (and we've left the question open for the moment, thank you). Now we had to consider the idea of media itself. Exactly what the hell were we talking about when we discussed "media?"

So far, we've come up with the following rule of thumb: "Dead media is any dead, defunct, stillborn or extinct system or device that uses, transforms and displays information."

These characteristics are present in all the systems we've documented so far. Take two of the Project's more complex entries: Baird TV and the telegraph. The first uses cameras to capture information, radio waves and antennae to transform and broadcast it, and receiving units to display it. The telegraph uses an electromagnetic clicker to transform data, wires to transmit it and receiving units to display it. Both of these devices are also dependent on electricity, which connects them to such latter-day dead systems as punch card computers, ancient PCs and Scopitones, but Baird TV and the telegraph are mechanical systems, too.

Baird TV uses a spinning disk to display images, while the telegraph transforms text into electro-mechanical clicks. These machine characteristics link these complex and larger-scale media devices to simpler mechanical systems, such as slide rules, typewriting systems and magic lanterns (the first two transforming information into physical movement for calculation and display, and the latter transforming visual information into projected light). These simpler media systems are linked to even older mechanical information systems such as the quipu, abacus and the astrolabe. While this last group can hardly be described as "mass" media systems, they still transform and display information in unique ways.

Our "media" equation (data + transformation + display = media) led us to a simple conclusion: since computation is pure information, any dead mediating device that conveys computational information should qualify for the list. This means that, yes, astrolabes, orreries and navigational clocks all qualify.

It seems important at this stage of the project to keep as wide a point of view as possible. Certainly the astrolabe and orrery don't carry the same cultural weight as, say, the magic lantern or the telegraph, but that doesn't matter yet. We're like Charles Darwin stumbling around during his early days on the Galapagos Islands, finding new snails every time he looked down. It's important now to simply catalog all the different flavors of dead media. If and when we need to turn this data into a book, we can pick and choose more carefully if we have a well-stocked database.

Perhaps in an eventual Dead Media book the orrery, quipu and astrolabe will deserve only footnotes, or perhaps gold stars on a page of Cahill Honorable Mentions. We'll figure that out if and when the time seems right.

It's important to admit that most of us Necronauts are obsessives, and not academics. The Dead Media Project is working in a vast gray area, defining and refining itself as it goes along. We're getting better, but there's still a lot of room for improvement.

In previous mailings, we've discussed possible forms for a Dead Media taxonomy, but still haven't worked out exactly what a successful taxonomy would look like.

In Stefan Jones's excellent entry, "Thoughts toward a Taxonomy of Dead Media," he discussed grouping entries according to their modes of death. Perhaps we also need to consider more general areas of commonality. Already on the list we've looked at military signaling systems, ancient harvest inventory systems, calculating machines, ancient astronomical devices, encryption/decryption devices, analog computers, musical instruments, dead photographic techniques, various types of dioramas, etc. Where is the Grand Unifying Theory?

Perhaps along with a medium's death, we need to consider its method for conveying data. A taxonomical category such as Dead Mechanical Wire Media might contain Mechanical Telephones and Norwegian wire-transport signals. Dead Electrical Wire Media would include telegraph systems (including mutant uses, such as the Singing Telegraph) and the Teleharmonium. Dead Mechanical Computation Media might have the astrolabe, Antikythera Device, abacus, slide rules and Burroughs adding machines. In Dead Mechanical Information Display Systems, you might find quipu, magic lanterns, optical telegraphy and the View Master. There are many other possibilities, and we're open to suggestions. In the future, we plan to do more theory work and run more essays in Dead Media Project, along with the standard documentation in the Working Notes.

One of the interesting side benefits we've found while working on the Dead Media Project is that it changes the way you look at the world. Teddy Ruxpin is an infinitely more interesting object if you see Teddy in light of Edison's wax and foil cylinder recorders.

The astrolabe, which sparked this current essay, immediately connects in my mind to Babbage's Analytical Engine, 18th century clockwork devices, karakuri, old calculation devices of all sorts (see Working Note 0.06) == analog systems that transformed information into physical movement . Perhaps your associations will be based on other, more personal connections. One of the hopes of the Dead Media Project is to bring all these disparate objects together, so that as their objective connections become obvious, your personal connections will expand with your own interests and obsessions.

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Richard Kadrey

GOMI BOY Industries

2440 16th St., #229

San Francisco, CA 94103

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email kadrey@well.com

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