The Life and Death of Media

There are thousands of people who are paid to invent and publicise new media. But there is no one whose job it is to describe media that don’t work any more and have collapsed in humiliating, money-losing ways. Science fiction author and founder of the Dead Media Project, Bruce Sterling does the dirty work.

Some media shed a few dead species, but the genus goes on living. Other media are murdered. Have you ever heard of the quipu of pre-Colombian Peru? If you have it’s a minor miracle. The archives of the Incan quipus were burned by the Spanish conquerors, after the Council of Lima in the year 1583. There are about 400 authentic quipus left in the entire world. Every last one of the quipus we possess nowadays was dug out of a human grave.

Well, not quite every last one. I happen to have a brand-new quipu here in my pocket. I was doing quite a bit of reading about the quipu, so I decided I’d make one.

The word quipu means ‘account’ in the Quechua language, so the quipu was basically a kind of accounting device and calculator. This is a fabric network to carry data. This was the only recording medium that the Incas had. It served all the recording functions of their society.

No one today seems to have any real idea how these quipus worked. They all looked more or less like mine; they had a thick fabric backbone, with a series of dependent fringes. But the fringes could also have fringes. Sometimes there were as many as six subdirectories coming off the backbone of the network. They had a variety of different knots. They had quite a wide variety of colours. People have only the vaguest ideas what the colours may have signified.

A Quipu (at Los Angeles County Museum of Art). Photo by Lynn Dombrowski.

A quipu (from Los Angeles County Museum of Art).    Photo by Lynn Dombrowski.

Mine is a very small quipu. The largest remaining quipu weighs about forty pounds and has well over two thousand dependent cords. No one has any idea what this device signifies or what message it carries. It was buried with a Peruvian gentleman who was modestly well-to-do, but he doesn’t appear to have been particularly prominent.

The Incas had no idea that the planet harboured any civilisation other than their own. As far as they were concerned, these quipus were the absolute apex of human intellectual accomplishment. And one must admit they have a lot to offer. They’re very light – wool and cotton – they’re portable and durable. Crush-proof. No problem with power surges or headcrashes. A good thing they were portable too because one of their primary functions was the census.

It appears that everyone without exception in the Inca realm existed as a quipu somewhere. The Incas were great masters of ethnic cleansing. They thought nothing of ordering thousands of people out of their homes to distant realms as pioneers and settlers. Everyone simply loaded all their possessions onto their backs and left immediately. Thanks to the quipu, there was simply no way they would ever manage to slip by the authorities.

The Inca economic system was a centralised command economy. A third of the nation’s output was stored in vast ranks of stone cells. Everything down to the last sandal was recorded on quipu.

I don’t think there was ever an alphabet recorded on quipu. I don’t think the Inca were literate in that fashion, because their empire was only one hundred years old. There was nothing to pronounce that you could find on a piece of string. But there may have been genealogies in string: hierarchies, maybe family trees: maps, even – three days’ journey, they forded a blue river, they fought a red battle – you can imagine how usefully suggestive this might have been. Maybe you could attack language even more directly with a quipu: metre, stress, quantity, pitch, length of the poem – why should this be hard to believe? In English we sometimes call telling a story ‘spinning a yarn’.

These Incas were fine textile makers. They had a lot of wool and cotton. The government made them grow it, and their women spun yarn every day of their lives. When a quipucamayoc read one of these recording devices, I don’t think his lips moved. There was nothing crude or halting or primitive or painful about the experience – a quipu is certainly a more tactile and sensual and three-dimensional experience than a book.

The quipu was a medium. It was a way to cast the world into an entire form of order. It was a medium invented by and for very careful and methodical people, people who liked to fit huge boulders together so snugly that you couldn’t slip a knife-blade between them. For the Incas, this was the Net – a net that caught their population in a sieve that dominated the whole material world, a sieve that no one could escape.

You know, in today’s ultra-mediated world, I think it’s quite a good idea to go into a quiet room with a quipu. Go to a room and shut off the electricity. Don’t look at the quipu with scorn or condescension. Just hold it in your hands and try to pretend that this is the only possible abstract relationship, besides speech, that you have with the world. Really try to imagine what you are missing by not comprehending all economics, all governmental business, all nonverbal communication, as a network of coloured yarn. Think of this as a discipline, as an act of imaginative concentration, as a human engagement with a profoundly alien media alternative.

It’s truly pitiful how little is known or remembered about the quipu, a dead medium that was once the nervous system of a major civilization. And yet that is by no means the only form of knot record. There’s also the Tlascaltec nepohualtzitzin, the Okinawan warazan, the Bolivian chimpu; and Samoan, Egyptian, Hawaiian, Tibetan, Bengali, Formosan knot records. So far, I know almost nothing about these beyond their names. I’d like to learn more.

Giuseppe Ravizza's Cembalo Scrivano. Source:

Giuseppe Ravizza’s Cembalo Scrivano.        Source:

Before I began the Dead Media Project I had no idea that native North American wampum might be historical records. I always thought that wampum was a kind of currency. Maybe, like the quipu, wampum was both currency and record at the same time. Imagine if our currency were a medium. Maybe our currency should be a medium. If you’re an experimental media artist, why don’ you start writing poetry on twenty-dollar bills and see what happens? Maybe you should just write the address of your favourite website on money, and see what happens then as the bill travels from hand to hand. Peculiar notion, isn’t it – communicating with money? Maybe we’ve just been trained to find that notion peculiar.

As a writer, I use electronic text these days, because the typewriter is dying. In the early days of typewriters, what wonderful names they had: Xavier Progin’s Machine Kryptographique (1833), Giuseppe Ravizza’s Cembalo-Scrivano (1837), Charles Thurber’s Chirographer (1843), J.B. Fairbanks’ ‘Phonetic Writer and Calico Printer,’ and so forth. A minor horde of typing machines, many of them scarcely recognisable as such to the modern eye. Soon they’ll all be gone – swept away by the computer.

The computer. Its tide is so inexorable. Its power is so immense. Its triumph is so complete. What do we mean exactly when we say: ‘I’ve modernised. I own a computer’? Are we really in possession of a machine less mortal than Giuseppe Ravizza’s Cembalo-Scrivano?

Take the Macintosh PowerBook. An impressive machine, isn’t it? I admire that name – PowerBook. It says a lot about the kind of rhetoric our culture cherishes. The name PowerBook somehow suggests that this device can last as long as a book, though even the cheapest paperback will outlive that machine quite easily.

PowerBook is a good name, but not a really pretty name. Personal computers have had much prettier names. Like the Intertek Superbrain II. It might have been extremely difficult not to buy an Intertek Superbrain II, even though the machine is absolutely as dead as mutton.

An Altair 8800. Source:

An Altair 8800. Source:

Forgive me while I indulge in a brief sentimental roll-call of vanished glories and ever-growing legions of dead personal computers: The Altair 8800. The Amstrad. The Apple Lisa. The Apricot. The Canon Cat. The CompuPro ‘Big 16’. The Exidy Sorcerer (how can a sorcerer end up dead on the junk heap? That’s not supposed to happen, we’re not even supposed to think like that. A computer is a sorcerer with a superbrain – it’s not supposed to be lying in a landfill with great-grandma’s Victrola). The Hyperion, the Mattel Aquarius. The NorthStar Horizon and the Osborne Executive. The Xero Alto and the Yamaha CX5M.

But wait! There’s more! Dead mainframes! Dozens and dozens of fantastically complex and expensive dead mainframes. Dead supercomputers. Dead operating systems. Windows 95 is an operating system which is refreshingly honest, because it has an expiration date written right on it. We know that operating systems are of absolutely critical importance in computing, but how often do we honestly recognise that?

Suppose you compose an electronic artwork for an operating system that subsequently dies. It doesn’t matter how much creative effort you invested in that program. It does not matter how cleverly you wrote the code. The number of hours of labour invested is of no relevance. Your artistic theories and your sense of conviction are profoundly beside the point. If you chose to include a political message, that message will never again reach a human ear.

Your chance to influence the artists who come after you is reduced drastically almost to nil. You are inside a dead operating system. Unless someone deliberately translates you into a new one – with heaven only knows what liberties of translation – you are nailed and sealed inside a glamorous sarcophagus. You have become dead media. Almost as dead as the quipu.


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