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Media Archaeology

Media Archaeology course syllabus (Spring 2008)

Over the last decade or so, scholars in several disciplines have embarked on a series of media-archaeological excavations, sifting through the layers of early and obsolete practices and technologies of communication. The archaeological metaphor evokes both the desire to recover material traces of the past and the imperative to situate those traces in their social, cultural, and political contexts--while always watching our steps. This graduate seminar will examine some of the most important contributions to the field of media archaeology.

The course follows a research studio format in which students undertake archaeological projects of their own in the area of forgotten, obsolete, or otherwise "dead" media technologies. This might include papyrus, Athanasius Kircher's seventeenth-century magic lantern, or the common slide projector, discontinued by Kodak in 2004. Our goal is to introduce students to the skills and resources necessary for producing rigorous research on such obsolete and obscure media. It will include an exposure to scholarship in media archaeology; an intensive introduction to research methods; instruction on the localization and utilization of word, image, and sound archives; and an emphasis on restoring 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 or design.

Dead Media Dossiers

3D Television

8-track Tape


Camera Lucida

Camera Obscura

Chirograph (Cyrograph)

Civil Defense Siren

Credit Card Imprinter



Data Visualization and Defunct Visual Metaphors

Ear Trumpet

Electric Pen

Experiential Typewriter

Glass Harmonica


Hollerith Punch Card

Homing Pigeons

Hotel Annunciator


Magic Lantern

Marine Chronometer

The Market

Medieval Mariner's Compass

Mechanical Television




Movable Type

Mystical Writing Pad

Nansen Passport

Newspaper via Radio Facsimile

NeXT Step



Peruvian Quipu

Phonograph Doll

Photographic Gun

Player Piano

Pneumatic Tubes

Political Effigies

Roentgen Ray Tube

Semaphore Telegraph


Smell Organ

Spirit Duplicator




Talking Book




The Victrola

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?
  • Skeuomorph, or 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 its 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?
  • The "Hack" -- Given a set of formal prohibitions, do there exist alternate practices of use that change the intended outcome of the medium? For example, DJs "hack" record players when they "spin" records, using their hands to overcome the formal prohibitions of the record player, resulting in the advent of a new style of music. Hacking this assignment. [TODO: add to this -- mention improvisation, play.]
  • The "Cake Mix" effect -- Research Questions: What part of the process is streamlined, mechanized, or determined in advance, and what part of the process must be performed by the user? For example, Karaoke machines mechanize the instrumental part of a song, and the user performs the vocals. [TODO: add to this]
  • The "Reversal" -- Is there a point where maximum efficiency within a medium forces it into obsolescence? Mapmaking was ridden with errors due to difficulties in measuring longitude, but once the Marine Chronometer made it possible to plot the exact coordinates of a given position in space, and the grid mapped upon geographic representations was perfected, it was no longer necessary to use a map for navigation since a course could be plotted without any geographic references. (Additional question/theory: Is a "sampling" medium capable of reversal, or is it only threatened by upgraded mediums that are more efficient? Is the Reversal only possible in a "programming" scenario?)
  • The "Break Boundary" -- Research Questions: Is there a point beyond which "the system generated by the artifact suddenly changes into another or passes some point of no return in its dynamic processes?" Or what specific reconfigurations in the spatio-temporal framework surrounding the media environment of the artifact might "break" the dynamics which it was attended to address? [DO OTHERS AGREE THIS IS WORTH ADDRESSING? a suggestion via McLuhan that might be worth talking about - perhaps an attribute that doesn't apply to the material framework of the object, but maybe one that is crucial in establishing the artifact's relevance and obsolescence?]
  • "Bad Weather" (non-diegetic influences?) -- The Semaphore Telegraph was unable to operate in fog. External inputs often influence the proper functioning of media. Research Questions: What external events exist that might cause the medium to operate in flawed or unexpected ways? Does the medium try to shield itself from the outside world? If so, how does this change the format in question?
  • "Guts" -- Some dead media, like the NeXT Step, hide their internal guts inside a black box. Others like the Kinora expose their inner workings for all to see. The way in which a media object alternately reveals or hides its insides greatly influences how it is understood, used, and analyzed. Research Questions: Does the medium in question hide or reveal its own internal functioning? If the guts are displayed, does this "technologize" the medium or change it in other ways? If the guts are hidden, does this reify or fetishize the object in question?
  • "Iris vs. Hermes" -- Most media can be charted on a continuum between Iris and Hermes. Both Iris and Hermes were Greek gods of communication; Iris was a messenger for Hera, and Hermes for Zeus. Yet while Hermes facilitated communication by accompanying messages, guiding trade, appearing alongside travelers and otherwise chaperoning interconnections between people, Iris relayed messages by immanently internalizing them in the physically of her own body. For Iris, the medium is the message. Hermes however was more of a letter carrier, keeping the outer envelop distinct from the inner content of the message. Research Questions: Does the medium maintain a separation between the symbolic layer of the medium and the material substrate? Or does the physicality of the medium itself mean something without recourse to surface inscriptions?
  • "The Sample vs. the Program" (Witnessing vs Interpreting / Feeling vs Perceiving) -- Some media can be inscribed by simply being turned on and allowed to feel, or sample the content they remediate - yet other media generate complete nonsense unless a highly specialized and refined language code or aesthetic has been mastered and applied in the process of inscription. Research Questions: Does the medium demand a great deal of analysis before the act of inscription, or does it appropriate material that can be processed and interpreted later? Does the noise of the medium illustrate a condition external to the user's actions (ie background noise) or does the noise illustrate imperfect execution of a symbolic system (misspellings, syntactical errors, grammatical nonsense, freudian slips etc.)? Does the medium demand a complex understanding of the given content (embodying an informational cultural bias) or does it appear to witness with an inhuman objectivity?
  • Mediatic Etymology - Proposes a methodology for theorizing the existence of dead media by inverting the process of remediation.
  • Where do media go to die? -- Some artifacts or representational practices may no longer perform a useful function or satisfy a popular demand in the current media ecology, but they don't necessarily disappear. Research question: What constitutes the moment of death? Are the artifact or representational practice obsolete, non-functional, or extinct?


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. The email list is now dead.

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