Where do media go to die?
The bodily metaphor of death cannot account for the curious trajectory of media decline. Most dossiers are premised on the belief that media don't necessarily die when they just happen to break, and, conversely, that most 'dead' media may still work perfectly fine. Are we to understand the persistent availability of dead media for purchase on eBay, or for rediscovery in our basements and attics, as an opportunity for grave-robbing? Or, to push the metaphor to its limit, are our closets full of fully functional, intact bodies? There is no clear boundary between the living and dead with media: the failure of component parts (the brain, heart, etc…) does not a media death make. Instead, media either slowly recede into disuse—rendered obsolete, inoperable, or outmoded by subsequent media or shifting social, political, or cultural imaginaries—or finally go extinct. Is the problem once again one of metaphor? Does archaeology, to adopt an alternative language, always entail a resurrection of the dead, or might it be a return of the irrepressibly alive?
Media never say die. And yet history is littered with media that no longer figure in contemporary practice. Perhaps this is where we should look for a new definition: practice. Rather than a binary distinction between the living and dead, based on a concept of bodily or systemic integrity (a pulse), might we instead develop a process-oriented definition? An archaeology of media is an account of slow decline, a history without a clear change-of-state. Obsolescence is our watchword. Dead Media Dossiers are stories of the becoming outmoded and, occasionally, inoperable. They are not obituaries. And beyond obsolescence, can we imagine a world where media actually cease to exist? Will there some day be a world free of America On-Line sign-up CDs? And if so, might this really constitute an extinction, an irrecoverable loss?
Media and representational practices can fall into disuse for two reasons: subsequent media or practices perform a similar function more efficiently (with efficiency broadly conceived, to include such ineffable qualities such as style and fashion), or the ecological system subsequent media or practices introduce renders earlier media or practices inoperable.
This is the question of technical standards. How do you make use of a device whose interface no longer works with any existing technology?
Some media were born to die. In some cases technologies are designed with the knowledge that they will be either obsolete or useless within a relatively short time frame. This may be due to the business strategy of the designers, an explicit understanding that technological advancements will quickly obsolesce the current artifact, or a mixture of both.
Can media go the way of the Dodo? Do lapsed patents, legal prohibitions, the termination of manufacturing cycles, or any such events fall into such a category? Or must a media technology be both unusable and unreproducible for it to be extinct? Indeed, the reproducible of a specific technology is what makes patents so important: the schematic itself must be protected.