Back to the Future

By  |  March 10, 2014
Emile Berliner with his invention: the phonograph machine, c. 1920, via Shutterstock Emile Berliner with his invention: the phonograph machine, c. 1920, via Shutterstock

Considering The 78 Project


As the Internet got going, in the early 1980s, futurological professionals liked to speak of “dead platforms,” archaic media rendered silent and/or invisible by the advent and ascendance of subsequent media. My own most poignant experience of a dead media platform, at that time, had been my discovery, at a swap meet in the early 1970s, of several reels of very thin, oddly brittle steel wire, the precursor to magnetic recording tape. The seller had no idea what might be recorded there, nor indeed whether the wire had ever been used. Neither the seller nor I had any idea where we might find a machine capable of playing them.

That wire stuck in my mind, and with it a certain sense of loss, mortality, mystery. It returned whenever I first encountered a new media platform. I thought of it when I first saw a tape cassette, when I first saw a compact disk, when I first saw a five-inch floppy, each destined to become a major media platform. I remembered the light rust on the rigid-looking wire, the near-impossibility of accessing whatever might have been recorded there. This became one of the fundamental ways in which I consider any emergent technology.

The futurologists were right, of course, in suggesting that whatever we were listening to music on then could, or would, become a dead platform. But it seemed to me they seldom took the next step, which was to assume that whatever platform would replace our current platform would itself be supplanted in time. Every platform would be replaced and content, I assumed, would migrate, platform to platform, as best it could, undergoing whatever degree of attrition, through accidents of history and shifts of popular taste. Curation would be more crucial than ever.

But I didn’t, then, imagine young people in the 21st century having intense relationships with vinyl records, or YouTube allowing anyone to hear virtually anything at any moment. I didn’t imagine the intricate atemporality of a more evolved digital realm. And I didn’t imagine anything like The 78 Project, in which we discover that not only are dead media platforms not dead at all, but that they can be gateways into their own peculiarly new universes of creativity.

It’s difficult, indeed practically impossible, to imagine life prior to recorded music. What recorded music we possess to today, that was played by people who themselves had not yet heard recorded music, is very different music indeed.

Once we have a medium, we become that which uses it, and what we were before is forgotten. When we move on from a media platform, we abandon whole modes of creation we may have been scarcely aware of. I began to write fiction on a manual typewriter, moving on to word processing a few years later. The nature of writing changed, but as that which word-processed, the nature of the change wasn’t that evident to me, nor is it now. Recently, I’ve watched with increasing interest as writers less than half my age seek out working typewriters, drawn by word from their contemporaries that composing on these machines that go only forward is fundamentally different, and somehow valuable in itself. The 78 Project, I think, is the musical equivalent of that, and more. An atemporal open-ended voyage into the intricate and unique “thingness” of a media platform that had largely vanished before I myself began to listen to recorded music.

I have enormous admiration for everyone who put The 78 Project together. It’s one of the most intriguing contemporary approaches to technology I know of, and one that bodes well for its century and our future. More like this, please.

William Gibson is the author of many books, including Nueromancer and, most recently, The Peripheral.