We Are The Zombies, Not the Machines

Zombie Media – media that are living dead. This is a concept that Jussi Parikka and Garnet Hertz have developed for a while now. They recently published a mini-manifesto of a larger text, that is locked into academia unfortunately.

This is connected with the field of media archeology, which I think is a very interesting and confusing field. It feels like I should love it, but there’s something that bothers me about it. First I have to admit that I haven’t read any of the books on it, so I’ve probably misunderstood plenty of things. Let’s go through the 5 points of the mini-manifesto and see.

1. They oppose the idea of dead media, but they also talk about it. A lot. In fact, the idea of dead media seems crucial for the whole manifesto. So how does that compute? Aren’t there better ways to oppose the idea of dead media?


2. Zombie media are living dead, the authors claim. But… says who? I guess according to hi-def capitalism and its cynical idea of people-as-consumers. But what about all the people, not visible in the mainstream, who still use these media for the same reasons that others use mainstream media? Old people. Children. Poor people. Disabled. Demosceners. Me. Are we that irrelevant?

The machines are far from dead, atleast to us. So my question is: Doesn’t the zombie media concept completely surrender to planned obsolescence?

3. So there is a war on general-purpose computing, which seems highly urgent to address politically and pragmatically. The authors focus on practice, and argue for hacking the black boxes – echoing the free-and-open discourse (which deserves some scepticism). But how – and why – would the opening of technologies lead to something that we haven’t already seen?

4. The authors want to take media archeology into the art world. I don’t know, but didn’t that happen with chip/glitch in the 00’s, or the demoscene in the 90’s, or with all those Cages and Paiks of the 60’s? I agree that artists (and others, including me) need to engage more with technologies, and take it seriously. But I guess for me that means to master the tool, instead of bending it or something. Why should media archeological art build on appropriation and remixing?

5. Of course reuse is an important part of our culture. People don’t seem to be talking about much else these days. Everything is a remix and originality is a sin. But does that mean that we should promote remix culture even more? Doesn’t really seem necessary? It just seems Scandinavian. Why not just steal shit from the trash instead? Pay the guy at the recycling point to get some good machines. Why would an “open remix culture” be better than trashy hacking and computer love?

I never really liked archeology/anthropology so perhaps it’s not surprising that I don’t really get the ideas of zombie media. Why does it matter so much that it’s old? Why do we need to circuit bend and remix them, when they are amazing machines already? Why only focus on the differences?

The experts still haven’t figured out how they work. After 30 years the C64 is still not perfectly emulated. They are mysterious machines already. There is no need to hack them.

If there is a machine that should be hacked, it’s academia. If I was an academic I would do something about it before it’s 100% Google Scholar to anyone who doesn’t have leet access.

Meanwhile, the 8-bit computers work just fine. They are not the zombies. We are the zombies. We are the ones who are too lazy or busy to learn how to use them. That’s why I don’t believe that encouragement of appropriation and remixing and opening is going to amount to much. Just do your homework and stop fiddling around! :)

7 Responses to “We Are The Zombies, Not the Machines”

  1. Rosa Says:

    Hey Anders!
    I totally believe in hacking the ossified/dead academia. Most of it consists of dogmatic purists existing in some kind of perpetual state of loop. But isn’t that critique evenly applicable to a great part of the demoscene?

    I feel like you fall into some kind of oppositional trap here; you oppose academics vs. practitioners, while the history of practitioners and academics have both heavily influenced each other – at least where things become interesting.

    But yea, oppositions like that are always good to kickstart conversation,..

  2. goto80 Says:

    Hm, I don’t feel like the post is about academics vs practitioners. The most interesting academics are also practitioners in some sense, I agree.

    What I meant here was more that academia, as a system, needs to be updated unless it wants to get swallowed completely by state/market. And that also applies to some individual academics, I guess.

    Dogmatic purism is fine with me, actually. The demoscene is ultra-conservative, and that’s also what opens up pockets of freedom that doesn’t exist in art/academia. Atleast that’s my experience. But if it would not finance itself and influence society in a very broad sense, like academia, I think that’s a very different story.

  3. Dragan Says:

    With my research on Geocities I could consider myself an archeologist. My days consist of trying to understand things that nobody cared or had the chance to write down or publish, for example Yahoo’s apparently horrible server configuration, the chaotic process of copying the data by the Archive Team from outside of Yahoo, and ultimately the ideas of the users that created these web pages. I need to be very careful with every decision I make because they may limit the stories than can be uncovered in what seems like a pile of trash.

    And feel as well that Jussi Parikka’s ideas do not tangent me at all. Of course a computing environment that is based on the ideals of the free software movement is an ultimate goal, and I totally support it. However, this only possibly affects a distant future. Archeology is about the past, and in the past we find black boxes all along. And the fact that and how they acted like black boxes formed computing culture. We cannot hack into them and “understand” them today and through this change history and archaeology. The opposite, it would probably generate a wrong image of the past.

    Writing computing history is very hard because of black boxes and the mind-boggling speed of planned obsolescence. If everything would change from today on and humankind would only use publicly documented systems and storage, be this info made available by hackers or other means, archaeology would get much easier for sure, and that’s about it.

    This does not, however, fix historians obsession with objects and artifacts, which is problematic when thinking about computing culture, which is more about practices than artifacts. From the view of the machine, as Anders already pointed out, it doesn’t matter if a bit is set one way or the other, no state of the machine or all machines is a surprise. It may only a surprise for the users. To be able to learn from computing history, practices have to be conserved and continued. Hacking and reverse engineering is just one of these trajectories, and should never be regarded as the superior one. — And I strongly believe that if “the academics” would have engaged in some hacking and reverse engineering themselves, they would understand it. Doing it can make you feel incredibly empowered, but can lead to the delusion that it is a key to everything. However, I do not think that the greatest hacking effort is worth more than a teenager’s first blog post or a grannies screensaver setup with photos of her grandchildren. While a single hacker may create something that gets used by lots of users, the users outnumber the hacker in their practice and ultimately in creativity (given that the hacker didn’t create some braindead iPhone app).

    This is a perspective I would like to hear from “academia”. Instead, the future primate of understanding computing culture will be the hacker, the single genius that through passion and smartness creates culture for others. Hackers are the way to becoming the ruling class of everything, as culture becomes increasingly computerized on all levels and this development brings with itself the idea that everything is definite and enumerable, and there are experts to call if you need to know something about it.

    There are two ways for archaeology to prevent this boring development, and both need to be employed at the same time:

    1. Taking black boxes as black boxes and understanding them, with pride, as black boxes. Do not limit the interpretation of computing history to the hacker perspective. Use “dumb archiving”, meaning: do not select, do not try to rate relevance, decide as little as possible, take as much as you can get. E.g., instead of conceptualizing system setups, just copy everything and throw it into the best emulator available. Worse is better.

    2. Learn to hack, but understand it as something very usual. Every other manifesto that underlines the importance of learning to hack instead of actually learning to hack is only giving more relevance to this particular cultural technique.

    Now I am going back to Geocities, removing random tracking codes from millions of HTML files that do not even validate as HTML. To be able to do this I “hacked” something together, but I did not do it to understand tracking codes and the inner workings of Yahoo, but to make it possible for me to understand what Geocities users were doing and thinking and envisioning and what their role in computing culture might have been — Computing Culture, not Computer Culture.

    • goto80 Says:

      Thanks for the mega comment!

      I guess archiving can be very closely related to archeology. That when you research something, you also affect it. But I guess that kind of quant theoretical (?) thing also applies to most sciences. You can’t just describe something objectively and perfect. But you can try, of course.

      Studying old tech in particular, there is quite a tension between history/constructivism and realism/objectivism. I’ve been trying to make sense of my own wild combination of platform studies and social constructivism; If it’s not possible to describe a computer without “the human trait” and if a computer is not an extension of man but an object in its own right, then atleast I seem to end up in some sort of mysticism. Cosmic computing? What I presented in Stuttgart was the early thoughts of that. You should’ve been there!

      I’m trapped inbetween some sort of emotional machine fetishism of “wow dude” and the more political perspective where collective uses of the computer is more important than the object itself “social, man”. Tricky shit.

      Anyway. I agree that hacking should be considered as a natural thing. I get a really bad feeling about articles like http://www.nextnature.net/2012/10/illiterate-kids-learn-to-hack-tablet-computers-with-no-outside-help/ where it’s supposedly totally amazing that illiterate kids hack computers…

  4. goto80 Says:

    I was mailing with Jussi Parikka and he said:

    “Thanks for posting these, important topics! I guess in general, what our stuff comes down is trying to understand planned obsolescence as a practice that is objectionable because of its detrimental ecological implications and tie in with consumerist logic on the level of design.

    Hence, thinking about the afterlife of media, and in relation to Sterling’s dead media, we wanted to pitch the idea of zombie media: how to actively, in community settings and with low tech ways too to think old/abandoned technology. The links to media archaeology come perhaps even clearer in my What is Media Archaeology.”

  5. When Misuse of Technology is a Bad Thing | CHIPFLIP Says:

    […] purposes per se and we can never fully understand how it works and what it can do. To say that this is a zombie media or this is unlimited computing is, from a strict materialist perspective, equally irrelevant. It […]

  6. New Media is More Obsolete than Old Media | CHIPFLIP Says:

    […] is another popular word. I’ve written about this many times before, for example in relation to zombie media. Let’s put it like this: new media is permeated with planned obsolescence. Old media is not. […]

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