Media Archaeology and Science Fiction

Benjamin Robertson and I are very pleased we had the opportunity to co-author this piece on the connections between the Media Archaeology Lab and science fiction for the “Notes and Correspondence” section of Science Fiction Studies – thank you to Lisa Swanstrom for inviting us to contribute!


The motto of the Media Archaeology Lab (MAL) at the University of Colorado, Boulder is: “the past must be lived so that the present can be seen.” As a lab, rather than a museum, the MAL prides itself on allowing, encouraging, visitors to turn machines on, to play with them, to find out how they work. Following from the assumptions of media archaeology, which provides the lab with its name, the MAL challenges facile histories of technology and computation by demonstrating how our current media ecology came to be not by way of a progress from simple to complex or from primitive to modern. Rather, it derives from strategic, profit-oriented motives paired with conscious choices about the way technology ought to operate (and, of course, these choices are in part determined by the affordances of the technologies extant at the time they are made). By drawing attention to the foregoing, the curation and exhibition of media in the MAL points to how our present moment could have been dramatically otherwise.

This “otherwise,” however, can be quite difficult to understand or visualize, and it’s here that the MAL and its mission enjoy a curious and productive relationship with science fiction. After all, it’s become quite commonplace amongst science fiction critics and readers to acknowledge that sf has far less to do with any actual future it would purport to represent than with the present in which it was written. More precisely, the future that a given work of sf describes will invariably be based upon assumptions its writer makes, assumptions determined by the historical, cultural, economic, technological, and social milieu in which she wrote. Excavating this milieu, however, can be challenging given that such excavation can only take place from within a new milieu that certainly derives from the old one in part, but also departs from it based upon historical events the old one could not predict from its own perspective.

Although the reference will be familiar to many readers of Science Fiction Studies (perhaps to the point of banality), William Gibson’s Neuromancer provides an excellent example of how the prescience of the best sf is always tempered by the limitations of historical situatedness. Famously, the novel begins, “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” At once, Neuromancer announces the death of the 1980’s dominant medium even as it acknowledges the reality of this dominance. Otherwise put, the novel is able to predict the end of television as the developed world’s dominant medium precisely because television was the developed world’s dominant medium at the time it was written. For all of this prescience, however, and for all of the rest of the novel’s prescience about multinational capitalism, the viral spread of subcultures, the importance of networked communication, and more, it gets quite a bit wrong. It does not seem to predict the significance of the graphical user interface. It certainly does not hint at the rise of the smart phone or the development of the mobile web or the rise of the isolated app. For that matter, it does not predict the browser-based online ecosystem replaced by the app ecosystem. In fact, it’s possible to read Gibson’s most recent novel, The Peripheral, as his attempt to rewrite Neuromancer in the context of the rise of the smart phone.

We do not mean to criticize Gibson specifically or science fiction generally for any failure, but only to point out that our visions of the future will always be limited by the historical moment in which we develop them. The Media Archaeology Lab not only understands this limitation, but celebrates it by way of its collection of historical, working, computers. It possesses:

  • an Altair 8800b from 1976, an eight-bit computer which operates by way of switches and outputs by way of a series of LED lights;
  • an Apple Lisa, the first “affordable” personal computer to make use of a graphical user interface (although the $10,000 price tag, in 1983 dollars, stretches the concept of affordability to its breaking point);
  • numerous Mac Classics, the descendant of the machine that was to ensure that 1984 would not be like 1984;
  • and several NeXTcubes, shepherded onto the market by CEO Steve Jobs during his exile from Apple in the early 1990s.

In total, the MAL houses over 35 portable computers, 73 desktop computers, 22 handheld devices, and 13 game consoles in addition to a substantial collection of digital and analog media extending back to the late nineteenth century. Additionally, the MAL collects manuals on early office technologies, operating systems, and software; books on the history of computational media and early humanities computing; and computer magazines and catalogs from the early 1970s through the 1990s.

When one encounters the collection, or the individual items that comprise it, one encounters a concrete past rather than a speculative future. At the same time, one encounters the dreams that past had about its future, dreams expressed in the tools that would finally build it. Far too often, however, these dreams become too solid. That is, we see only what did happen, and take it for the only thing that could have happened. Gibson certainly seems to have predicted the rise of networked culture, but we do a disservice to ourselves and become irresponsible critics and historians if we do not acknowledge and struggle to understand how he was wrong even about that which he got “right.” Likewise, we misunderstand the MAL’s collection if we see in it only the prehistory of the present moment. Certainly, many of us “know” how things came to be the way they are as well as key concepts and technologies that paved the road from past to present: ARPANet, GUI, Apple, Windows, WWW, email, Internet, iMac, cell phone, cell phone camera, smart phone, iPad, net neutrality, etc. There can be no doubt that this history involves a great deal of “lock in,” a great deal of determinism. As people used, for example, GUIs, they created software for GUIs and hardware that could run it. They developed the GUI itself and taught people to interact with computers in this way rather than another way—to the extent that any other way become nearly impossible. Now, for most everyone, opening the terminal is impossible in fact and terrifying in theory. This determinism offers up the present as the inevitable consequence of the past and thus it also offers up the present state of affairs as “natural,” even though the past could not have foreseen the current state of affairs. The past, in fact, got many things “wrong,” just as did Gibson. And, as with everything that turned out to be “wrong” about Neuromancer, past mistakes of technology in many ways are more interesting than what turned out to be right.

For example, and by way of conclusion, one of the most interesting items in the MAL collection is a Vectrex, a complete home video game system developed in the early 1980s during the video game boom. The Vectrex was “complete” insofar as it not only included the hardware necessary to run games and the controllers necessary for humans to interface with this hardware/software system, but also the display itself. In fact, this display was, uncommonly if not uniquely at the time, itself a means by which the user could interface with the Vectrex and its games, by way of a light pen. Rather than displaying pixels, which are at the basis of most contemporary displays, the Vextrex’s monitor makes use of vector graphics. Although the technological differences between these two conceptions of output display are interesting, more important here are the assumptions, even the philosophies, behind the two technologies. Whereas pixels construct wholes out of parts, vectors start with wholes. In the former case, the more parts you can fit onto a screen, the better the resolution of the final image will be. However, no matter how many pixels the screen displays, the parts will always become visible at a certain level of magnification and thus become blurry. The industry response to this blurriness involves packing more and more pixels onto the screen, an arms race of sorts that requires increasing amounts of resources to stay ahead of the curve. By contrast, vector graphics solve the problem of magnification by their very nature, albeit at the cost of color and a certain type of complexity.


Whether vector graphics—which readers might remember from such stand up games as Asteroids and Tempest—could have ever solved the problems of their inherent limitations is impossible to know. Raster graphics “won” the competition, although suggesting that there was a competition at all is somewhat disingenuous. No other gaming system or general computing system seems to have taken up the cause of vector graphics. As such, the Vectrex seems to us now nothing but a mistake, a dead end—quirkiness and interestingness notwithstanding. However, viewed from another angle—one that we in the present only dimly perceive—the Vectrex suggests an entirely different future. This future is one determined less by a quest for more power, more resolution, more as a good in itself. Rather, it is one that involves a fluid movement and elegance current computation cannot hope to achieve. What cognitive estrangements, what conceptual breakthroughs, what utopias or dystopias such a novum might have produced we leave to the sf writers to imagine. Perhaps we might see someday the advent of vector punk. Regardless, the MAL invites the historians, the critics, the archaeologists to think of the past in terms of its multiplicity, in terms of all of the positivities it contains and not simply those that produce that narrow thing we call the present.




One thought on “Media Archaeology and Science Fiction

  1. It is really interesting to consider what our computing environment might look like now if some of those “dead ends” had been developed further.

    There was at least one other computing system that took up the cause of vector graphics in the early 80s. A Canadian project called Telidon tried to establish consumer grade videotex networks using a vector encoding that could render relatively sophisticated graphics given the limited computing technologies of the day. That encoding eventually became a North American standard, NAPLPS, after AT&T got involved.

    Videotex never really took off in North America, but NAPLPS outlived Telidon into the BBS era and beyond. The same optimizations that made it useful for videotex also made it well suited for transmission over phone lines at 1200 baud. In its most widespread deployment NAPLPS eventually became the basis for the Prodigy Online GUI.

    While NAPLPS was well optimized for limited storage and bandwidth the same could not be said for processing power. Relatively expensive, special purpose hardware was required to render NAPLPS in the early days, and that as much as anything accounted for Telidon’s failure to get much beyond the field trial stage.

    It’s possible to imagine an alternate reality where the cost of processing power declined throughout the 80s and 90s, but the cost of bandwidth and storage didn’t. In that reality I think NAPLPS and other vector graphics systems would have been adopted far more widely than they were.

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