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Dead media – a sign o’ the times

Taking my lad to school today we trekked along the string of fast food joints and charity shops that passes for a high street here, and in the largest charity shop spotted a fascinating sign on the door. “PLEASE NOTE”, it read, “WE ARE UNABLE TO ACCEPT ANY OF THE FOLLOWING AS WE CANNOT SELL THEM”

And there followed a list of the rejected artefacts of the day. I once worked briefly with Bruce Sterling, the SF author, journalist and founder of the Dead Media Project – the latter, a terrific idea; a web project to list every form of redundant media the world has ever known. From Latin American knotwork accounting, to floppy disks. I’d talked to Bruce about the idea of compiling this into a coffee table book, and still might one day, because alongside the notched sticks and etched acetate, languages and cultures died too. Here, on this charity shop door, was evidence the process is still going on. Indeed, accelerating.

“VHS TAPES”. Well yes. Who can imagine digging out and playing one these days? I have a bundle at home – mostly kids films. Every time we try to play one the damn machine chews it, spits it, or imports a blizzard to Kipling’s jungle. Even one of the tapes that does get played – “Way out West”, Laurel and Hardy – confounds the kids’ friends who can’t puzzle out who is who in black and white. Like lost tribes of the Amazon presented with photographs, these kids don’t have the mental tools for interpreting greyscale into colour. Or perhaps they just can’t be arsed. So, VHS is dead. Fair enough. Who’s going to spend good money on crinkle cut tape?

“OLD FASHIONED COMPUTER MONITORS” Yes, really. “Old fashioned” applied to pc monitors – by which they mean, I reckon, CRT. Are you feeling old yet? You should be.

“NON-DIGITAL TVs” Analogue is no more. Fuzziness is banished. The future belongs to ones and noughts. But isn’t it interesting how quickly the change came about, how quickly even a charity shop consigns this device to history? Which brings me to the punchline.

“ENCYCLOPAEDIAS AND OTHER REFERENCE BOOKS”. Ouch. Right there, with that other dead and decaying media, encyclopaedias. What are we to make of that? Another instance of dumbing down? More than likely. A response to the immediacy and utility of Google and Wikipedia? Probably. A rational response to the pace of change of human knowledge, recognising that the static page cannot keep pace with today’s dataflows? Ummm. Maybe. But whatever the reason, here’s the simple truth. In Macclesfield today, you cannot give away encyclopaedias. You can’t get rid of reference books even for free. The book may not yet be dead, but the concept of a book as the centre of knowledge clearly is. And the rest will follow.

So, a moment of reflection if you would, for the struggle of the printed page. Strapped to monitors and life support, the book is wheezing its last in intensive care. So long old friend.

Newspapers – you’re very, very obviously next.

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15 comments to “Dead media – a sign o’ the times”

  1. Recommending "Give ‘em hell Pike! » Dead media – a sign o’ the times" ( )

  2. I once bought an entire set of Encyclopedia Britannica – a 1980s edition, not that ancient – for £20 in a charity shop. It looks very good (if space consuming) on the shelves, but I very rarely look inside.

  3. I’ve still got a set of encyclopedias.

    Vast areas of the Earth are pink.

    One day, Man may walk on the moon – if only they can build a big enough cannon.

    (And presumably if they can solve the problem of almost-instantaneous accelleration to supersonic speeds reducing passengers to strawberry jam.)

    Bruce may be able to make something out of that.

  4. Seeing as The Guardian just banned me again …can i be the first to say that cif IS DEAD : )

  5. I remeber as a child we had some ancient hand-me-down volumes from pre-WW2; I used to delight at first in finding things that were now incorrect. Space travel being a good one. But then it just got silly. I couldnt’ see much point in books that had so much wrong in them. I feel the same sensation now looking at the press. And at blogs. And at everything that pupports to be factual. It’s all spin these days, even science.

    And then there’s the issue that, as H suggests, encyclopaedias fill up half your house. Tellies are getting bigger, houses smaller – soon we will live inside tellies with no room at all for books.

    What did CiF ban you for Micky? Forbidden opinions, or malicious fact checking?

  6. Apparently you arent allowed to point out that Baron Johnny Porritt once took 42 flights in one year ( true fact) , as a way of exposing his hypocrisy…Strange that all manner of anti humanist green dweebs are allowed to say they think the human race is a plague , or that poverty ( ie living the green dream in a fucking caravan ffs)is great , or any other nonsensical bullshit that they can think of. Also in the most recent “What do readers want to discuss on cif” , i called for the return of The Pike Bishop ( to pen an article on the importance of free speech) …. Got 2 recommends for that one : )
    Also on some other green thread one of my posts got 97 recommends before being deleted , it wasnt even a controversial one either , no swear words , no personal attacks , just a measured response which was deemed TOO popular …oh well

  7. Agree with you about spin , christ even your average local councillor has discovered the magic of spin (helps when theyre cutting services , yet still screwing you for more council tax)…I blame Ken Livingstone and the GLC : )
    Strange innit , its easy to look back at old news / media and say what a lot of shit it was …but because blogs n t’ internet are ” new” , ( well newish) people havent quite caught up to the idea that its mostly the same old shit in different bottles.
    Look at the BBC especially their non neutral position on “Global warming” (even Paxman has decried them for it) who would now trust anything they say?
    Truth , seems to be a moveable feast , especially for the patrician left , one day free speech is a great idea , then all of a sudden (Nick Griffin stylee) free speech has developed a “Yes but” …or as Nixons mouthpiece Ron Ziegler once said , “All previous statements are inoperative”. So , just as technology seems to become antiquated as quickly as its released , so do concepts such as truth , justice , free speech etc
    We dont have politics as such anymore , what we have are cults ( The Bindel/Ms Woman style of feminism , Monbiot and his MMGW cult etc )Cults are impervious to facts and are merely belief systems for people without the wit to think for themselves.

  8. Oh yeah , Abolish the BBC !

  9. Oh dear – I used to commission reference books and it has indeed got a lot tougher since I was booted out of the business in 2004. And we’ve now seen the closure of Chambers in Edinburgh, with the arguments for and against printed reference being debated with vigour – the fundamental issue is content , who gets paid for creating it, and who will pay to use it.

    You can, of course, amend and correct digital very quickly, a real blessing. Recent obits of a music producer had him coming out of retirement to work with S Club 7, the sort of quirky fact beloved of obituarists. Unfortunately it was rubbish, planted in the wiki article. The archive obits have been quickly amended but the sinful print editions remain.

    You can of course get the content of the 11th Britannica (the only one worth owning) on line, but I would love the compact edn if anyone’s throwing one away!

  10. Micky I flounced out of Cif a while back – missed your comments. Jonathan Porrit is an urbane sort of chap but there is no doubt that he is a deity of some kind in Guardiana and you are not allowed to sneer at his carbon sneakers.

    (‘carbon sneaker’ is a term I came up with a couple of years ago, while posing with my bike beside Scottish govt officials who also posed with bikes which had been brought in by van and went off again by van – ‘Ha’, I muttered, ‘carbon footprint becomes carbon sneaker’)

    Re ‘average local councillors’, this site is a hoot –

    There is a sort of ‘my tortoise is dead’ expression that all politicians have, especially the Edinburgh pair here –

  11. Ed , you mean youre not allowed to speak the truth ! Same this week …Ms Woman accused someone of shilling …a most libellous assertion … i clicked the abuse button … but the post still stands …we are all equal apparently ..but some are more equal than others.

  12. For me, it’s the instant out-of-dateness of books and even newspapers that I can no longer stand. In fact, any information-related object that can’t be plugged into the interweb and updated now seems ‘dead’. I bought a satnav where they want to charge you £60 for a map update which of course I could never bring myself to pay, so that item also now seems instantly obsolete.

    I couldn’t possibly consider reading an article by, say, Polly Toynbee without being also able to read the comments demolishing her arguments afterwards. My head would explode!

  13. One more thought on reference books:

    I remember standing in a university library and my head spinning with the thought of how much I didn’t know. But I also remember having to buy books as part of the course, and at the end of it realising that for some of them, only a few pages out of hundreds had actually been of any significance. What a waste of money and paper.

    It now strikes me that it is the very form of a ‘book’ that is part of the problem. In many cases, the book is based on an idea that could be stated pretty well in a paragraph, but in order to make it into something that can be sold for £40 it is extrapolated into hundreds of pages. The original paragraph may be in there somewhere, but it might have been expanded throughout the book so that you don’t know what is the essential core idea and what is just padding. And if your brain doesn’t work in quite the same way as the author’s, you might never grasp just what he’s going on about.

    The internet isn’t perfect, but it is free, and there might just be a blog written by someone who shares your own unusual view of the world and who would never have got a book published because of that. And you can actually interact with the author and ask questions until you do understand.

  14. It now strikes me that it is the very form of a ‘book’ that is part of the problem. In many cases, the book is based on an idea that could be stated pretty well in a paragraph, but in order to make it into something that can be sold for £40 it is extrapolated into hundreds of pages.

    That’s a very good point; I think you’re right in many cases…

    I migth haev a think about that.

  15. Right there, with that other dead and decaying media, encyclopaedias. What are we to make of that? Another instance of dumbing down? More than likely.

    What are you talking about? I own a 20-volume encyclopaedia. It’s totally worthless except for the entertainment value. Notwithstanding the ridiculously short entries and the paucity of articles, there are no talk-sections to highlight the controversies. How many paper pages does Wikipedia correspond to? A million? Ten million?

    Wikipedia has its problems, but going back to paper encyclopaedias? I’d rather go back to writing on clay tablets.

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