Review: Eric Kluitenberg, ed. – Book of imaginary media

On: September 20, 2010
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About Erik van Bemmelen
I am a student of the New Media Master at the University of Amsterdam. My main academic interests are the new online business models around production, distribution and consumption of culture in general and music in particular. My goal is to make a living out of downloading music.


“Communication media are endowed with a nearly sacred capacity for qualitative transformation of human relationships. Many of the limitations of everyday life, especially the trappings of interpersonal communication, are to be alleviated by technological apparatuses that promise seamless and immediate connection.”

The Book of imaginary media: excavating the dream of the ultimate communication medium (2006) explicity deals with imaginary media. These are the potential or possible media, or as its editor Eric Kluitenberg calls it: “dreamed media”. In this sense, the book is not easy to judge on an academic level. It does not consist of theories with grounded arguments that can be dissected and counter argued. However, we can judge if the stories and lineages the book presents are valid and relevant. The book looks into the possibilities of “how human communication can be reshaped by means of machines” (p. 8). Quite a tall order, if you ask me. It does so by examining the imagined media.

The editor of the book is Eric Kluitenberg, who was a teacher in the New Media Master and is now working as the head of the Media Department at De Balie, both in Amsterdam. Next to writing the much needed introduction and conclusion to provide the articles with context, he also writes one text himself. Most of the articles that he has asked the writers to provide, are a direct result of presentations the writers respectively gave at De Balie.

All the articles belong to an emerging field of study called media archaeology. In existence for ten years, it tries to research new media via lineages by looking at phenomena that transcend specific historical contexts. What they have found is that you see the same media imaginaries appearing, disappearing and reappearing every once in a while. In this way the researchers find new paths in history, that have always been there but are seen clearly now for the time. By looking at the past imaginaries, they hope find “less hazardous roads into the future” (p. 14)

One of the writers that provides an article is the famous science fiction writer Bruce Sterling. He looks into “dead” media: the media of the past that for whatever reason have become obsolete. These are realized media that failed, with imaginary histories that could have been developed if the media hadn’t failed. That’s why he started the Dead Media Project in 1995, to archive the media that are gone and forgotten (you can read an interview with Sterling on the Dead Media Project here). According to Sterling, digital media die even faster than any previous kind of media. A well-known example is MS-DOS, which used to be very popular but nowadays is rare and outdated. Next to media that were popular, there were thousands of media that never made a lasting impression. With a feeling for dramatic expression, Sterling describes: “The holocaust is all around us now.” (p. 59) He then goes on to make a strong point for the very real and not imaginary problems that come with preserving and archiving digital media.

Another writer, Siegfriend Zielinski, distinguishes three categories of imaginary media. The first category is untimely media. These media were designed much too late or much too early, but have been realized at some point in time. Then we have the conceptual media, which only exist on paper and were never actually built. Impossible media, the truest form of imaginary media, are machines that could never be built, but have an impact on our thinking of actual media nonetheless. This categorization shows that the studies of imaginary media that are undertaken in this book don’t have to be very practical or have some predictive quality: as long as they trigger the mind to think about media and communication, it’s fine.

Next to the articles, the book offers a nice feature: at the top of every page there is a timeline. Starting in 360 B.C. with Plato, there are chronically ordered examples of imaginary media. This fits nicely into the whole lineage approach the media archaeologists tend to take in general. Some of the examples are amusing because they are or totally fantastic or strangely prophetic. Like the futuristic photographer Anton Giulio Bragaglia, who in 1913 writes about a phone which transmits images through which you can see the soul of the other person, whether they are close or not. Examples like this are as prophetic as they are ridiculous.

As a reader, this has to be your cup of tea. The genre might be called science fiction, and that alone means the book is acquired taste. Overall, the articles bundled here stay on point and don’t get too “dreamy”. The difficulty in predicting the future and judging those predictions, is in the fact that the future is yet unknown. Maybe in ten years we will look back on some of these articles and think of them as genius, prophetic masterpieces. The book sure does work as a thought experiment and may give us some insights on how communication media will continue to evolve.

All in all, I think the story this book is telling, is more suited for, how ironic, a different medium. The fact that the book comes with a DVD to provide visual support and examples also points to this. This book is connected to the events and presentations at De Balie on the subject, and it has to be said that the story suits this form better. Imaginary stories for children, like fairytales, are often illustrated, and a more flamboyant presentation of this content would suit the message. The stories are sometimes so extravagant that they deserve another medium. It feels like reading about an art project and exhibition, but not being able to visit it. That being said, the book does serve as a fine survey of what the field of Media Archaeology stands for and it gets the reader to think about what the future of communication media might bring us.

Kluitenberg, Eric, ed. Book of imaginary media. Excavating the dream of the ultimate communication medium. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2006.

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