Obsolescence as Cultural Production

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Thinking about this topic often reminds me of a section of Invisible Cities, where Marco Polo is describing a city to Kubla Kahn in which its center is made of the latest, most expensive and impressive pieces of technology. This city is also composed of rings around the center, each layer containing the most recent detritus of the closest inner province. Marco Polo suggests that Kubla Kahn’s entire empire is just a succession of rings that surround the center of this magnificent mythical city.

The above video is an observation of a service repairman fixing a payphone I made while waiting for the subway in Chicago. My initial thought was that this fixing was somehow a superfluous action of maintaining an obsolete mode of communication; I thought, “who uses payphones anymore?” In the age of massive telecommunications cellular networks—flooded with iPhones, G1‘s, and Blackberry’s—information (or staying within the grid) is more readily available by 3G technologies and mobile architectures than even a year ago. However, I felt as though the cyber-optimist in me was too quick to acknowledge the real-life fact that the grid does not reach as far and as wide as one would hope.

That being said, it made me want to address “obsolete” practices. Obsolescence as a mode of cultural production has many manifestations: hardware hacking, media reclaiming, data bending, etc. But I think the most compelling part of this type of practice is the politics of reclamation. In using “obsolete media,” artists and craftsmen/craftswomen alike inherently are making a statement concerning consumer electronics/economics and the growing problem of digital waste. I like to think that work of this kind makes a statement similar to the idea that, “We already have everything we need, we just don’t know it.” With works like Paul Slocum’s synthcart made from reprogramming Atarai 2600′s, and Christoph Hess’s sound performance installations/performances, we see obsolete media being performed, used, and reclaimed to create new and innovative procedures to reconsidering how to still engage with “old media.”

Obsolescence also comments on the issue of Hacking; taking something that had an original design and repurposing it for a different use (like the above projects show). The way in which we address the issues of Hacking and Hackers in mainstream media is certainly an outdated, obsolete way of thinking. Perhaps it is needless to say, but Hackers are far from the conventional stereotype of basement-dwelling malicious computer programmers that pilfer precious digital information from the government and exploit networks to steal our identities. I prefer (if it isn’t already obvious) to consider Hacking, and “The Hack,” as an appropriate metaphor for contemporary cultural production in general. McKenzie Wark uses Hackers and the act of hacking (in his A Hacker Manifesto) as an apt metaphor for an emergent class of cultural producers. Their efforts (and hopefully all our efforts), aim to undo the proprietary captivity of what he calls “vectors of information,” which ensnare us in the trap of perpetual oppression from traditional frameworks of power and capital. Hacking—and using obsolete media—speak to a need of renegotiating the terms of how we interact with our media technology. The planned obsolescence of our telecommunication gadgets (which a far beyond the point of merely being “toys”) force us into perpetual modes of consumption. Reusing/misusing technology that is no longer in maintenance provides a creative and wonderful outlet for reorganizing the methods of technological participation. It could be said that the model of consumerism that we typically abide by is obsolete; in the growing avalanche of change, we could use a bit of stability.

Perhaps this post brings me back to the idea of Play. A hack is not simply a reprogram, or a break in a system; it can circumvent the potential problems of a closed system and open it up to new possibilities. In doing so, a hack often renders the initial intended mode uninteresting and stale. In an interesting turn of creativity, hacking can reveal that the only thing obsolete about an object or an idea is our perception and our acceptance of its provisional use. Hacking destabilizes, recontextualizes, refreshes, reformats, updates, and very simply picks apart and rebuilds. Likewise, Play deals with turning something static into something viscous. It could be said that Play and hacking are interchangeable/interwoven paths and histories essential to media creation and involvement.


  1. kidNeutrino says:

    I share your love for ‘re-inventing’ the use of familiar technologies. I use the term familiar very directly here. I am not sure I see many of these systems as obsolescent. Obsolescence is tied to the systems of material culture and the ‘cult of the expert’(take that Prof. Keen). Instead of obsolescence my perspective is that these materials, practices, and platforms are familiar:
    Of or pertaining to one’s family or household.

    I am saying they are well-distributed both economically and materially. They are also understood intimately by the public through an infinite number of user tests and proven utility. A well known example of a necessary embrace of this culture of reuse and the positive effects it can generate is found in Cuba (for the moment anyhow). The cultural and economic marginalization of the Cuban state have proven that necessity truly can be the incubator of a very creative intelligent society.

    As an artist embedded in the hype and hoo-Ha of Techno-Utopia (Bay Area), I always appreciate the use of well-embedded systems This sets up a condition to easily and cheaply set-up a bricolage with audience of expert user-producers.

    Neighborhood Public Radio is one such project locally which has demonstrated the power of this idea. The early work to set up local FM radio broadcasts and the more recent public workshops building low wattage VHF television have served the public in compelling ways. First, by the democratization of broadcast mediums and establishing network ideals in the pre-Net technologies. This is an act of political protest and it encourages a local, meaningful dialogue. It also has armed a league of concerned citizenry as expert broadcasters so experiment can mushroom beyond NPR’s local time and space.

    Reply

    kidNeutrino Reply:

    The project I mentioned in the last paragraph is a low wattage VHF transmitter workshop. Sorry for any confusion.

    Reply

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