In the lab I direct, we prototype technologies that no longer exist or no longer function. Within the field of comparative media studies, this approach is somewhat atypical, mostly because historians and theorists usually treat media as objects of study, not materials for inquiry. Each of our prototypes corresponds with a year somewhere between 1840 and 1940. For instance, we recently conducted an early magnetic recording experiment from 1898. It was probably the first sound recording of its kind. We prototyped the components using a combination of sourced and fabricated materials. We then installed the prototype in the Audain Gallery at the University of Victoria (UVic).
While no audio from this 1898 experiment exists today, we found a stick-figure illustration by electrical engineer Marvin Camras  to guide design and experimentation. Based on that illustration and Camras’s brief contextualization of it, we gather that an engineer named Valdemar Poulsen recorded or “impressed” sounds on piano wire in a location near Copenhagen. He demanufactured a wall-mounted telephone, attached the parts to a custom-made trolley containing a magnet, stretched the wire across a room, connected the trolley to it, and shouted the name “Jacob” into the kludged device as he ran alongside the wire. He would repeat his runs, wiping the record clean with the magnet and rerecording his voice. If he wanted to locate a specific impression, then he would sprinkle iron filings over the wire. The results resemble data visualizations, with more filings sticking to stronger (or louder) impressions.
Why exactly Poulsen said “Jacob,” we’re not entirely sure. However, we do know the experiment is a compelling snapshot of history for present-day data storage, including storage on hard drives. For one, very few people know about magnetic recording’s long history, including its development during the second half of the 1800s. But we also prototyped this experiment to examine early magnetic recording as both a concept and a practice—as something material, embodied, situated, and yet abstract enough to become a stick-figure illustration. By taking the illustration off the page, remaking it, and performing it, we can test historical accounts of the apparatus. Here the aim is not to reenact or inhabit history; rather, it is to add details missing from the scholarly record or to revise that record where need be. After all, one reason few people know about early magnetic recording is that hardly any historians have attended to it. (Most accounts start with magnetic tape during the mid-1900s.)
Another reason is that only a handful of the recording artifacts persisted over time, and yet another is that people are largely unaware of the particulars of the early recording process. By conducting the 1898 experiment now, we can communicate such details while producing prototypes—as scholarship—for reference and reuse.
As part of our research process, we had gallery visitors record their own voices on wire. They gave us feedback as we observed the variety of their recording experiences, which were replete with contingencies: what was said, who said it, when, and where in the room, for instance. The fidelity of the recordings depended significantly on the pitch of people’s voices as well as the words they spoke. Most often, the words became clicks during playback, largely because early magnetic recording lacked amplification. Also, from time to time, people wondered if they imagined hearing their voices on the wire, as if it were haunted. Such contingencies are more interesting to us than treating technologies as either ideal forms or objects withdrawn from their contexts of use. Contingencies enrich our relations with history by prompting inquiry into the past and actively distancing us from it. The indeterminacy of experimentation becomes our only true constant. If prototyping is inquiry, then the contingencies are intimate reminders that we weren’t there.
Like early magnetic recording, the technologies we work with have no futures. Quite simply, they are broken or ephemeral. Even when fragments of the originals are found in museums or archives, they are not meant to function. Behind glass or stanchion, they are intended to be seen, not used. They are removed from circulation. After we prototype them, we do not batch manufacture them, either. They are not packaged as products or tools, although we do write about them and share their parts as code, STL files, metadata, and the like. Given this approach, people frequently associate our prototypes with speculative design and research, by Dunne and Raby in particular . These comparisons are apt. Since we prototype across the arts and humanities (including the Departments of English and Visual Arts at UVic), design is our meeting ground. Borrowing from critical design as well as science, media, and technology studies, we position our prototypes as situations for interpretation . They are neither instruments for objective study nor celebrations of “great inventors.” They also privilege devices, events, and people normally ignored by popular accounts of technology: histories of how early wearable technologies were intertwined with Victorian protocols for bereavement and dress, how early magnetic recording was imbricated with gendered listening in the modern American office, or how early optical character recognition depended on research by people with disabilities, for example. By prototyping the past , the lab’s research points to specific slices in time and then expands them to inspect the indeterminacies at play.
However, our prototypes are not exactly speculative. Perhaps obviously, their content isn’t set in the future. Moreover, they do not ask what is possible, plausible, probable, or preferable . They are better described as evidence of what we can no longer apprehend or experience. Why Jacob? Who else was in the room that day in 1898? How audible were the impressions? We will never know the answers; this history is beyond speculation. Our archival materials only intimate answers, and we can only imitate the illustrations at hand. Still, our hope is that by prototyping early technologies and encouraging people to interact with them, we may engage matters of accountability : to consider who or what we have not, to recognize where boundaries are drawn, and to acknowledge how we filter and shape history through materials. These matters stitch together our prototypes and interactions in a gallery space. They increase critical awareness and our entanglement with technologies.
Perhaps, then, a design without a future is an evocation of history or a correspondence with past events, with an understanding of what we cannot recover. The prototype at hand is incomplete, and the interactions are rife with information gaps. We are left with pieces, although we may converse with them: listening to a wire rehearse our impressed voices, for example. If so, then the design methods are realist, not speculative or conjectural. Maybe the prototype most resembles a photograph or is best expressed through photography.
Barthes said a photograph is “without future” . He also said, “The realists do not take the photograph for a ‘copy’ of reality, but for an emanation of past reality: a magic, not an art.” A prototype of the past does not invent a reality. It validates one by pointing us to traces. It does not re-present, replicate, or capture history, either. It maintains the past by summoning whatever fragments remain. In spaces such as labs and galleries, this maintenance is performed, not written. Like Barthes on photography, we might associate prototypes with theater, where all the actors are dead: They separate themselves from their audiences by communicating from the past . If so, then the most significant risk of design without a future is slipping from accountability to history into nostalgia for it. As with too much utopia for the future, too much nostalgia for the past escapes to a world it wants to see instead of addressing the conditions where it resides.
Design without a future offers a complement to speculative design in medium and thought: with futures as “a medium to aid imaginative thought—to speculate with” , we may also have histories as a medium to aid materialist thought—to negotiate with. Both approaches echo recent design research by Hannah Perner-Wilson , including her kit-of-no-parts: Progress toward an ideal form should not determine our process or interpretation. We may speculate and historicize against such idealism, including ideals of optimization and efficiency. In the particular case of design without a future, we would not be preoccupied with the shortcomings of stuff—with what objects lack or with making better products—but instead with the indeterminacies we take for granted because we either cannot apprehend them or choose to ignore them. These indeterminacies are not elsewhere, waiting to be imagined as things or projected as scenarios. They punctuate our lived, everyday reality . Like photography and theater, they simply ask us to stop and attend awhile—to examine the historical contingencies that allow us to envision futures.
The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and the British Columbia Knowledge Development Fund supported this research, which I conducted with Teddie Brock, Tiffany Chan, Katherine Goertz, Danielle Morgan, and Victoria Murawski. Images courtesy of Danielle Morgan. Thanks to Daniela Rosner for her feedback on drafts of this piece.
Jentery Sayers is an assistant professor of English and director of the Maker Lab in the Humanities at the University of Victoria. email@example.com
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