I published “Design without a Future” in the November / December 2016 issue of ACM Interactions, a bimonthly publication about design and human-computer interaction. The essay features the MLab’s research and exhibit on early magnetic recording, including several photographs by Danielle Morgan. I was invited by Daniela K. Rosner to submit the piece, and she ultimately edited it.

What’s meant by “design without a future”? With a nod to Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, the phrase positions prototyping not as a speculation about possible futures but rather as a negotiation with media history. It also stresses the fact that many early technologies are no longer accessible: they are not in circulation, or they’re broken, or they don’t work (as intended) anymore. Remaking them is thus about attending to contingencies, not recovering ideal builds or designs.

Below are links to the essay (subscription required), a related talk (about early magnetic recording) I gave at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, a conversation I had about media history and prototyping on KHPR 88.1 FM Hawaiʻi public radio, and a page detailing the MLab’s research on the topic. With permission, I’ve also compressed all of Danielle Morgan’s photographs for the article, and I’ve included the ACM Interactions sample of the essay.


Photograph of the front cover of Interactions, Nov-Dec 2016 issue, with the word interaction scratched out and replaced with the word integration

Design without a Future
Published in ACM Interactions (Rosner, ed.) in November-December 2016 | three pages, with photographs by Danielle Morgan | subscription required

Links: article (HTML); photographs (ZIP; by Danielle Morgan); MLab research (HTML) on early magnetic recording; talk (HTML) at U. of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa with slides (HTML); conversation (MP3) on KHPR 88.1 FM Hawaiʻi public radio


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).

Photograph of the early magnetic recording exhibit featured in Interactions, a person's hands are photographing a recording on piano wire

(This image of the MLab’s exhibit on early magnetic recording appears in the Interactions essay. It shows someone photographing a labeled sound recording on wire alongside a closeup of a recording and label. By Danielle Morgan. Used with permission.)

The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and the British Columbia Knowledge Development Fund supported this research. Thanks to Daniela Rosner for feedback on this piece; to Teddie Brock, Tiffany Chan, Katherine Goertz, Danielle Morgan, and Victoria Murawski for their contributions to the research and exhibit; and to Danielle Morgan for the photographs.


Featured image care of Danielle Morgan. Used with permission. Bottom image also care of Danielle Morgan, with permission. Middle image is a photograph of Interactions (Nov-Dec 2016). This page was created on 11 July 2019 and last updated on 18 June 2021.