Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 6#2/3 Alfred Birnbaum 1 Jan 1991



Alfred Birnbaum is an American telematic nomad and polyglot, who works as a writer, translator and artist. Most of the time he hovers around Asia.


Birnbaum -

Old Media

The notion of 'old media' at first seems to call for plotting on the simple, if quaint cultural axes of habit, nostalgia and paranoia: attachment to existing patterns of usage, longing for past grammars of behaviour, fear of displacement through redundancy. A triadic ménagehinging on physical analogues, most typically on corporeality itself – the sensate love of the 'non-obsolete body' against the virtual coming of a virtual world. There is something to be said for getting your hands dirty.
In this regard, however reductionist, I must agree. If it's all a matter of getting screwed in the end, then go with the better class of foreplay. I continue to enjoy the direct contact of surfaces – fingertips upon bound volumes of printed paper, tom yam kung or pesto genovese upon tongue... and the rest – all augmented or diminished by a palette of sign-values and significances. But this is surely a different question: these pleasures are generally considered ends in themselves, not means, or rather, not media. Somewhere closer to target is travel, which no degree of teleconferencing or electronic mail will ever render superfluous for me – if I can afford it. Happily, a portable profession in writing and translation allows me to deduct some trips as business expenses. Which came first, the means or the ends?
Naturally, I do not claim to be consistent about these things. I choose to go places in person (whatever that means), yet cannot really get down to work (whatever that means) without a word processor. Hence I find myself lugging a laptop half way around the world as I commute between fax outposts, What kind of life is this? I ask you! (Anyone who cares to respond to that will have to find me first).
It merely goes to underscore the standard observation that no 'new medium' ever totally supplants an 'old medium'. Rarely, if ever, is the 'old medium' actively suppressed and never is its supercession immediate. Nowhere except possibly contemporary Japan, the country that truly perfected the American R&D Scheme of planned obsolescence. (Forget about Betamax, just try getting your DAT Walkman repaired in ten years time! Designed out of existence for your convenience.

1 On the flipside, Japan probably also tops the list in mass-marketed compulsive acquisition of authenticity – 'old media' as realestate. with Japan now become easily the most artificial, processed place on the face of the earth, a certain inverse fetishism was only to be

The point here, then, as I see it, is what is precisely not the point. Or at least, the question is not 'old' or 'new', 'new-old' or 'old-new', but the very purpose-specificity of 'media', things made to do things. This is what we now generally call 'design' as opposed to what used to be called 'art', before that too came to be made for museums. In other words, whereas design can most often be mapped as a problem-process-product lineal function proceeding from a grasp of a niche to be filled, most artists had no conscious realisation of what actual 'problem' they were grappling with until afterwards, if reflexivity even prevails at all. Art, on the oIher hand, was essentially aberrant behaviour – socially condoned experimentation, but so undefined as to possibly yield no benefits to society. Irreducible can mean undesirable.
Granted today's designed object or system may prove as moving as an objet d'Art or synesthetically pleasing in ways their designers never intended: communications technologies, although invented to serve very predetermined functions, are particularly prone to hijacking, as with the overwhelming sexual appropriation of French Minitel or Japanese Dengon Dial Q2telephone messageboards. Still, despite the ever-increasing tides of longer-and- broader-range media on the market, the intensive focus of designer detailing coupled to the machinations of economic share-think may ultimately make for narrowing, not expanding of possibilities for human interaction, expression and discovery. Even programming with random number series is not truly serendipitous. There is a sense that, if it has to be designed, it's already too late.
What ecology of ideas can survive a wholly designed environment? Reactionary that I am, I must say, the 'old media' I depend on most and whose future most concerns me is chance (read: humour). This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but by marketing.