The neonatal intensive care unit of tech
Don’t get me wrong despite my seemingly negative tone that is about to follow — this Wired-article about “tech’s premature births” is actually rather useful: it pitches the idea that media inventions and products have their own “time”. Some enter the stage too early, and of course, some too late. The story collects “stories of technologies, services, products, people and ideas that arrived too early — they either failed as a business for simply being ahead of their time, changed an industry for the worse because of the period of their birth, or simply suffered under hands too eager to ship a product.”
It even sounds a bit in-tune with a media archaeological interest in the “losers” of media history, which perhaps paved the way for something more succesful that followed later. However, what bugs me ever so slightly is the way in which this sort of discourse easily assumes that there is the right time — and pitches that as the norm. This is pretty much the time of commercial success, which naturalises the place of media technologies as part of the digital economy/creative industries product-way of thinking. Media are the stuff of business pages. Instead, the weirdness, inventions or political stakes of media devices remain sidelined. “Psychopathia medialis” was the term Siegfried Zielinski coined for the linearised media histories our capitalist culture loves. We are easily assuming that success comes through the evaluation and support of venture capitalists. Indeed, if we focus on the idea that there is a right time for these devices to make their mark, we should also ask what kinds of economic and political mechanisms are needed to support this. There is no general “cultural atmosphere” in which a media innovation just is succesful. Indeed, as Dmitry Kleiner and the Telekommunists keep on reminding us, perhaps we need a bit more of venture communism to provide those alternative life support mechanisms for innovations that are out of a different time than the ones supported by capitalist investment logic. Different kinds of devices and platforms might then survive through the neonatal intensive care unit of tech.
is a writer, media theorist and professor in technological culture & aesthetics at Winchester School of Art (University of Southampton). He is also Docent of Digital Culture Theory at University of Turku, Finland and Honorary Visiting Fellow at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge.