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Bones of Invention

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 17, 1998

  Style Showcase


    Bruce Sterling Bruce Sterling with his piano roll, an advance kept alive by his online archive (By Margaret Thomas/The Post)
AUSTIN—Like a string of biblical begats chronicling the generations, new media take the place of the old – that's the common wisdom. Photographs supposedly give birth to the stereoscope, which inspires silent movies, which yield to talkies, which blossom in Technicolor and eventually add Sensurround.

No, no, no, say Bruce Sterling and his Necronauts – not a rock band but a science fiction writer and his cohorts. Don't be dazzled by the binary clarity and digital speed of the new media. There is no straight line. The silver screen does not exist in a vacuum, but in a jungle cluttered with magic lanterns and kinescopes and phantasmagoria and Viewmasters and even Odorama.

Media ebb and flow, issue offspring, slam into dead ends. The Internet was supposed to supplant television, which was supposed to replace radio, which was destined to kill newspapers – and none of it happened.

Why? Why do mailmen still deliver paper messages to our doors on foot while the system of pneumatic tubes that transported mail in Paris in the 1860s vanished? Why did the Picturephone die, and Qube, and eight-track tapes, and the Rock-Ola Mystic Music System, a 1941 jukebox that had no phonograph? (You plunked in your coin and reached a telephone operator, to whom you gave your request. In moments, your song emerged from the speakers, played over the phone line.)

The story of the modern age is a cavalcade of new media guaranteed to change the world, alter our existence, revolutionize our lives. Sterling has examined the welcome granted to hundreds of new forms of communication: "Peace is at hand! The greatest discovery since fire! The end of borders!"

Always, the hype subsides and more often than not the medium withers away. With it dies everything the medium carried – the art and information and creative energy that people poured into wax cylinders and videodiscs and dioramas and the IBM Mark I, nearly all of it lost "inside a dead operating system," Sterling says. "You are nailed and sealed inside a glamorous sarcophagus. You have become dead media."

dingbat

The Net was a lot like television, another former wonder of the age. The Net was a vast glass mirror. It reflected what it was shown. Mostly human banality.
–from Sterling's 1988 sci-fi novel "Islands in the Net"
The smoke from Chiapas has sullied the huge Texas sky, darkening a day that might have sparkled. Distant fires, an eerie fog, impending doom – the stuff a sci-fi writer lives for. Sterling, 44, walks the eight blocks to his lunch hang, Julio's Cafe, a Mexican joint where the waiter knows to deliver him an icy bottle of fluorescent green Jarritos lime soda.

Sterling writes big-selling novels about the intersection between cyberspace and terra firma, a dangerous and thrilling place where the possibility of a gleaming future is tempered by a deep belief in the fallibility of mankind. But Sterling spends much of his time immersed in the world of fact. Like Austin, it is a place he got stuck in as a journalism student in the 1970s. He is a shaggy fellow, one of those figures who form the permanent, off-campus population of college towns, strolling about in a CIA T-shirt, black jeans and sandals in Hyde Park, a neighborhood of women in long, flowery sun dresses and men with ponytails and Birkenstocks.

He lives deep in computer culture, spends untold hours online, reports for Wired magazine and is a regular on the futurists lecture circuit.

He also writes with a fountain pen, powered by bright green ink. "I can't sit and wait for Windows to boot while I need to jot down an impression," he says, the soaring, evangelical pitch of his voice betraying his laid-back get-up. "I don't want to be technologically tied to an ephemeral glass box."

Tucked away in Austin's mix of techno-nerds, ex-hippies and conservative legislators, Sterling fights a valiant, if losing, battle against hucksterism and hype. New technologies will not transform human life, will not change our basic nature. "Just count the gravestones," Sterling says, his voice at once acid and earnest in the manner of a '70s radical turned '90s skeptic. The death watch never stops: Sterling's archive goes way back to preliterate lunar calendars and American Indian wampum.

One constant is hype – especially in this era: The Web will solve poverty, banish ignorance and erase hatred! Everything will be fast and easy!

Balderdash, Sterling groans. "It's like a mental illness. The 20th century is a time of one technomania after another." Media don't solve problems. They introduce us to new ones. And media don't last – that, if anything, is the lesson of this century.

So in this "golden age of dead media," Sterling set out to document the history of man's inventions of new ways to communicate, to "honor the dead and resuscitate the spiritual ancestors of today's mediated frenzy." The Dead Media Project, he calls it. It's a quintessentially contemporary effort where volunteer Necronauts – historians, writers, engineers, laymen – identify media that didn't make it and explore what happened. No Darwin has emerged to synthesize this evolution; for now, Sterling's notes must suffice.

Each edition of the "Dead Media Working Notes" features a history of one medium (Sterling defines media as "anything that was once used to relay a message"). A recent addition to the archive describes the Fisher-Price Pixelvision, a 1988 toy that enabled a child to record video images on a standard audiocassette tape. The toy bombed in the marketplace and the technology died with the product, but it has come to be admired by artists intrigued by the medium's eerie, low-definition black-and-white imagery.

The histories are often startling. In the 1890s, one Thaddeus Cahill invented the Teleharmonium, a vast telephonic synthesizer that promised to deliver the hit music of the day over phone lines, connecting listeners to a 12-tone electronic organ. Never actually worked, but what an idea. And this: There was a 1960s precursor of MTV, video jukeboxes called Scopitone that showed the hits on 16mm film with sound.

Sterling's project is little more than a catalogue of such inventions; he hopes the cumulative effect will be a lesson about the mistakes of the past, a chance to avert technological cul-de-sacs such as the QWERTY keyboard, which makes little sense and has left today's office workers rubbing their wrists in pain, or the year 2000 computer problem, evidence of a towering lack of foresight.

Some of the people attracted to Sterling's project have gone further, actually launching collections of ex-media. A Williamsburg man has begun an Obsolete Computer Museum, filling a storage bin with more than 60 models going back to the first commercially available personal computer, the 1975 MITS Altair 8800. A California man compiles a library of dead sounds, "recorded material from extinct forms of sonic media, including (but by no means limited to) the Organetta, Aurephone, Tournaphone, Tanzbar, Seraphone, and Celestina; defunct synthesizers, Scopitones, Rolmonicas, cat pianos, tiger organs . . ." A historian of technology at Rutgers University combs movies, novels and songs for references to dead sound recording media – from 78 rpm records to Dictaphones to the Betamax videocassette seen in the 1982 cult flick "Videodrome."

Sterling needs no artifacts; he is satisfied simply to document the past, to warn citizens of this era of celebrity worship and fame-mongering and media lust that media come and go, some succumbing to natural causes, some to failed vision, and some even to murder.

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Before computers, before calculators – before the printing press – the Incans had a system versatile enough to count objects, record poetry and transmit messages. The quipu was a series of knotted cords somehow used as mnemonic devices. An early calculator, made from cotton and wool.

No one today quite understands how the quipu worked. The Spanish colonists were at least as mystified, and in 1588 the authorities ordered the quipus burned. Every last one of them. The only ones that survived are those that were buried with their owners, Sterling reports.

The murder of the quipu is a rarity, a novelty in the archives of dead media. More often, media drift away, never quite entirely dying. Magic lanterns – 19th-century photographic images on glass slides mounted onto wooden frames and pulled around by levers to create moving pictures – still exist, cherished by collectors and even sold and displayed by an esoteric subculture of Victorian pornography buffs.

Some of those who have dedicated themselves to dead media – about 500 people receive Sterling's occasional e-mailed "Dead Media Working Notes" – do so simply as collectors: media antiquing. Some are attracted to the field because of family history; Sterling has found that telegraph collectors "often have a granddad who was a key click guy."

Some Necronauts are obsessives. Sterling is reading a book on flint knapping, a craft in which people use Neolithic methods to make stone tools, teaching themselves to flake and core rocks, competing to be more Neanderthal than the next guy.

Others, such as Tom Carlson, curator of the Obsolete Computer Museum, are technology buffs who want to preserve history much as architectural activists seek to maintain the great buildings of the past.

Carlson's collection, now packed into a climate-controlled storage unit but preparing to make its public debut at the Information Technology Expo in Orlando this fall, is, to the eye of the outsider, a bunch of beige or gray plastic boxes with names such as Intertec and Superbrain.

Dead media do not necessarily become valuable in cash terms – most of the pieces in Carlson's museum were dumped on him at no charge by owners so eager to be rid of them that they drove hundreds of miles to his house. But the curator hopes his collection will be valued for its meaning.

"You can see the dominance of Microsoft already in these early machines," he says. "Most of them ran Microsoft Basic. You see the seeds of their dominance. PCs today don't really have a heart and soul, so people – even kids – will find these old machines and fix them up because they have real personality."

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Amid the nostalgia for lost media and the hunt for interesting history, beneath their drive to defuse the heroic myth of technological progress, Sterling and his Necronauts claim to find meaning.

"People today imagine technology is about gaining market share, but it's really about deep, deep urges to create," he says. "It's about power and desire."

There is something of the lapsed believer in Sterling. Once, he was in the vanguard of those who thought the Internet would create community and improve society. He was one of the original cyberpunks, that band of thinkers and advocates who saw the Internet as a social force as well as a nifty toy or business tool.

"But 1998 is not 1988," he says now. "Bill Gates has gone from Edison to Rockefeller in the public mind. The steam is running out of the cybernetic revolution. Your babysitter has an e-mail account. It's part of the American social landscape, like 'Monday Night Football' or country line dancing."

With the novelty of the computer world wearing off, decay will set in. The year 2000 problem will drive home to laymen how fallible computers really are. The satellite failure that silenced the nation's pagers earlier this year was just a taste of what's to come, Sterling says.

New media will arrive with ever-increasing frequency, relegating the darlings of today's world to the media junk heap. Next to die: videotape, CDs, personal checks, floppy disks, network television and many more. Sterling salivates over the prospect.

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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