A Call for the Continuation of the Dead Media Project
It’s 2045, fifty years since Bruce Sterling published his Dead Media Manifesto, requesting email submissions of examples of dead media. He called for:
"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 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.”
This project itself died long ago. But upon its fiftieth birthday I think it’s about time for it to be revisited. The internet has changed so much in the past 50 years; Sterling and his accomplices were only just beginning to see certain parts of it whither-- but they knew it was coming:
“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 pathos of lost things? If it doesn’t, why doesn’t it? It ought to.”
I certainly am filled with remorse, mourning a cyberspace that-- while nowhere near perfect-- had comparatively a lot of room for exploration, surprises, creativity, novelty. The explosion of muskNet back in 2030 was the final nail in the coffin of that internet, the internet I knew for most of my life. It was on its deathbed for a while, though. The sleek companies that could afford to signed on to muskNet, leaving behind all the wretched dysfunctional sites. Everything was slowed down by a slew of visually deafening ads, cookies, and what we rightly suspected were government monitoring processes. Link-rot was accelerating, more and more websites were being shut down as servers failed, owners couldn't pay to maintain their domains, or supposed "copyright" claims... Frenzied, blaring ads popped-up out of nowhere relentlessly. The internet died like a dementia-riddled grandma who somehow got her hands on your stimulants: cacophonous, confused, then destitute.
muskNet is sterile, prescriptive, stiflingly minimalist, downright boring. The most colorful I’ve ever seen it is during Pride, its patronizing rainbows mocking you wherever you click. “Don’t worry, Jeff Bezos is an ally,” it consoles us. Its interface leaves no room for creative engagement, just shopping, bureaucracy, and shitty gig jobs. Everything’s offered up to the user before they even know they want it, whether or not they need it. Decades of predictive marketing has lead us to this. The collection of our desires, before we are even aware of them, captured and sold back to us with no remorse.
As those of us who find muskNet sociopolitically nauseating continue to craft this contranet (named after the late Zach Blas), building alternatives over Tor and clandestinely developed mesh networks, I believe it’s worth sifting through the old internet for a little inspiration. Nostalgia isn’t quite the right word for what fills my heart thinking about the old internet; I don’t want to limit myself to a reactionary longing for the past. The vast majority of that cyberjunk was not worth keeping around. But there’s something remarkable about certain... useless things. With the streamlined efficiency of muskNet, so acutely serving the interests of capital, nothing is idle. There’s things to be found amongst the clutter of unassuming, innocuous, sweet, and utterly useless tchotchkes that linger in the internet archive. Rummaging through the dilapidated internet (thanks to the hard work of the archive.org team), finding artifacts and trinkets to show your friends, and leaving behind remnants of the Spectacle that are better off dead, that’s a project.
When I was 21-- back in 2021-- a friend who had been very dear to me died. I found out just minutes before what would’ve been the second discussion section of a class I was taking at the time, “Possible Futures.” I didn’t get to class that day, and I didn’t anytime after that either. Luca died, and all I had left was her media. Our messages, photos, videos, instagram posts. I did not want this media to die too.
I dedicate this humble collection to her. She had an aptitude for finding strange things as we walked around the city and snuck into abandoned buildings: free clothes, perfectly unsmoked cigarettes, bundles of flowers, jewelry, magical trinkets and memorabilia. She brought life into these odd objects. But she had an appreciation of death too. I don’t know how she found so many strange bones, and I loved to see her smash plates and panes of glass in rotting, empty buildings. As I wander the defunct cyberspace, I carry with me her curiosity, her nose for adventure, her ability to find novelty and spontaneity whether through luck or skill or even magic. I gather up in her purse the remnants of the old that we should make use of, or at least honor, in our contranet. And I laugh as I photograph and subsequently shatter the dead media that is “not a look.”
I can only just begin this project for now, but I hope that others will join me, just as many others joined Sterling before the project itself died. In the links at the top of this page you can see what I'm beginning with. “missed connections" takes a look at the craigslist missed connections archive, where people would broadcast their wishful thinking following a fleeting encounter with possible love. Many posts are riddled with racism and misogyny, and all around weirdness, but others contain poetic, beautiful, queer encounters that I can't help but smile at. "Yahoo! Answers" is where I look at the old Yahoo Q&A forum. It died when I was 21, and I like many others have fond memories of anonymously bearing my little soul, asking questions I couldn't ask my parents, peers, or teachers. For many, it was a website for learning about, understanding, and exploring queerness. Lastly, in "Derive", I want to propose a little game. Since the prescriptive muskNet is antithetical to the Situationist concept of the derive, I want to revive this practice using our contranet archive. I used to do this before the split, and it lead to many a strange encounter, a vibrancy that has been largely lost.
I write this not just to my contemporaries in the hopes of us reflecting on the past. I also write for the future (so pardon me if I’ve over-explained the current internet landscape). This website will be an artifact itself one day, dead or alive, and in explaining the way things are now, I hope that future web- surfers will be able to reflect on what has since passed away.
Present and future readers, I hope that you'll join me; I hope someone out there shares in this not-quite- nostalgia for weirdness, ephemerality, and novelty. If you want to add something, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's stay in touch.
Syd White, 2045.
Sterling, Bruce. “A Modest Proposal and a Public Appeal.” The DEAD MEDIA Project, 1995. https://web.archive.org/web/20210702161649/http://www.deadmedia.org/modest-proposal.html. Accessed 31 May, 2021.