Dead Media Research Lab

THE PROBLEM: How to creatively repurpose and reuse electronic waste.

Electronic Waste

The ubiquity of computing and the rapidly increasing capabilities of microprocessors and consumer electronics have created an explosion of obsolete media technologies in contemporary culture. In the United States, about 400 million units of consumer electronics are discarded every year. Electronic waste, like obsolete cellular telephones, computers, monitors, and televisions, compose the fastest growing portion of waste in American society. Additionally, the FCC-mandated transition to digital television in February 2009 will accelerate this trend of obsolescence, with consumers expected to discard large numbers of old analog televisions that are not capable of receiving digital-only signals. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that two-thirds of all discarded consumer electronics still work. As a result of rapid technology change, low initial cost and planned obsolescence, approximately 250 million functioning TVs, VCRs, cell phones, computers and monitors are discarded each year in the United States.

The Dead Media Research Lab begins with the 250 million media technologies that are discarded each year and proposes creative research into the intelligent repurposing and reuse of these devices. The lab's goal is to rethink and challenge the mindset of “planned obsolescence" of consumer electronics. In addition, the lab believes that studying historical forms of media is useful in understanding the dynamics of how older communication technologies shift, change and remediate over time. This project is motivated by the following themes:

  1. Environmental information technology. By developing methodologies and products for repurposing media technologies that would normally be discarded, we reduce the amount of waste in landfills, incinerators or shipped overseas. Electronic waste is toxic waste, often including chlorinated solvents, brominated flame retardants, PVC, heavy metals, plastics and gases. It is estimated that about 40% of the heavy metals in American landfills - including lead, mercury and cadmium - come from discarded electronic equipment. Creatively repurposing and reusing e-waste is a low-cost method of extending the life of media technologies, and is an important research activity. This lab encourages environmental activism and embraces the banner of “green information technology."
  2. Community and artistic production. Media technologies are continually repurposed by users. Specific communities repurpose obsolete technologies in especially innovative ways, including circuit benders and DIY practitioners. Although electronic waste is already an issue addressed by legal, bureaucratic, and manufacturing efforts, this lab approaches the repurposing of e-waste as a significant challenge that is aided by unconventional thinking and local community practices. Artistic and community practices have a long history through the 20th Century of repurposing readymade objects into unusual and interesting combinations: these approaches are useful in repurposing obsolete information technologies and in uncovering the rich layers of cultural history wrapped up in obsolete objects. This lab encourages the creative production of prototypes, artworks and products as a method of reuse, and embraces the media arts, community practices, tactical media, and critical design in the process.
  3. Innovation through analysis of media history. The history of obsolete information technology is fruitful ground for unearthing innovative projects that floundered due to a mismatch between technology and socioeconomic contexts. Because social and economic variables continually shift through time, forgotten histories and archaeologies of media provide a wealth of useful ideas for contemporary development. In other words, the history of technological obsolescence is cheap R&D that offers fascinating seeds of development for those willing to dig through it. This lab encourages the study of obsolescence and reuse in media history as a foundation for understanding the dynamics of media change.

The problem of outdated, unwanted electronics is huge - and growing still. This lab tackles the issue of technological obsolescence through innovative interdisciplinary research that combines Information & Computer Science, History of Technology, Studio Arts, Media Theory, Visual Studies, Comparative Media Studies and Cultural & Critical Theory.

It is proposed that this research group initially focuses on studying, reengineering and reusing cellular telephones, cathode ray tube displays / televisions, personal computers, while keeping a scholarly eye on historic media technologies. Although accessibility and democratization of information technology is an important field of research, the proliferation of mobile and computing technologies has radically shifted a concern into how to deal with the ubiquity of information technology: our mission is to explore the environmental and social benefits of reuse through creative hardware, software and scholarly development.

RELATED WORK: Environmental information technology

E-Waste PSA from Ian Lynam.

Poisoning the poor - Electronic Waste in Ghana from Greenpeace Thailand.

RELATED WORK: Community and artistic production

Reware, Hans-Christoph Steiner
(Also: Eyebeam Sustainability Research Group)

xDesign Environmental Health Clinic + Lab, Natalie Jeremijenko, NYU

Feral Robotic Dogs, Natalie Jeremijenko

Dorkbot Beat-Bike Makes Beats While You Ride (Chicago)

Paul DeMarinis, Stanford,

RELATED WORK: Innovation through analysis of media history

I am currently working on a book length project titled "The Dead Media Handbook: Tactics for Media Artists" based on my doctoral dissertation in Visual Studies (Media Theory & History) at the University of California Irvine advised by Mark Poster and Peter Krapp. I expect to be done the dissertation in 2009, with the book manuscript drafted in 2010. This project takes an inverted stance to new media studies by looking at contemporary media artists that intentionally use "dead" media - outdated and obsolete information technologies - in their work. In the process, I use these example as tools to understand the dynamics of reuse and how older forms of communication technology shift and transform over time. I strive to provide a critical theory of a cluster of related activities, including circuit bending, D.I.Y., and media archaeology.

The approach I take is to understand digital culture as a contested, complex, and dynamic field. This area of research is more than a progressive improvement from previous communication technologies or paradigm break from the past: media technologies continually appropriate and remediate, find new and unexpected uses, and combine in novel ways that makes linear predictions futile. Granted, digital technologies have drastically shifted cultural modes of production, consumption and communication, but positioning these technologies as revolutionary "new media" runs the risk of historical amnesia. This forgetting of the past excludes nuanced contexts within a complex ecology of media. Technology is not linear progression of improvement: it has a cyclical codependence with culture that is socially embedded.

Traditional methods of history tend to leave out highly interesting "inessentials" during the construction of narratives that follow strictly linear biographical, theoretical or commercially successful trajectories. A glaring example is the history of technologically engaged art, which is largely absent from the canon of art history. The margins of history - often existing as scattered texts, obscure systems, and failed approaches - reveal cultural aspirations, technological dreams, and obsolete paths of thought that are important objects of study. The study of these objects reveals the local stories and subjugated knowledges that have been edited out or suppressed in the construction of a formal body of discourse.

A focus on the newness of media also downplays the discarded artifacts of the information age. Electronic waste, as a topic, has recently become an important theme from a social, environmental, and technological perspective. The ubiquity of computing (Weiser, 1991) and its consistent acceleration (Moore, 1965) has combined with consumer culture to produce an exponential growth of obsolete media technologies. As a result, studying specific examples of reusing, repurposing, and remixing of obsolete information technologies is an important task in constructing tactics of remediation.

A Collection of Many Problems (In Memory of the Dead Media Handbook)

As of September 2009, I published A Collection of Many Problems (In Memory of the Dead Media Handbook) as a visual introduction to media archaeology and an artistic interpretation of what a "Dead Media Handbook" might look like. The bookwork strives to explore Bruce Sterling's original 1995 vision of the handbook, and invites others to submit their own visions of the proposed text.

Some additional texts

The Dead Media Project, Categorical Listing of Working Notes

(List from

As-yet unclassified
"Childrens" media
Mechanical calculating or measuring (is this media?!)
18th/19th century contrivances with foolish names (usually inventor ego-stroking)
Electrical/electronic aural
Electrical/electronic symbolic information systems including codes
Electrical/electronic tele-communications (non-internet)
Electrical/electronic visual
Electrical/electronic writing systems (broadly defined)
Obviously foolish technology misuse (aka boy-with-hammer syndrome)
Historical revisionism
Victims of Moore's Law
Non or pre-computer technological symbolic machinery
Non-electrical/electronic aural
Non-electrical/electronic visual
Pre-industrial-age communication
Physical transport "media" (movement of objects)
Writing systems (NOTA)
Not 'dead media'
Electronic computers and calculators
Thomas Alva Edison
Internet related (tread carefully here)
The magic-lantern and variants
Camera obscura and variants
Panorama (more of a cultural phenomenon than a medium, per se)
Photography and non-electrical/electronic still-image recording and reproduction
Pigeons pigeons pigeons!
Pneumatic tubes
Sirens and large-scale public aural signals
Electronic musical

Garnet Hertz (2009) -