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Dead medium: Definitions and Connections

(((bruces remarks: Richard Kadrey's essay on "Definitions and Connections" (Note 22.7) has prompted some interesting responses. I encourage more commentary on Dead Media theory. Please keep in mind that reader responses may be edited severely.)))

From: (Peter van Heusden) As a starting point, I'd like to quote Richard Kadrey's recent post (Note 22.7):

"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."

Kadrey admits that we are not academics, and thus not disinterested observers of Dead Media. What, then is Dead Media's fascination for us?

It seems to me that our concern for Dead Media is related, primarily, to a sense of loss. We might generate a taxonomy of Dead Media which classifies each clearly according to its origin, or function, or demise. We might identify Dead Media by their relationship to "information." But there is something beyond these functional considerations which makes us circle around the elephants' graveyard of Dead Media.

I would suggest that Dead Media are signifiers for particular moments, for particular forms of experience.

It would seem to me that computer systems are identified not only as physical objects, but also as signifiers of memory == of a period in the past. A similar interest attaches to such social phenomena as the Magic Lantern, or the quipu == signifiers of lost worlds.

This is not to say that necronauts flee into dusty closets to escape the present. I would suggest that in the search for Dead Media is also the search for dead social relations == the dead 'speakers' whose voices the media conveyed.

That search for the voices of the dead (or of dead moments) is an important one == important because it gives to the necronaut not just an academic mission, but a social one == it validates the necronaut's passion as a link between past and present.

Peter van Heusden (

From: (David Morton) I'm all for excluding astrolabes, theodolites, the Antikythera Device, analog computers, and so on from this discussion.

Though these things, as well as thermometers and a galaxy of other technologies, are "media" in the broadest sense, they are so marginal as media that they may not be worth our effort. Computers used for communication are central to the study of media. Computers used for ballistics calculations are not.

By the logic of this equation: (and I quote)

"(data + transformation + display ) = media"

I could reasonably argue that a pair of dice constitutes a "medium." (I have this vision in my head right now of somebody on this list scurrying off to write a Dead Media Working Note on the history of dice. Don't.)

Now, if it so happens that somebody somewhere once came up with a way to transmit messages via dice, using some code where the numbers represented something other than numbers, I would say that is interesting enough to include in in our list. There is a difference in the ordinary use of dice to "transform and display" random numerical information, and the hypothetical use of dice in some coding scheme.

Another reason to exclude most scientific instruments and early computing devices is that sources on their history are readily available. I quote again:

"It's important to admit that most of us Necronauts are obsessives, and not academics."

Well, I'm an academic and a Necronaut (I even have the t- shirt to prove the latter). I see a lot of re-inventing of the wheel going on in this list. Lots of you folks are "discovering" things in old journals, etc., that are well- documented in history books. That reflects sloppy and inefficient research. Let the previous generations of historians do some of the work for you! The first step in researching the history of technology is to find out whether someone has already written something on your particular topic. It is not too difficult to identify sources of information on dead media, not-so-dead media, or any other technology. Doing so and posting it here would allow the people on this list to concentrate their limited efforts on exploring unknown territory.

As for a workable definition of "medium" to guide our research, would it be useful to talk about "communications media" rather than just "media" as a way to set limits? I totally disagree that we should cast our nets as widely as possible. If we do, we'll never produce anything valuable here. We should find some core of information and work outward.

David Morton
IEEE Center for the History of Electrical Engineering

From: (Stefan Jones) In Dead Media Working Note 22.7, kadrey wrote:

(( This means that, yes, astrolabes, orreries and navigational clocks all qualify. ))

A lightning bolt struck my frontal lobes on reading this. (Or was it the poorly grounded exhaust fan I just hooked up?)

Scientific models as Dead Media connects things neatly to Kuhnian matters. Consider models == literal, physical models, like you played with in High School == of molecules and atoms.

How many people still think of atoms as little solar systems because the Bohr model continues to be *the* popular image of the atom?

Will computer graphics (and virtual reality) fill the roles of these physical models, and perhaps give kids a real handle on the ways things work?

Stefan Jones (