Thoughts toward a Taxonomy of Dead Media
by Stefan Jones
I stumbled upon one of the Dead Media Project web sites the other week. It was a pretty good one, concise and to the point, with all of the Dead Media notes available in well composed HTML documents. I took the opportunity to browse through the posts. I was struck at the amazing variety of techniques and mechanisms described, and wondered whether if they could be categorized in some way other than the order of their appearance.
Not all dead media are *equally dead.* Some continue to shamble about: garage bands proudly distribute their music on recycled, hand-labeled 8-Track tape cartridges. Esoteric societies keep the art of magic lantern showmanship alive. The exact keystrokes of Scott Joplin are preserved in player piano rolls that are usable today. Contrast these with the late and unlamented RCA variable-capacitance video disk and Edison's electric pen stencil.
Not all dead media were equally *alive*: There were once hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Edison's wax cylinder phonographs, while the number of Telharmoniums (Teleharmonia?) can be counted on the fingers of a mutilated hand.
Magic lanterns were once as familiar as slide projectors, while only a half dozen of Morton Heilig's coin-op "virtual reality" machines were produced. The Chromatic Rolmonica and Teddy Ruxpin were two mites in the vast swarm of kid-media mayflies.
Some dead "media" are really dead *formats*, mere variants on a common theme, while others are true freaks, technological sports without pedigree or issue. In the former category are Edison's disc phonograph and the Coleco Adam tape drive; contrast these with the almost forgotten technique of bar-code software distribution.
Not all dead media *die* alike. Some succumb to bad marketing. The Sony recordable mini-disc, released with so much fanfare just a few years ago, is moribund, thanks to the failure by record producers to release titles in the format. Other casualties were caused by manifest obsolescence: the Telharmonium was doomed by cheap Victrolas and radio, "rocket mail" by speedy, reliable jets and telecommunication.
Finally, not all dead media are equally cool or funky. Unfunky, uncool dead media are worth little more than an appreciative grunt or raised eyebrow. They tend to be wannabes and incremental improvements rather than paradigm breakers. Cool dead media evoke a sense of wonder, mirth, or awe; they make you feel a pang of loss. They make you want to *have* one. Some examples: the ROM cartridges for the detestable IBM PC Jr. are indisputably dead media, but they rate about a 7 on the 1-100 nifty meter; the quadrophonic records of the mid 70s might earn a 37. Contrast this with an 88 for the Incan *quipu* and a solid 95 for Cahill's monstrous and wonderful Telharmonium.
Obviously, a lot of work would have to be done to create a formal taxonomy. I suspect that any truly formal or comprehensive system would be unnecessary. However, I am considering including a "Cause of Death" section and assigning a "Cahill Rating" in my future Dead Media obituaries.
(((bruces remarks: Taxonomy is a dry and forbidding term, but the act itself can prove fruitful. The existing Master List of Dead Media is a taxonomy of sorts, but it's by no means a formal one. Dead media theorist-volunteers might want to consider re-formatting the entire Master List with new taxonomical schemes. If any of you noble souls would like to do this, I would be very pleased to redistribute your work for our general edification. If you'd like to volunteer, send me email -- perhaps we can coordinate the efforts, and many hands will make light work.
((("Coolness ratings" would be pleasant and amusing, and "causes-of-death," as Stefan Jones suggests, might well prove an enlightening scholarly approach. But what about the following possible schemes for reorganizing the roll-call of the dead?)))
Chronological -- time of appearance or invention.
Chronological -- time of extinction.
By scale of usership: mass media at one end, to hobbyist and never-produced experimental media at the other.
By sense-modality -- sound, sight, smell, touch, combinations of these.
By culture of origin.
Technical simplicity to technical complexity.
By primary usage group: entertainment, business, industrial, governmental, private.
By obscurity: unheard-of and recherche dead media to well-known forms.
By relation to living media: "precursors of the computer, precursors of television, precursors of newspapers" -- I think this Whig version of media history is bogus, but it's a classic taxonomical approach.