Assistant Professor of Digital Environments and the University of Michigan’s School of Information Finn Brunton conducts research on the social history of technology and is currently finishing his book The Spew: A History of Spam, set to be published in 2012. His interest in “dead, obsolete, failed, and experimental media” led him to assemble the Dead Media Archive and teach a class on Media Archaeology at NYU in 2010.
In a presentation given at a USENIX event, Brunton outlines his motivations for constructing the archive and speaks to its utility in contributing to how we conceive of the media of the future. He opens by encouraging his audience not to think of technology’s evolution as a story of linear “teleological progress,” but rather as a “Cambrian Explosion” of alternate methods of dealing with related social issues such as communication, entertainment, and the organization of knowledge. He stresses the importance of recognizing “obsolete [or] failed” technologies as offering a “fund of alternatives” for the ways we may use technology in the future. Older technologies may be absorbed by newer ones or may be used as “handrails” to make newer technologies seem more comprehensible to its users (Brunton cites the example of phones with camera capability making the sound of a shutter closing when one takes a picture, despite the fact that the sound has nothing to do with the mechanism of the camera phone itself). At the same time, Brunton cautions against trusting that newer technologies are necessarily “better” or more advanced. He references the BBC’s decision to copy the contents of the 900-year old Domesday Book onto a micro CD-ROM in the early nineties; the electronic copy is now unreadable by modern computers, but the original Domesday Book compiled for William the Conquerer may still be read.
In an interview on the social history of technology, Brunton directly addresses the limiting notion that technology has advanced linearly until the present day and will continue to do so in a predictable fashion in the future. Instead, as he reminds his audience in the USENIX presentation, “we are not smarter than everyone who will come after us.” Our task is to build on the “fund of alternatives” offered by past technologies and to facilitate future building by rendering present technologies as accessible as possible, recognizing we may not know in what direction future technologies will move.
Brunton specifically addresses social challenges which have emerged through the “grand experiment in openness” which constitutes the present-day internet in the hazards of spam, shortcomings of social media sites such as Facebook, and discrimination issues within imageboard website groups like 4chan. In an interview on “the unintended consequences of spam,” Brunton holds that while spam can pose real threats to privacy and security, its looming threat has fostered a sense of community in those it affects and serves as a “driver of innovation” by exerting a “kind of natural stress on media systems.” Similarly, he identifies Facebook’s consistent issues with “privacy and data management” as being the impetus for new startups’ efforts to create a more nuanced social media experience which better reflects users’ real-life interactions (“New Networks Target Discomfort With Facebook,” NPR).
Brunton also considers contradictory internal power politics of groups at least nominally devoted to ideals of “anarchism and libertarianism,” such as 4chan and Anonymous (for more on the hacker group Anonymous, Gabriella Coleman’s analysis is available here). In a panel on “The Politics of User-Generated Content,” Brunton calls attention to the friction between stated policies of openness and inclusion and a desire to maintain group “cohesion” by restricting members. He admits he is “filled with despair when thinking about managing the gender equity problems on 4chan…off the scale misogyny and homophobia.” He likens groups like 4chan and Anonymous that market themselves as promoting a new era of collective action and mobilization to “many US movements in the 60s, where end goals might be admirable but internal movement politics are deeply misogynist.” Though he does not paint a definitive picture of “what shape a non-hate-laden Anonymous would take,” he emphasizes the urgency of addressing the social contexts of “oppressions and violence” in which these groups operate. New media may facilitate novel ways to approach goals of greater openness and collective mobilization, but one must be critical of the “toxic environments” new media groups may create.