When Does a Medium Die?

Despite what hipsters might have you believe, vinyl records and cassette tapes aren't making a comeback. The market has changed media too irrevocably for that.
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Despite what hipsters might have you believe, vinyl records and cassette tapes aren't making a comeback. The market has changed media too irrevocably for that.
Remember these? (Photo: DRs Kulturarvsprojekt/Flickr)

Remember these? (Photo: DRs Kulturarvsprojekt/Flickr)

In my attic sits a cardboard box filled with objects I used to love. In total, they cost me at least $1,000—a sum that’s reflective of the mid-'90s, when my only income was the $20 I made every week from cutting my grandmother's lawn.

This box is full of compact discs, and they are now worthless, or very close to it. The cost of physically taking the time to go through the box, or filling up my car to drop them off at the used record store so that they can be someone else's problem, is greater than the pittances I would earn hawking them online. What went for $15.99 at Best Buy in 1995 is now worth exactly one cent on Amazon. Even I don't own a CD player anymore.

The compact disc is, in other words, a dead medium. Though today hipsters still listen to music on vinyl or cassette tapes, for most of us albums are downloads, no longer signified by pricey physical shells. When Adèle released her latest album only on CD, BuzzFeed published an operations manual. In 2015, as physical mediums experience revivals in niche circles, and approach extinction among the masses, it bears asking: Just what constitutes a dead medium? And when do they die? The answer is more complex than it seems.

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The death of the compact disc is nothing new. Mediums have come and gone as long as mediums of transmission have been around.

“Human needs remain the same, and as societies we are always trying to come up with new ways of addressing them,” Dr. Janet Steele, an associate professor of journalism at George Washington University, writes in an email. She studies how culture is communicated through mass media. For example: “In Indonesia, where I am now, boys and girls in Muslim boarding skills have always wanted to meet one another, even though it was forbidden. In the olden days, they passed notes—now they use Facebook. So a new technology has enabled us to do something we were always doing, but in a 'better' way. Is something lost? Sure.”

Conversation about what is lost nevertheless tends to proliferate on the mediums of the day. So it was when, in 1995, sci-fi novelist Bruce Sterling noticed that digital mediums were taking over the era's analog communication landscape. “Our culture is experiencing a profound radiation of new species of media,” he wrote in the opening manifesto of what would become the Dead Media Project, a database of extinct mediums. “The centralized, dinosaurian one- to-many media that roared and trampled through the 20th century are poorly adapted to the postmodern technological environment.” Sterling listed some misfit media that had already perished: The phenakistoscope. The teleharmonium. The Edison wax cylinder. The steropticon. The Panorama.

The piece resulted in an electronic mailing list that included roughly 200 people debating what, exactly, constituted a dead medium. The exchange went something like this: Someone would nominate a medium; a healthy and voracious e-argument would ensue; and Tom Jennings, the moderator and editor, would compose an official “field note” when the group reached a conclusion. The list identified extinguished platforms that ranged from a refrigerator-mounted talking note pad to talking greeting cards. (The project itself, last updated in 2001, is not only dead, but lives on the dead medium of a “listserv.” To you kiddos out there, this is essentially a curated mailing list to subscribers over email.)

The two most contentious items on Jennings' list? Carrier pigeons and pneumatic tubes.

Perhaps the most interesting listings on the Dead Media Project are the controversial ones. The two most contentious items on Jennings' list? Carrier pigeons and pneumatic tubes. Homing pigeons are still trained and used in the sport of pigeon racing, and pneumatic tubes aren't making a comeback so much as they've never officially left. “We used to have to continually swat [the pigeon and tube doomsdayers] away,” Jennings argues when I reach him by phone. “[Those mediums are] not dead.” But the decision regarding whether some medium was alive or dead wasn't always so clear cut. Take, for instance, vinyl records: There are plenty of musicians still releasing vinyl, plenty of record shops carrying crates of the shiny, round discs, and plenty of hipsters with money to burn. But: “It's a dead medium,” Jennings said. “Vinyl is now a fetish commodity."

Or take the punched paper tape method of computer storage, which was popular in the 1950s and '60s, when computers read paper rolls of instructions to run programs. (Microsoft Word 5.0 on an old Mac computer, for example, took 360,000 rolls of paper tape for its operations.) “It's cool,” Jennings says. “But it's a terrible medium.” While there still exists a niche market for punched paper tape—Jennings, who has the equipment to run it, enjoys occasionally scouring websites for sales—its practical use-value no longer exists.

For Jennings, adoration of dead mediums like punched paper tape or vinyl don't stem from a sense of misplaced nostalgia, or an inaccurate belief in “the quality” of old mediums. “I care about old things, but it's not because I had any involvement with them,” Jennings says. “It's like an alien world you get to visit.” It's easy to see how the transportive quality of old media might also explain the appeal of records to youngsters who find them at physical music stores or Urban Outfitters today. Every time a teenager drops a pair of Andrew Jacksons on a new vinyl record today, she buys a ticket to an analog world she missed out on.

The Dead Media Project wasn't recording a unique phenomenon. But it did capture a distinct moment in time: when a paradigm shift occurred in what people considered mediums in the first place. At the height of the Dead Media Project, more mediums were coming and going, and at quicker rates, than ever before. Fierce, protracted battles flared up between Betamax and VHS, DATs and cassette tapes, Blu-ray and HD-DVD, vinyl and the compact disc—which ultimately became bloodbaths with no survivors. And now?

“We don't have any replacement," Jennings says. “A medium doesn't really exist anymore.”

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To understand what is happening to physical mediums today, we must first unpack what we mean by “medium.” Classically, “medium” signifies a mechanism for transporting information, such as a written letter, a smoke signal, or calligraphy. While that definition still exists, in recent decades information transmission mediums have become intertwined with capitalism. “Media means the little plate that the credit card goes on at the restaurant,” says Jennings, who also teaches art and technology at CalArts. Media is no longer only about people communicating with one another. It's also now about that method's ability to be monetized.

Take, for example, the delivery of music. The sales method used to be simple: A company owned the distribution of that medium, and those wanting to hear it paid to own a copy of the medium. But a strange thing happened with the transition into the digital format. As David Byrne put it in a 2007 op-ed for Wired, the entire industry shifted:

What is called the music business today, however, is not the business of producing music. At some point it became the business of selling CDs in plastic cases, and that business will soon be over.

The dissonance between the industry's creative ambitions and commercial reality initially led to anger and despair, according to Jennings. But the industry soon figured it out. Remember back in the early days of the music industry's so-called collapse, when Metallica was fighting Napster and everyone was buying 100 blank CDs for $10 to pirate as much music as they could? Now, recall the last time you actually copied a piece of music. The reason isn't because the music industry solved piracy, but because consumers simply don't need the medium once used to steal music anymore. “You used to download music, swap them around like files,” Jennings says. “Now you can't even buy containers for them." To the buyer, this is slightly more convenient. To the industry, this is a huge achievement.

These days, listeners pay music companies for the ability to access the material, not for vessels that contain the material itself. Sure, the shift toward online streaming provides some new freedoms for the consumer: a listener can access her music whenever she wants on Spotify or Pandora. But, ultimately, it's on the terms of the provider, “locked into,” as Jennings puts it, a corporate-owned device. From the delivery service of the music, to whatever player it's run on, to your ears—or, your eyes, if you want to take a side-trip to movies—there is no point along the path that allows consumers to remove the contents, collect them, or copy them. Make no mistake about it, this access-only model is the future of media.

Money, same as it ever was, is behind the change. You can't resell media if you can't copy it, and you can't copy what you don't own. And so, while vinyl records, or DVDs, or maybe even VHS tapes—if, for some silly reason, that terrible medium decides to make a comeback—will continue to exist, and you'll be able to purchase them from certain “fetish commodity” stores, they'll never be living, breathing mediums again. In the end, the next dead medium may be the concept of mediums itself.

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The Sociological Imagination is a regular Pacific Standard column exploring the bizarre side of the everyday encounters and behaviors that society rarely questions. 

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