Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!



Technological history is littered with the carcasses of fantastic inventions.

Where are the computer punch cards? What happened to the mimeograph machine on which your third-grade teacher cranked out those daunting tests?

Even more important: How will future generations evaluate the inventions when the machines themselves are extinct?

These are the questions that began vexing Austin, Texas-based science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling and a band of technology enthusiasts in 1995, when they started the Dead Media Project (www. deadmedia.org).

Born in a cerebral discussion list on www.TheWell.com, the project grew from a sense of pending panic.

"How long will it be before the much-touted World Wide Web interface is itself a dead medium?" Sterling wrote in his seminal "Dead Media Manifesto."

"And what will become of all those billions of thoughts, words, images and expressions poured onto the Internet? Won't they vanish just like the vile, lacquered smoke from a burning pile of junked Victrolas?"

After watching modern search engines trample text-based predecessors such as Gopher and WAIS, the preservationists churned out a series of documents that is now a definitive electronic source of technological history.

The project shows no sign of decay. This month, archivists at the Guggenheim Museum in New York summoned Sterling as a keynote speaker on dead media. The archivists' object is to develop ways to preserve art created on computers and other systems that are decomposing before our eyes.

A stroll through the Dead Media archive bombards the mind with questions. Why, for instance, did the U.S. Postal Service - in cahoots with the Navy - experiment with a missile-based delivery system?

"Before man reaches the moon," an official was quoted as saying in 1959, "mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles."

The project also causes visitors to ponder the techno-furor over new creations. Will we someday regard Windows 95 as we do Ramelli's Book Wheel?

In the 16th century, Ramelli developed the first workstation for scholars. Eight lecterns holding books were affixed to a wheel that could be rotated using gears and pulleys. Researchers would stand in front, spinning the mechanism to bring their tome of choice to eye level.

The Dead Media List also is a repository of the absurd. Take the cat piano. Developed in Brussels in 1549, this contraption was designed to be played by a bear. Inside the instrument were 20 cats, each with a cord tied to its tail. As the bear pounded the keys, the cords were pulled, yanking the cats' tails and making them meow.

The list also is a window into the way we attempt to fuse disparate technologies. These "convergent" mechanisms, Sterling said, might be better viewed in light of failures such as the telharmonium, a gargantuan electrical generating plant and distribution system invented by Thaddeus Cahill in the 19th century. It was supposed to provide music over telephone lines. But the telharmonium's signals overwhelmed telephone switching systems.

Sterling is watching modern technologies for induction into the Dead Media List.

The watch list includes the Iridium satellite phone system, a $5 billion venture that promised communication "with anyone, anytime, virtually anywhere in the world." Iridium never attracted enough subscribers to support the cost of its 88 satellites.

At one point, it appeared the satellites would be intentionally pushed into flaming atmospheric cremation, much like the Russian space station Mir. But the Department of Defense and a private venture have purchased the satellite network for $25 million.

"It was dead for a year and they, like, they turned it back on and now they're selling phone service again," Sterling said. "It's like a mummy back from the dead."

Equally alarming, Sterling said, are the prospects for the fiber optic networks backed by billions of dollars in venture capital. Those networks, he suggests, could go the way of the underground pneumatic transfer tubes once used to send documents across downtown Chicago.

Already on the Dead Media List is the IBM Selectric typewriter. The Selectric was one of the most widely used IBM machines ever made. Known as the "golf ball" typewriter because of the size and shape of the embossing element, the Selectric was a standard in offices and homes for more than a decade.

High-speed printers still use the Selectric as the minimum standard for correspondence, or letter-quality, output. The Selectric is out of production, and IBM no longer services it or supplies parts.

At the Guggenheim, Sterling lectured on his longtime project. His idea for publishing a Dead Media text has taken a back seat to other writing ventures.

"I'm really saving that for my retirement, frankly," he said with a laugh.

But art curators assembled for the Variable Media Initiative were all ears. Led by assistant curator Jon Ippolito, the gathering of prominent art archivists is trying to create a way to preserve works created in the digital age. The group is concerned that software, operating systems and PC screens may become obsolete, which would make art developed with those tools impossible to display.

Says Ippolito: "The Dead Media Project points to the ephemerality of media. And when it's media we don't care to recover - like an eight-track cassette of Dolly Parton we have replaced with CDs - it's not a problem.

"But if the original work created in a dead medium is an artwork, then museums or other institutions charged with preserving that heritage for the future are up the creek without a paddle."

Sterling, Ippolito and others are committed to giving the future an accurate account of the fast-moving digital times. At the heart of that effort is concern that software written in haste and other declining technology lack places such as museums where data might be restored.

Sterling said he fears the future could wind up as described by Stewart Brand in his book "Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility."

"The system doesn't really work, it can't be fixed, no one understands it, no one is in charge of it, it can't be lived without, and it gets worse every year."

The Dead Media List, Sterling said, is a first step in fending off that horrifying vision.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad