Rethinking Decay in the Media Lab by Kyle Bickoff

This post marks my first post in what I intend as a series of posts on items in both the Media Archaeology Lab (MAL) at the University of Colorado and at Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) at the University of Maryland. I am currently a PhD student in English Literature at the University of Maryland, and I was previously a student at the University of Colorado, where I completed my Master’s degree in English Literature, and where I worked as Lab Manager of the Media Archaeology Lab and worked for the Archives and Special Collections Department on digital and manuscript collections. While I am writing about systems at MITH in these posts, they are all machines that the MAL maintains in its collections, or closely related machines.

When I decided to sit down and write this post, I encountered one issue, which I seem to encounter continually when working with legacy media: decay. When I chose to work with the Commodore Amiga 1000 (July 1985, $1295 + $300 monitor) I found that this system, which I have previously used before (only about a month or so ago) for advanced tasks such as writing musical scores (very basic scores in my case) is no longer working for this task, or any tasks for that matter.

Amiga 1000

Commodore Amiga 1000 (July 1985, $1295 + $300 monitor)

When I sat down to use the system, the monitor was quite hot—some quick guesswork, based on the horizontal lines on screen leads me to believe that the monitor has been left on a very long time (as long as weeks or months?) and that it has been damaged. I was in a graduate class last semester that used many of these systems for final projects—while I assume none of my peers would have made such an error, I certainly can’t rule that out. This problem of breakage, and continual breakage, remains a major issue for media labs and technology museums alike.

An error on-screen of this sort can frustrate any user—but if I address this issue through a media archaeology approach, this disruption begins to reveal the inner-workings of the system, not the visible damage alone. When I sit down in front of a machine intending to interact with the software—by means of a game or utility, for example—I am instead forced to interact with the hardware.


The image of the Cathode Ray Tube shows us exactly how electrons are fired horizontally across a screen, line by line, until an image is formed on screen. Nick Montfort coined the term, “screen essentialism,” which tells us that our visual experience can privilege our understanding of “the digital.” But in this case, it becomes clear that we can’t remain screen essentialists when we have no screen. If a screen essentialist discards the entire system (system, mouse, keyboard, screen) to purchase a new setup, then the system inquisitor (if that is the opposite of a screen essentialist) would seek to use this moment to extend his or her understanding of the entire system. This moment of disruption becomes a point of research and education.

While most average tech-users of the current day know a handful of individuals who simply buy a new device when the old-system breaks, this is an oversimplication of our current situation—there is a strong resistance to this sort of lifestyle. As average users become more knowledgeable about their tech, there is a growing tendency to not simply toss the old device, but to open it up and attempt to diagnose the problem. While fixing the devices ourselves is not always a practical solution, it certainly can be. When my last phone, a Samsung Galaxy S3 went into infinite reboot mode, I looked up the way to quickly root my phone and reinstall a custom Android ROM. When this failed to provide a long-term fix, I bought a secondhand device with a cracked screen, and swapped the circuit-board and battery in my own device for that in the damaged, cracked model. This phone lasted another two years—an entire second lifetime in the smartphone world.

While this may seem like a bit of a gander—I believe we’re currently at something of a turning point in technology, and something we can see by looking back in the past with a particular interest in media archaeology. I believe that we’re at a point where the current technology manufacturing leaders (Apple and Samsung, among others) have maximized, or nearly maximized, the amount of black-boxed handheld devices on the market. As Lori Emerson has explained this trend, “The black box hides the complexity so we can concentrate on other complicated problems for which the output of the black box is input,” where devices such as iPhones and Macbooks cannot be opened without breaking a seal, voiding a warranty, or buying a customized special tool. Apple, possibly the worst culprit for “blackboxing” continues to do so. But now new devices, such as the Samsung Galaxy S7 are beginning to reverse this trend—Samsung is putting microSD slots back into their best-selling line of devices.[1] Apple is accepting more trade-in devices under new warranty terms, as some speculate Apple’s revenues are damaged by growing 3rd-party screen-repair businesses and the secondhand markets of the likes eBay or Craigslist.[2] Raspberry Pi devices sell as well as ever (a DIY computer, often used by developers), and the DIY development community is stronger than ever. 3-D printers are now becoming very affordable, with non-name brands now available for as little as $350[3]; even children’s toy makers, such as Mattel, are shifting the toy manufacturing to the kids[4]—as the 3-D printer becomes the toy and children start their own miniature toy-factories. As I noted earlier—the moment of disruption becomes a point of research and education—I believe the increasing number of disruption-moments in our present technology-era means an increasing number of points to entice us to research and educate ourselves on these problems. What can we learn from the past? I can’t speak definitively to this question, but perhaps by looking into the damaged technology of the past, we can better view the technology disruptions of our present and imagine the way we might break, fix, and then re-build the devices of our future.

Kyle Bickoff is a PhD Student at the University of Maryland and works as Site Manager for Romantic Circles, a refereed scholarly website devoted to Romantic-period literature. 

See or follow him @KyleBickoff 






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