Dead Media Project: An Interview with Bruce Sterling

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Dead Media Project

An Interview with Bruce Sterling

CTHEORY: What’s the genealogy of the Dead Media Project?

Bruce Sterling: My friends and I are interested in understanding technology, even the embarrassing parts of technology, such as machines that are badly designed and that no longer work. Unfortunately, we don’t get paid to do this research work, so we have to do it in our spare time, voluntarily. Luckily, the Internet is good for getting large numbers of people to do a little bit of work, and then combining the results together in one place. That way, amateurs can build something large and worthwhile.

So, I edit the Dead Media mailing list. People find examples of dead media and write down descriptions — usually very short, maybe one page of text. I edit the work, put it in a uniform format, make sure it is spelled correctly, and then I send it to a mail exploder at It is emailed for free all over the world. We have about 600 people in our mailing list. The effort is about three years old now.

Thanks to the work of all these strangers and contributors, we have all discovered media that we never knew existed. No one has ever taken the trouble before, to compile a “master list of dead media,” but thanks to all these efforts from many corners of the world, we have a very large graveyard now.

CTHEORY: There are some extraordinarily interesting things in your archives, like Inuit carved maps, Zulu beadwork, Inca quipu. How do you define these as “media?”

Bruce Sterling: In Dead Media Project we define media as a device that transfers a message between human beings. So a dance is not a “medium,” because there is no device involved; but a bouquet of flowers can be media. Flowers can carry a very important message if you can understand the “flower code.” People have used all kinds of things to record data and carry signals: fire, string, clouds, flowers, light, electricity, ink, wax, vinyl, tape, wire, cloth — the list just goes on and on.

CTHEORY: Why “exhume” dead media?

Bruce Sterling: There are thousands of people who are paid to invent new media and publicize new media. But there is no one whose job it is to describe media that don’t work any more and have collapsed in humiliating, money-losing ways. But this job needs to be done. Otherwise, commercial pressures can lead to a grave misunderstanding of the true nature and behavior of technology.

Every time a consumer machine fails or becomes obsolete, someone gets stung — someone loses money. You may also lose data, and your memorabilia, and your own creative work. No one will tell you that the “95” in “Windows 95” is really an expiration date. No one tells you that if you buy a personal computer, it means that you will have to buy another one, and another one, and another one, and another one, just to keep up with the trends in computers. No one tells you that color photographs are much less stable than black and white photographs, so that color photographs of your wedding will turn strange greenish colors in thirty years. Instead, you will find yourself explaining to your grandchildren that you were the victim of a technical misunderstanding.

CTHEORY: Today, it’s all digital memories. Aren’t dead media inevitably followed by more advanced and viable successors?

Bruce Sterling: Well, death comes to all of us, but there’s no guarantee that our children are any more “advanced and viable” than we are. Even the cheapest paperback book has no trouble outliving a contemporary personal computer, which is basically junk within six years. A Henry Drefuss model telephone unit was “viable” for decades, while modern desktop PBX systems may be so complicated that most of their functions are never used.

CTHEORY: In digital futures research, the convergence of TV and PCs is a key topic. Will TV live on in a “digitally enhanced” form?

Bruce Sterling: I very much doubt that TVs and PCs will “merge.” There are dozens of different kinds of “television.” Broadcast television, satellite television, state-supported television, video rentals, security television, industrial training television, cable television (on many different networks), regional television, national networks, television in different languages, PAL, NTSC, HDTV…Just because we call one glass screen a “television” and the other glass screen a “computer” doesn’t mean that we end up with one glass screen that holds everything. It’s like imagining that bicycles, motorcycles, cars and tractors will all converge because they all use “wheel technology.”

CTHEORY: Should writing and print be prepared for a last public viewing at entry to the dead media graveyard?

Bruce Sterling: Writing is in no danger at all. There is no society alive today where illiterates can thrive and achieve power. On the contrary, literate people have no trouble dominating illiterate people, who mostly see their inability to read as a source of shame and try hard to hide it.

Nowadays some text is on paper and some text is on screens, but there is very little trouble involved in moving from one to another. Paper will not vanish because it is a good storage medium; it doesn’t require batteries.

It may be that the economics of publishing and distributing books and magazines may be in for upheaval, but in the English language at least it is already in absurd and terrible shape. Publishing has always been a ridiculous line of work. It makes little or no economic sense. Chainstores, megapublishers, super-bestsellers; it’s all like some kind of terrible joke. But it was bad long before computers came along. It has always been bad. It will probably always be bad. With computers, publishing just becomes more complicated.

CTHEORY: What’s the likely outcome of this “upheaval?”

Bruce Sterling: I don’t know, but sooner or later economic doctrine will reflect the realities of the costs of publication and distribution. It’s hard to pass a worldwide law that says that intellectual property is always worth a lot of money, even though it’s dirt cheap to reproduce it and move it around. It’s hard to make a cartel stable in the long run.

CTHEORY: Why do you regard the Web as a “highly unstable medium?”

Bruce Sterling: I don’t expect the Web to last very long indeed, at least not in its present form. It is a very young medium, and there are many obvious “improvements” that are possible. Parts of it are already dead. There are large numbers of abandoned websites on the Web that were partially constructed and then left to rot in cyberspace. And have you tried using “gopher” or “WAIS” lately? And suppose Microsoft’s browser becomes the standard for the Web. We’ll all be living at the mercy of Bill Gates. What will he choose to do with it then? Who knows? But it doesn’t sound much like the Web we know today.

CTHEORY: Are there many other media on the verge of extinction?

Bruce Sterling: Well, there are a large number of what we like to call “fossil media,” which are leftover legacies on the media landscape. Things such as panoramas, camera obscuras, magic lanterns, which have some small public attraction or are still preserved by a few devoted hobbyists. The French Army and the Indian state police force still have a living and working pigeon service. Prague still has a functional city-wide pneumatic mail system. These media are rare endangered relics, barely hanging on.

CTHEORY: Has the Dead Media Project attracted the compulsive interest of ‘collectors?’

Bruce Sterling: We have a sister list called the “Dead Media Collectors’ List.”, run independently by Seth Carmichael ( It’s especially for people who like obsolescent machines. There are strong collector groups for: telegraph keys, old phonographs, magic lanterns, typewriters, and old cameras.

CTHEORY: What about further spin-offs?

Bruce Sterling: Actually, the Dead Media Project already comes in three parts. Besides the two already mentioned mailing lists, the third element is our “Dead Sounds” effort, which has been undergoing silent, stealthy progress in the capable hands of long-time Necronaut Stefan Jones ( The Dead Sounds tape is a standard audio cassette featuring purportedly interesting noises from dead mechanical music machines, dead video games, defunct office equipment, and anything else we can sweep up which can be made to seem relevant.

On its completion, this tape will be distributed free of charge to any and all Dead Media Necronauts. (You are a Necronaut if you have ever contributed a Working Note to this list). With a little more effort we will be in a position to distribute this tape, thus rewarding List supporters for their many noble efforts.

CTHEORY: Is there a book in the offing?

Bruce Sterling: Writing a book has always been the ultimate aim of the Dead Media Project. The raw material, in theory at least, is supposed to be free to anyone. The idea of Dead Media is also “free.” But you know, just because you have the ideas and the raw material, doesn’t mean you can write a good book. Authorship does not come that easily. It’s as if someone had given you all the instruments in an orchestra in a big tangled heap, and then said, “Here, write a symphony! It’s free!”

Then comes the problem of selling the book to a publisher. My agent thinks that I can do this. I think I would like to do it, but there are two major ways to go about it. The first would be an encyclopedia of dead forms of media, a Dead Media Handbook. The second would be a work of media theory which describes what the life and death of media means, and why media behave in the way that they do. In other words, the two basic pillars of science: fieldwork and experimental investigation; and theory and the formulation of natural law. Anyone can do fieldwork (though good fieldwork is hard to do). Unfortunately, there aren’t many Charles Darwins in the world. I don’t think I can write this book properly unless I achieve some kind of powerful and novel insight about the nature of media. I don’t have any such insight yet.

CTHEORY: You’re a SF writer, a journalist and non-fiction writer. How would you define the main interests of your work today?

Bruce Sterling: I think that the most important aspect is that I am an artist whose theme is the impact of technology on society. So I am a novelist, but also a journalist, and a futurist, but also an antiquarian. I really want to understand how technology works on some deeper level; I want to know not just how it functions technically, but what it means and how it feels, which are basically literary questions. I’ve found that I do well if I just pursue that basic understanding and don’t worry too much about whether it is called “design studies” or “technohistory” or “corporate forecasting” or “computer journalism” or “science fiction.” These are taxonomical distinctions, they don’t have much to do with my central problem as an artist. Any field of study that can give me fresh and relevant insights will be welcome. I spend most of my working life doing research.

Dead Media websites can be viewed at:

Bruce Sterling is the author of Islands in the Net and The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier. He is a member of the Editorial Board of CTHEORY.

Arpad Bak is a freelance journalist in Hungary. This interview was originally published in Hungarian in the net magazine Internet Kalauz.