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Dead Media Research Studio

Fall 2007 syllabus

This course is devoted to media archaeology, that is, historical research on forgotten, obsolete, or otherwise “dead” media technologies. Examples range from Athanasius Kircher’s seventeenth-century magic lantern to the common slide projector, discontinued by Kodak in 2004. Our goal is to acquire the skills and resources necessary for producing rigorous and compelling scholarship on such media. The course will include an exposure to recent contributions to the field of media archaeology; an introduction to research methods; instruction on the identification and utilization of word, image, and sound archives; and an emphasis on the need to restore media artifacts to their proper social and cultural context. The course stems from the premise that media archaeology is best undertaken, like any archaeological project, collaboratively. Hence the course follows a research studio model commonly used in disciplines such as architecture.

Dead Media Dossiers

3D Television

8-track Tape

Camera Lucida

Camera Obscura

Chirograph (Cyrograph)

Civil Defense Siren


Electric Pen

Experiential Typewriter

Glass Harmonica

Homing Pigeons

Hotel Annunciator

Magic Lantern

Mechanical Television




Movable Type

Mystical Writing Pad

Newspaper via Radio Facsimile

NeXT Step



Photographic Gun

Player Piano

Pneumatic Tubes


Smell Organ

Spirit Duplicator



Talking Book


Wax Cylinder

Zuse palimpsest

Research Methods

Guidelines on Research Methods (PDF)

Critical Techniques

As a group we are developing a series of techniques that help facilitate the analysis of dead media artifacts. These questions are provisional and may not be appropriate for all artifacts. They are meant as tools for critical exploration.

  • "Pops and hisses" -- Pops and hisses refers to the background noise often heard on phonograph recordings resulting from inconsistencies in the underlying material. Research Question: What are the unavoidable, obtrusive material qualities of the substrate itself that enter into the medium's overall system of representation?
  • The "click" -- Single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras make a clicking sound when taking a picture. The click results from a mechanical operation: an internal mirror moves aside and the shutter opens, exposing the film to light. Many of today's digital cameras have no shutter and no internal mirror, yet they still simulate the click using a digital audio sample. Why? Research Question: What qualities of the artifact are unnecessary at the material level but are still nevertheless necessary at the semiotic level? Where is the "click"?
  • Remediation -- Like the "click," remediation refers to the process through which older media formats are simulated, extended, coopted, modified, tamed, or rendered obsolete by new media formats. Research Questions: What came before this artifact? What newer medium came after? What traits are lost or preserved in the historical transformation from one system to another?
  • "Functional nonsense" -- Functional nonsense refers to actual material qualities of the medium that are necessary for the medium to function correctly but which have no semantic or semiotic purpose. A good illustration is the chirograph which requires that some word -- by custom it was often the word "chirograph" -- be inscribed across the midsection of a document. The word is then cut in half, certifying and authenticating the two pieces. The word "chirograph" is therefore highly functional, but semantically irrelevant. Research Question: What qualities of the artifact are unnecessary at the semiotic or semantic level but are nevertheless crucial to it functioning correctly?
  • Encoding -- Research Question: What symbolic system is used in the medium to encode and decode messages?
  • Digital versus analog -- Research Questions: What parts of the artifact conform to a model of representation using discrete sample points, and what parts use a continuously variable input? Are the two hybridized and if so how?
  • The "obvious" -- In every medium there are techniques and design conventions that result from the prevalent tendencies of the historical situation. For example, the problem of writing and reproduction in the modern period was "solved" using mechanical levers, metal type, presses and inks, while the problem of writing and reproduction in the late twentieth century was solved using an entirely different set of techniques: digital code, microchips, and LCDs. Research Question: What aspects of the medium result from large scale paradigms appropriate to the historical context?
  • The "arbitrary" -- Every medium also contains entirely unmotivated and unexplainable traits. Western writing runs left to right, top to bottom. But this convention is arbitrary. Research Question: What specific aspects of the medium have no material or semiotic reason for being?
  • Formal prohibitions/affordances -- Communications media often put clear limitations on where and how messages can originate and be received. Radio began as a two-way medium, but evolved into a broadcast medium. Research Questions: Who can read in this medium? Who can write in this medium? Is there an asymmetrical relationship between those who can send and those who can receive?


Some entries in the archive are drawn from the Dead Media Project, an email list devoted to the topic started by Bruce Sterling and more recently moderated by Tom Jennings. Ironically their email list is now dead.

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