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The Undead 

Bruce Sterling resuscitates machines from obsolescence

Wednesday, May 26 1999
BRUCE STERLING WOULD LIKE YOU TO SET ASIDE your PalmPilot and your pager and your cell phone for a few minutes -- just long enough to contemplate a medium of human communication that flourished almost 600 years ago.

It is an ancient Incan medium called a quipu, a pre-Columbian system for keeping records and categorizing data. The quipu consists of several lengths of fabric hanging like fringe from a main cord. Knots of assorted sizes tied at regular intervals along each strand represent integers or sums, and sequences of colors denote the items being counted. It is for all the world like a digital calculator, embodied in cloth. The quipu was used to keep track of time, weaponry, harvests, taxes, census data and even memories.

In a speech to a design conference in 1995, announcing the launch of an Internet mailing list called the Dead Media Project, Sterling described the quipu as "a dead medium that was once the nervous system of a major civilization." It was state-of-the-art in the 13th century, and its creators must have doted on it.

Sterling, a self-styled "science-fiction writer and techno pundit," is the author of the novels Holy Fire, Distraction and (with pal William Gibson) The Difference Engine. He has always relished resonant lists of arcane accomplishments: Entire issues of his proto-cyberpunk fanzine of the early '80s, Cheap Truth, were devoted to roll calls of neglected and eccentric SF writers. Sterling practically created cyberpunk as a movement by singling out writers for praise as fellow travelers, and by retroactively canonizing older writers, from Olaf Stapledon to Barrington J. Bayley, as inadvertent precursors.

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In a recent interview, Sterling described himself as "an artist whose theme is the impact of technology on society." Now he has branched out into "the media autopsy business." With collaborator Richard Kadrey (Covert Culture Sourcebook), and with contributions from dozens of volunteer "necronauts," he is compiling online the raw material for a study honoring defunct forms of human communication, a definitive Media Book of the Dead.

"It's a practice of industrial society," Sterling explained recently, on the blower from his home in Austin, Texas, "to promote technical innovation and forget technical obsolescence. But any real innovation compels obsolescence. To really understand technology you can't just watch it when it's leaping out of its crib and making headlines. You also have to go down to the old folks' home where technologies are decaying, falling apart and barely usable, and bear witness to that."

THE DEAD MEDIA PROJECT ARCHIVE AT "www.well.com/ conf/mirrorshades" is a treasure-trove of eccentric and bizarre contraptions, the discarded "killer apps" of past decades and even past centuries. Hundreds of deceased devices are divided into categories like "Dead Preliterate Media" ("string- and yarn-based mnemonic knot systems"), "Dead Data-Retrieval Devices and Systems" ("card catalogs"), and "Dead Multiple-Image, Persistence-of-Vision Sound Technologies" -- moribund forms of cinema like Anschutz's Electro-Tachyscope, Armat's Vitascope, Rudge's Biophantascope and Acre's Kineopticon.

Part of the fun of the archive is the sheer dusty-secondhand-store specificity of all those eccentric product names and half-baked disastrous notions. The section on "Dead Physical Transfer Networks" includes the French "balloon post" system (1870s), an aborted American plan of the late 1950s for "guided-missile mail" ("Incoming!"), and the mysterious "Tongan floating tin-can mail" -- not to mention close to a dozen forms of pneumatic-tube message delivery. (The last isn't quite stone-dead: A citywide tube network is still up and running in Prague.) These gadgets have an antique Rube Goldberg charm about them; the future as it was imagined in the past, then cobbled together (in both a physical and an intellectual sense) out of available materials.

It's a first principle of Dead Media that not all the victims deserved to die. "In some sense all technologies are inadequate," Sterling insists. "The human condition is inadequate. It's not like there's some inherent fault that makes stuff die. I have seen silent films that I thought were great pieces of art that could not be surpassed by adding a soundtrack." Some technologies were genuinely superseded, others murdered.

Today's medical technocrats have gotten so good at shoving the old stuff aside to make room for the new stuff you will have to pay through the nose for, that devices now begin dying almost the moment they're created. The mortality of new media is an integral part of the marketing plan. ("They didn't tell you that the '95' in Windows 95 was an expiration date," Sterling quips.) Some texts written thousands of years ago on stone tablets can still be read. Some information stored digitally only a few years ago using now-obsolete hardware or software platforms is already indecipherable. The ones and zeroes on your older floppies are as meaningless now as the knots and colors on an Incan quipu.

"This is part of the commercial drive of technological innovation," Sterling declares. "What you have to see here is that media are not invented for your benefit. They are closely tied to other large-scale technological events."

THOSE LARGER EVENTS ARE THE UNDERLYING SUBJECT of Sterling's second ongoing online enterprise, a list that looks not backward but forward -- and is alarmed by what it sees. "The Viridian List," he explains, "is something I started last year because I was very upset by the depredations of the Greenhouse Effect. We had a horrific climate catastrophe in Austin last summer, where the sky was just black with smoke from Mexico for two weeks. I wasn't having any of that."

In a document promulgated in October, the "Manifesto of January 3, 2000," Sterling dismissed the idea of tackling the polluters head-on with traditional activist political methods: "Those in command of society's resources will immediately tame and neutralize any system of legal regulation." Instead, Sterling felt, he was uniquely equipped to "design a design movement" to help shift the dominant cultural aesthetic toward something a bit healthier: "Contemporary civil society can be led anywhere that looks attractive, glamorous and seductive. The task at hand is therefore basically an act of social engineering . . . Society must become Green, and it must be a variety of Green that society will eagerly consume. . . The world needs a new, unnatural, seductive, mediated, glamorous Green. A Viridian Green."

As he set about bullying this new movement into existence, Sterling fell back on the tools he used over a decade ago to jump-start cyberpunk in Cheap Truth: singling out for praise current efforts with the required "deep Green" tendencies (the rock-and-dirt art installations of Andy Goldsworthy) and drawing up a list of designated "precursors" (William Morris, Buckminster Fuller). He's also been trying out new inducements to Viridian thinking -- strategies that may soon be applied to Dead Media, such as sponsoring contests for the creation of a Viridian type font, with extra points awarded for the design judged "most fungal."

"I like the idea of tackling this challenge," Sterling says, "because, first, I think it is very important, but also because I think we could get it over with in 10 years. It's not like worrying about something like your own salvation, which you can fret over forever. The CO2 problem is very immediate, very technical. It's an engineering problem."

Sterling is currently peddling a proposal for a book on Dead Media, and sees the Viridian List as an oblique extension of that enterprise: "When I am doing Dead Media, I am mostly doing fieldwork. I just want to collect reports. But in order to write the book, I have to have some kind of really broad-scale synthesis about the nature of media, technology, humanity. At the moment, I do not have one. Viridian is a way to try to work that out, to think about all these questions more deeply."

  • Bruce Sterling resuscitates machines from obsolescence

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