New Media is More Obsolete than Old Media

Cory Arcangel, Golan Levin and others have done some great work to retrieve old Amiga graphics that Andy Warhol made back in the day. This is some great work! And I think it’s great that the Amiga gets some attention in terms of computer creativity instead of the constant Apple-ism. But.. what kind of attention is it?

Many artists, media scholars and journalists have a special way of talking about old media. The term hacking usually pops up. Even if you just download software and use it in a very normal way – like most chip music is made for example – we still love to call it hacking. But why? There are several possible explanations. First – we love to believe that humans are in control of technology and that fantasy can flourish with these old and supposedly non-user-friendly machines. Human intelligence can tame even this uncivilized digital beast! Secondly – the term hacking oozes creativity and innovation and has become an omnipotent term used for almost everything.

Obsolescence 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. Amigas were not designed to be obsolete after a few years like so many modern platforms, systems and programs are. So from our current perspective it seems totally incredible that these old floppy disks and file formats can still be used. Because we’re not used to that anymore. Most people don’t know how easy it is to copy that floppy to a flash card and view the images with UAE or even Photoshop.

It’s also common to think of old media as fragile. But then why do nuclear missiles rely on 8″ floppies? Why do so many airports use DOS, matrix printers and Hi8 video? Why did Sony sell 12 million 3.5″ floppies in 2009?Why did so many gabber/noise people use the Amiga for live shows? Because these things are stable, sturdy and built to last. And because it’s expensive to change it, sure, but the point is: old media is clearly not as fragile as many people seem to think.

To summarize this discourse we can say that 8-bit users are hacking media that is fragile and obsolete. While there is obviously some truth to that statement, a general adaptation of it rests on some pretty problematic ideological assumptions that we all need to relate to in order to get by in a consumer culture. For example:

“New media is better than old media because in technology, change = progress”.

I think we can all be more careful with how we discuss old media in order to move away from this dangerous misunderstanding. I know that there are many contexts where that is not suitable, possible or meaningful. But technological change oozes with politics and it doesn’t have to be conservative or retro-cool to criticize or reject the new. So bring it on, hipster!


6 Responses to “New Media is More Obsolete than Old Media”

  1. Marilou Polymeropoulou Says:

    I think “hacking” has become more socialised – it’s very appropriate to use the term, esp. when it comes to using any object in an unconventional way.

    I like the point about Amiga not being designed to become obsolete – but I wonder whether this is because the making ideology of the ’70s and ’80s was to make more sustainable machines (that will last in time), rather than make something that will be useful for a year or so which will be replaced by something new – also called “disruptive innovation”, see Christensen’s work for this).

  2. drxb2k Says:

    Ha, great how you use ‘old’ and ‘new’ media just for different generations of computers.

    But on the point of obsolescence, I don’t know why ‘old media’, maybe up to the NeXT computer, have been totally over-engineered on sturdiness. (I have a C SX64 that is probably indestructible.) However I like to think that the principles of computing have been understood much more universally in that time. We have to remember that concepts like multitasking, Model/Controller/View, object orientation, GUI, digitizer/pen input, 3D graphics, etc have been around since the 1970’s the latest. Since the 1980’s, these things have been available to home users, with ever more powerful machines. And still, in 2014, I am supposed to be amazed that a computer runs several GUI applications at the same time:

    How did they do that, it is only one thing, but can do two things???ß

    ‘New Media’, in the classic sense, as a field of study and also including old computers, have always shape-shifted, that’s why they are called ‘unstable’, ‘variable’, etc. Even a C64 can get a GUI via GEOS, even a Macintosh can be installed Linux on. But this shape-shifting goes on inside the computer. Giving the computer a new physical appearance, a new ‘style’ every few months helps to create the illusion of progress, while in fact the same properties and ideas of computing are rotated for decades already. The fragility of ‘new’ computers on the hardware and the software level is purely self-imposed, an invented, entertaining story, a rush of the new.

    (This explains the stubbornness of Windows XP users: Why should they switch their operating system? To get new viruses?)

    Coming from that, since current culture is so used to this monkey dance of fragility and obsolescence, it tends to interpret past computing histories from the current point of view. This is like applying Google-like big data analysis to Geocities homepages, artifacts created when such a culture didn’t even exist. Or, today calling typical 8 bit kids ‘hackers’, when programming was just the normal (or only) thing to do with an 8 bit home computer. ‘Real hackers’ (bunch of elitist longbeards) wouldn’t consider these kids hackers at that time.

    This is all anti-historical culture, and mainly prevents users from building and successfully maintaining a culture of their own.

  3. Linda Says:

    I’m not one to call the use of old media/consoles “hacking” but I do have an suggestion as to why some do so.

    Many programs on older systems lack a good interface. The programmer wants to have something achieved, spends hours on the functionality, debugging it until it works. And when it works the deed is done and the functionality is released into the wild.

    But it only works in the precise circumstances the programmer worked: you need to have the same setup, the same versions of facilitating software, the same settings, sometimes you even need to setup the whole development environment to get it to work. To know what you need, you’ll have to go at least through a readme file and gather more information depending on your experience. Maybe even need to call in additional help as not always the documentation is provided either. And yes, then it starts to feel like hacking.

    Nowadays’s software is all about interface. You can slide, click, scroll, talk with the functionality. It’s more a finished product. Even installation software (very dominant in the 90’s and 00’s) is becoming obsolete; it seems to be just a matter of downloading and switching it on. The user friendliness is much bigger.

  4. goto80 Says:

    Marilou: Yes, hacking is often used in a very broad sense. But it seems to me that things like lifehacking has broadened the term in absurdum. Is it hacking to plant a seed?

    drx: In a sense, it probably makes more sense to talk about different types of computers, rather than different eras of computers. When looking at the machines themselves, I mean. Especially now when new lo-fi machines are built. Talking about new and old media is silly, but it gets the point across. Maybe. And yes – this so called “digital culture” is fundamentally ahistorical and arrogant.

    Linda: “User-friendly” interfaces has indeed hidden much of the complexities that users once had to know about. But it’s there. I think it’s easy to say that this is “better” or “more finished” but if we say that it’s “different” or “more abstract” then we can start another kind of discussion. Is it really an improvement that hardware/software at the low level is so difficult to explore these days?

  5. Linda Says:

    I can’t judge and say what’s an improvement, totally depends on the enduser and what someone wants to do with the system ;-p (many people don’t want to be at the lower levels so whether it is easy for them to explore it or not is then an irrelevant question. For security reasons it might be good that lower levels are a big mystery; you don’t want a n00b to remove the foundation of a carefully build stack that is your endsystem)

    Going back at the initial question “why is the term hacking so liked?” (a little rephrasing if I can be so free) and a wild idea while trying to choose the right words for an enourmous (but now deleted) reply: because the word is a verb. It does something. It does something cool, you can visualise something with it (ok, an axe and a piece of wood, now impossible to find with google anymore). For people not within the computer world it is something they can relate to.

    Someone needs to word some things in a documentary. About a bunch of people retrieving some files from a computer system not used anymore. How would you call that? “doing smething techical”? “doing something (for me) difficult on a computer”? “doing something only experts can do”? uuuhhhh… “hacking”?

    I think the people involved in this discussion are all too biased because they know what they are talking about. Fo anyone who doesn’t know what’s going on, the term “hacking” first the activity quite well. It’s obscure, mysterious and the nerds like it.

    In relation to the movieclip provided: an artist makes art, a computer nerd hacks. Both have their expertise and of both we don’t really know what they are actually doing. Balance established ;)

  6. Linda Says:

    “hey, he’s got three eyes”
    “what is it???”
    Ï..I..II….I think I euheuheh” points, points points ” euh,..”
    “do you know what it is???”
    “that’s euh, that an uh, …….that’s an artwork!!”

    See, point proved ;-p Nerds know no art, artists know no nerd(ismitistics) and call it “hacking”

    (yeah I know that that was all because of excitement ;) )

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