The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 24, Number 1

A Few Excerpts from: The DEAD MEDIA Project: A Modest Proposal and a Public Appeal

by Bruce Sterling

—as it was published at, and including some remarks from the updates and related e-mail correspondence that followed it

Our culture is experiencing a profound radiation of new species of media. The centralized, dinosaurian one-to-many media that roared and trampled through the 20th century are poorly adapted to the postmodern technological environment. The new media environment is as warm with lumbering toothy digital mammals. It's all lynxes here, and gophers there, plus big fat venomous webcrawlers, appearing in Pleistocene profusion.

Plenty of wild wired promises are already being made for all the infant media. What we need is a somber, thoughtful, thorough, hype-free, even lugubrious book that honors the dead and resuscitates the spiritual ancestors of today's mediated frenzy. A book to give its readership a deeper, paleontological perspective right in the dizzy midst of the digital revolution. We need a book about the failures of media, the collapses of media, the supercessions of media, the strangulations of media, a book detailing all the freakish and hideous media mistakes that we should know enough now not to repeat, a book about media that have died on the barbed wire of technological advance, media that didn't make it, martyred media, dead media. THE HANDBOOK OF DEAD MEDIA. A naturalist's field guide for the communications paleontologist.

I can't do much about it personally, because I'm booked up to the eyeballs until the end of the millennium. So is my good friend Richard Kadrey....

It's a rather rare phenomenon for an established medium to die. If media make it past their Golden Vaporware stage, they usually expand wildly in their early days and then shrink back to some protective niche as they are challenged by later and more highly evolved competitors. Radio didn't kill newspapers, TV didn't kill radio or movies, video and cable didn't kill broadcast network TV; they just all jostled around seeking a more perfect app.

But some media do, in fact, perish. Such as: the phenakistoscope. The teleharmonium. The Edison wax cylinder. The stereopticon. The Panorama. Early 20th century electric searchlight spectacles. Morton Heilig's early virtual reality. Telefon Hirmondo. The various species of magic lantern. The pneumatic transfer tubes that once riddled the underground of Chicago. Was the Antikythera Device a medium? How about the Big Character Poster Democracy Wall in Peking in the early 80s?

If we can somehow convince the current digital media community-at-large that dead media is a worthwhile project, we believe that we may be able to compile a useful public-access net archive on this subject.... Kadry and I are going to start pooling our notes. We're gonna make those notes freely available to anybody on the Net. If we can get enough net.parties to express interest and pitch in reports, stories, and documentation about dead media, we're willing to take on the hideous burdens of editing and system administration....

Dead Media Project Mailing List

The November 30, 1999 posting on the mailing list carried the following news:

As you may or may not have noticed, the Dead Media mailing list, always low in traffic, has dropped to umm, very low traffic, as in near-zero, due to the inhuman workloads and schedules of its originators, and until recently, its maintainers, Bruce Sterling and Richard Kadrey.

To make a long, boring story short, Bruce has passed on the operation of the mailing list to me, (Tom Jennings)....

The email addresses have changed.


Subject: HELP

The latter will return an immediate and automatic reply with further information.


Q #6: Can you help me find information on [some particular dead medium]?

A: While the Dead Media mailing list and archive may in fact contain the information you seek, it's up to you to find it. The list and its archives are simply the compilation of the many contributions from people like you. There is no staff; "we" are all the people that choose to participate by researching dead media and posting the results to the list for all to see.

If/when you find the information you seek, we'd collectively appreciate it if you'd post it to the list for the benefit of the rest of us.

Q #9: How do I submit a Working Note to the list?

A: Write up a story or report on a dead medium, format it properly, and mail it to

Q #10: What should a Working Note be about:

A: You are telling other people, also interested in dead media and media history, about a dead medium you now about. Your audience needs factual data (the usual who/what/where/when/how) and ideally, with some sort of historical context (e.g., what was the state of the art at the time? Were there competing technologies? What kind of people used it? How many?)

You must reveal the source(s) of your information, the more accessible the better. The best reference is one that others can potentially access (e.g., library book, film, etc.). Less good, and more typical, is an article or chapter in an out-of-print or otherwise hard-to-find source; include all information where possible (author, date, publisher, page number, etc.).

First-hand reports may be fine, too, but please try to keep some rigor in your story: list the circumstances (you worked on system X in 1923; you fell into an old cellar where you found...) and context, and external references where possible.

 [Contents]  [Search]  [Abbey]

[Search all CoOL documents]