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Newsletter 1-98 - Obsolete

Release Date: 
03 - 1998
Tim Boykett, William Linn, Just Merit, Bruce Sterling

Newsletter 1-98 Obsolete


Everyone is putting fancy glossy 4C papers out now in order to make themselves feel, well, yes glossy and important.We know we can do that too if we have to, but in this case we feel it more apt to stick to the revolutionary-style fastprint text-based CONTENT.
No doubt, it is propaganda material, but the agitprop is not purely for our sake, we feel it worthwhile, to spread the good word and/or disease on other people´s causes - in today´s issue B.O.L.T and Bruce Sterling´s Dead-Media-Manifesto.
So if you stick with us through the boring fonts, we will try and keep providing the goods.

As Bruce Sterling announced in his Dead Media project there is a vast field to cover, there are many paths to follow. We also will be able to take only a few steps in a direction we feel is within our reach.
Our focus will be on our personal experiences of technolgies and cultural artefacts that formed the basis for our very own microcosmi as well as developments, inventions and flights of fancy that for one or the other reason did not quite make it.
Hence we are pushing our own limits by looking back at our childhood and adolescent memories from a less nostalgic point of view. With a dissector’s angle we ask what directions our path would have taken without the infiltration of Pong, Tron or Space Invaders into our hearts and moreover, whether we were only met by smart free market propaganda or is there such a thing as an inherent "good" quality that will succeed no matter what.
This is the reason why we also want to delve into the world of completely forgotten objects of desire that we feel could have succeeded on a similar level, at least their inventors sweated as much blood and endured as many sleepless years developing them. Knowing that Pong was originally booked as a dating game, a game that you should play with your future fiancee seems not only absurd as we now know that game arcades are completely male dominated shooting galleries for unfulfilled fantasies, but also makes us realize the thin line between the success it had and complete commercial failure.
Time’s Up in its investigation of the "public individual’s" behaviourisms presents the idea of "Obsoleteness" in a series of events programmed by David Moises.
We ask you to watch out for further announcements at
or join the mailing list through .

The bureau of low technology (b.o.l.t.) was established out of a deep concern about the fact that perhaps computers have gotten too fancy. At the same time, b.o.l.t. believes that the more simple forms of human-machine interaction are more interesting and offer far more advanced systems for research. The fact that today, old computers look very primitive and perform in a predictable, banal fashion is a sign of the times. Since the video game revolution was the first evidence of a widespread human-computer relationship, b.o.l.t. has developed a plan for their appreciation and preservation. This appreciation and re-spect can best be described as the beginnings of a kind of "technostalgia" which b.o.l.t. strongly believes can help ease the stress and relieve user frustration in today’s fast-paced, high-bandwidth era.
The low-tech style is very important to b.o.l.t. and as such, the bureau has helped to propagandize these obsolete games by selling shirts with clever designs and various bit-mapped imagery. It’s always stylish to be retro, so b.o.l.t. promotes a "look" that represents un-sophistication by glamourizing obsolete technology. The bureau has also established an historical archive of Pong games and other primitive gaming devices which provide a strange low-tech experience at art and music events.
Currently the bureau is in the planning stages for v 1.0 low-tech festival, which includes many artists, musicians, designers and gaming programmers who share the same enthusiasm for low-technology.

low bit games

"Video games are not for us. They’re here to entertain the television." —Mel Brooks

History has always found a way of distorting fact. And in the struggle for accuracy, history endures continual revision and expansion to better represent occurance. Unfortunately, history ultimately cannot be unbiased as it becomes the responsibility of a select few, who as "authorities," provide objective opinions which we value as the reliable building blocks of our belief system and ultimately our own reality. Often times in the course of describing history, that accuracy becomes more precise over time as more opinions are expressed and a "consensus" of fact can be agreed upon. At present, we are far from achieving this consensus in the history of perhaps one of the late 20th century’s most significant technological breakthroughs — the video game.
Video games have for too long been ignored in the course of describing the evolution of the digital age. These games had a major cultural impact during a critical point in history and have steadily remained a cultural impetus for nearly a generation. Despite their significance, video games have virtually been ignored in every reference book on the history of computer technology. Furthermore, the "history of video games" as it exists today is a far cry from anything you might consider "accurate." Still few have examined the larger perspective of why a such a phenomenon occured and how video games established a completely new screen-based reality that formed the crude beginnings of a primitive computer interface.
Video games were a major cultural and technological catalyst for all computer technology that followed. For many, the advent of home video game consoles represents a critical moment in history and a time when computer technology first became mass-distributed. Even today, the gaming consoles remain the cheapest and most powerful computer money can buy. Prior to the PC revolution, video gaming nurtured a simplistic albeit abstracted form of human-machine interaction. And without this significant groundwork in establishing a comfortable interface, it is doubtful that the PC revolution that soon followed would have been received wih the same degree of enthusiasm. This was a time when the notion of a widespread interface could be measured by an intuitive array of paddles and joysticks, the early predecessors of navigational technology. These instruments established a simple, effective and completely linear user interface which enabled the first love-affair with screen-based reality to occur. The early video gaming craze was due to a large extent on this simplicity, a concept that has long since disappeared in the human-machine relationship. Nowadays, there exists a formidable computer phobia instead and an increasingly more complex learning curve for the computer interface. This complexity has in effect replaced the love-affair interface with a more extreme love-hate relationship with computers. I mean, could you ever imagine "hating" PONG?!
The origins of video gaming hold a special place in history. Let us not diminish their role in the course of describing our technological evolution. Perhaps the most important contibution was that video games made computers fun and forever freed the television from its confining one-directional medium. And no matter what happened afterwards, people would never look at a television the same way again.— William Linn

dead media manifesto


MEDIA Project
: A Modest Proposal and a
Public Appeal

by Bruce Sterling

Ever notice how many books there are
about the Internet these days? About 13,493 so far, right? And how about
"multimedia?" There are 8,784 books on this topic, even though no one
has ever successfully defined the term. CD-ROM -- is there a single
marketable topic left that hasn't been shovelwared into the vast digital
mire that is CD-ROM? And how about the "Information Superhighway" and
"Virtual Reality"? Every magazine on the planet has done awestruck
vaporware cover stories on these two consensus-hallucinations.

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 aswarm with lumbering toothy digital mammals. It's
all lynxes here, and gophers there, plus big fat venomous webcrawlers,
appearing in Pleistocene profusion.

This is all well and good, and it's
lovely that so many people are paying attention to this. Nothing gives
me greater pleasure as a professional garage futurist than to ponder
some weird new mutant medium and wonder how this squawking little
monster is going to wriggle its way into the interstices between human
beings. Still, there's a difference between this pleasurable
contemplation of the technological sublime and an actual coherent
understanding of the life and death of media. We have no idea in hell
what we are doing to ourselves with these new media technologies, and no
consistent way even to discuss the subject. Something constructive
ought to be done about this situation.

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, author of the COVERT CULTURE
SOURCEBOOK. Both Kadrey and myself, however, recently came to a joint
understanding that what we'd really like to see at this cultural
conjunction is an entirely new kind of book on media. A media book of
the dead.

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.
. A naturalist's
field guide for the communications paleontologist.

Neither Richard Kadrey nor myself are
currently in any position to write this proposed handbook. However, we
both feel that our culture truly requires this book: this rich, witty,
insightful, profusely illustrated, perfectbound, acid-free-paper
coffee-table book, which is to be brought out, theoretically,
eventually, by some really with-it, cutting- edge early-21st century
publisher. The kind of book that will appear in seventeen different
sections of your local chainstore: Political Affairs, Postmodern Theory,
Computer Science, Popular Mechanics, Design Studies, the coffeetable
artbook section, the remainder table -- you know, whatever.

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?

Never heard of any of these? Well,
that's the problem. Both Kadrey and I happen to be vague aficionados of
this field of study, and yet we both suspect that there must be hundreds
of dead media, known to few if any. It would take the combined and
formidable scholarly talents of, say, Carolyn "When Old Technologies
Were New" Marvin and Ricky "Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women" Jay to do
this ambitious project genuine justice. Though we haven't asked, we
kinda suspect that these two distinguished scholars are even busier than
me and Kadrey, who, after all, are just science fiction writers who
spend most of our time watching Chinese videos, reading fanzines and
making up weird crap.

However. We do have one, possibly
crucial, advantage. We have Internet access. 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. We plan to begin with the
DEAD MEDIA World Wide Web Page, on a site to-be-announced. Move on,
perhaps, to Compile the Dead Media FAQ. We hope to
exploit the considerable strengths of today's cutting-edge media to
create a general public-domain homage to the media pioneers of the past.

Here's the deal. Kadrey 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 -- no small deal when it comes to this supposedly
"free" information.

We both know that authors are supposed
to jealously guard really swell ideas like this, but we strongly feel
that that just ain't the way to do a project of this sort. A project of
this sort is a spiritual quest and an act in the general community
interest. Our net heritage belongs to all netkind. If you yourself want
to exploit these notes to write the DEAD MEDIA HANDBOOK -- sure, it's
our "idea," our "intellectual property," but hey, we're cyberpunks, we
write for magazines like BOING BOING, we can't be bothered with that
crap in this situation. Write the book. Use our notes and everybody's
else's. We won't sue you, we promise. Do it. Knock yourself out.

I'll go farther, ladies and gentlemen.
To prove the profound commercial potential of this tilt at the
windmill, I'll personally offer a CRISP FIFTY-DOLLAR BILL for the first
guy, gal, or combination thereof to write and publish THE DEAD MEDIA
HANDBOOK. You can even have the title if you want it. Just keep in mind
that me and Kadrey (or any combination thereof) reserve the right to do a
book of our own on the same topic if you fail to sufficiently scratch
our itch. The prospect of "competition" frightens us not at all. It
never has, frankly. If there's room for 19,785 "Guide to the Internet"
books, there has got to be room for a few useful tomes on dead media.

Think of it this way. How long will it
be before the much-touted World Wide Web interface is itself a dead
medium? 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?
As a net.person, doesn't this stark realization fill you with a certain
deep misgiving, a peculiarly postmodern remorse, an almost Heian
Japanese sense of the pathos of lost things? If it doesn't, why doesn't
it? It ought to.

Speaking of dead media and mono no
aware -- what about those little poems that Lady Murasaki used to write
and stick inside cleft sticks? To be carried by foot-messager to the
bamboo-shrouded estate of some lucky admirer after a night's erotic
tryst? That was a medium. That medium was very alive once, a mainstay of
one of the most artistically advanced cultures on earth. And isn't it
dead? What are we doing today that is the functional equivalent of the
cleft sticks of Murasaki Shikibu, the world's first novelist? If we
ignore her historical experience, how will we learn from our own?

Listen to the following, all you
digital hipsters. This is Jaqueline Goddard speaking in January 1995.
Jacqueline was born in 1911, and she was one of the 20th century's great
icons of bohemian femininity. Man Ray photographed her in Paris in
1930, and if we can manage it without being sued by the Juliet Man Ray
Trust, we're gonna put brother Man Ray's knock-
you-down-and-stomp-you-gorgeous image of Jacqueline up on our vaporware
Website someday. She may be the patron saint of this effort.

Jacqueline testifies: "After a day of
work, the artists wanted to get away from their studios, and get away
from what they were creating. They all met in the cafes to argue about
this and that, to discuss their work, politics and philosophy.... We
went to the bar of La Coupole. Bob, the barman, was a terrible nice
chap... As there was no telephone in those days everybody used him to
leave messages. At the Dome we also had a little place behind the door
for messages. The telephone was the death of Montparnasse."

"*The telephone was the death of
Montparnasse.*" Mull that Surrealist testimony over a little while, all
you cafe-society modemites. Jacqueline may not grok TCP/IP, but she has
been there and done that. I haven't stopped thinking about that remark
since I first read it. For whom does the telephone bell toll? It tolls
for me and thee -- sooner or later.

Can you help us? We wish you would,
and think you ought to.

Bruce Sterling --

Richard Kadrey --



Speculation sometimes leaves me speechless, stunned by what might and might not have been. It's all of us, where we are, wondering what might have made the difference, should I have kissed him, should I be here?
Alvin Toffler talks of an experiment he did with a class of school kids, asking them what the future would bring. Answers of revolution, assassination and ecodisaster came thick and fast, global change. Asking them what would happen in their individual futures, the focus suddenly flipped to pets, homes, family.
We are interested in the flipside of this experiment.
Speculation is the bread and butter of the pulp and nonpulp science fiction genres, looking forward to what might happen then if we tweak what's hapening now. SciFi authors are, in Bruce Sterling's terms, the court jesters of the world, and we as a society need them. We choose, however, to invert speculation. Along the line of Dick, Gibson and Sterling, we pause to consider what might be if only the past had flipped a bit at the appropriate junction. Not being historians, we do not investigate the distant past, we must satisfy ourselves with the recent past, in particular our own lifetimes.
It is the subjective aspect that is important, not the global ecodisaster, but my garden.
What would the world look like now if Pacman hadn't dominated games, parlours and pocket money in 1982? How much of what we now take to be the unstoppable natural progression of science and technology is the result of the succes of low-bit games? Are high definition video effects and real time computer games with great graphics inseperable, or unlinked? What would videos be like if we still used Beta? Or Video2000, where we would turn tapes over like audio cassettes? What particular hormone rush fills our veins when we hear that sounds of Pacman fading under the attacks of the ghosts?
Amidst the debris of attics and garages we find some of the tools which will enable this research. Recalibrating those psychological inducers, sampling the sights, sounds and actions under new parameters, we begin a dig into sedimented layers of memory and desire that reside in this photon-damaged generation. Ours.

tb, linz, april 1998

Hey - you can´t revive my youth !
There are certain smells, the sap of the trees in the lane next to my Grandmother’s old family holiday house, the odor I associate with Devo’s live EP, the smell of pizza at the place where I dedicated too many Saturday afternoons to beating Galaga, Galactica and Space Invaders. The romanticism that we feel thinking back to those obscure commands that we knew in the bones of our hands, typing cryptic strings to the much loved little boxes that played our games, followed our commands, played pixels across screens that reflected from young eyes full of innocence.
As we go through yet another music revival, I suppose I must admit that it’s my stinking generation this time getting off on the bad music of its youth, there is a parallel resuscitation. The old toys that were somehow really different from those of our elder siblings—computers, video games—these things fill us with that scent of Saturday afternoons that were infinitely long and even broader. These things are being rediscovered by various connoisseurs and rebirthed as we speak. Low bit digital media, video games, early personal computers and pocket electronic games are being found in garages, attics and basements. They are being dusted off and treated with fondness and reverence by those formerly pimply youth who injected their hormone-ehnanced years into these hi-tech receptacles.
Let’s be self-indulgent and let this happen. A bit. Old hippies reviving their youth with the Doors gave me the shits, as did all those Led Zepp fans feeling justified as everything got sampled. But perhaps this is the difference. Those parties we hate because they play the same music that we danced to fifteen years ago and those we love because they play the same music differ only in their self-awareness. As we resample these obsolete media, whether its looping Ultravox up in ProTools or revamping Pong with high-tension paddles, we are not digging into memories of our first romance and the innocent afternoon activities that preceded it, rather we’re dislocating our memories and digging out.
I’m looking forward to this particular revival. As long as no one laughs when my eyes get misty as someone shows me a functioning "Battle Zone" machine.

tb, linz, april 1998

One of the potential ironies of the "digital age" may be that this period in history may become relatively undocumented because of the problems of preserving digital data.
Bruce Bruemmer, 1997