Media Archaeology Probe: 2-XL Robot + Echo 2-XL

This article is a media archaeological probe written for Dr Darren Wershler’s Media Archaeology graduate class at Concordia University.

When I first encountered 2-XL, it had been relegated to an out-of-reach shelf above the repair counter at A&C Games in Toronto. Unsure of what to make of the device, the staff had adorned it with a baseball cap and positioned it high above the back area of the store — serving as, at best, a mascot and, at worst, a long-forgotten tchotchke. When I expressed my desire to purchase the robot, the cashier was confused by my interest and skeptical of the toy’s capabilities. “It definitely powers up but it doesn’t really do anything,” he recounted. “I think it runs on old tapes or something.” Shrugging his shoulders, he handed me the device and completed the transaction.

 a close-up on the 2XL toy in operation

For someone who grew up during the peak of the 2-XL’s popularity, it was surprising to see the toy so quickly dismissed. In the early-to-mid nineties, the robot was one of the hottest toys on the market, heavily advertised during children’s television programming blocks and eventually starring in its own syndicated game show Pick Your Brain. The second in a line of robot “smart toys” — the first of which was released in the 1970s — 2-XL was conceived of as a teacher, entertainer, and futuristic friend for children. Running on cassette tapes and allowing user interaction through the use of four buttons, 2-XL exhibited rudimentary intelligence by humorously posing questions to children then dynamically responding based on button presses. Its programs ranged from simple multiple choice quiz sessions to choose-your-own-adventure stories based on popular franchises such as Power Rangers and Jurassic Park, all made possible by rapidly switching between cassette audio tracks. Despite an international release strategy and strong sales, the 2-XL was shelved in 1996 following the release of its 45th cassette tape. With compact discs flooding the market and personal computers turning into a common household item, 2-XL’s obsolescence was all but inevitable.

25 years after its retirement, both iterations of the 2-XL serve as excellent sites to discuss Garnet Hertz’s and Jussi Parikka’s notion of zombie media — “media that is not only out of use, but resurrected to new uses, contexts and adaptations” (429). To borrow a phrase from Arjun Appadurai, I first discovered my 2-XL well past its initial commodity phase, enjoying its second (or perhaps third or fourth life) as a derelict automaton resurrected for aesthetic purposes. Although my second-hand purchase briefly returned the 2-XL back into a commodity form, its context had shifted from “hot new children’s toy” to a questionably-functional curiosity. Hertz and Parikka are less interested in the transformation of consumer goods into a purely aesthetic display piece, however. Instead, they encourage a hands-on artistic method of repurposing that incorporates aspects of DIY culture, circuit bending, and hardware hacking. Throughout their discussions in Zombie Media: Circuit Bending Media Archaeology into an Art Method, the authors argue that media archaeology should not “start from [the ready-made’s of] Duchamp and the historical avant-garde, but from opening up the screen, the technology” (429), and pose circuit bending as one of many methods of reintroducing old consumer technologies into new life cycles. Through these techniques, we are reminded that “users consistently reappropriate, customize, and manipulate consumer products in unexpected ways, even when the inner workings of devices are intentionally engineered as an expert territory” (426). To Hertz and Parikka, media archaeologists are tasked with peeking behind the curtain of corporate blackboxing in order to access the technological archive that lies within these media zombies.

For my class presentation next week, I will summarize the various experiments I have been conducting with my newly acquired 2-XL in an attempt to reverse-engineer its cassette library and restore it to working order (despite missing several key components of the device, including its original power adaptor). Reactivating the 2-XL is the first step in incorporating the robot in the broader research project I am undertaking — one that investigates the navigational structures of text adventure videogames, Choose Your Own Adventure style gamebooks such as Sorcery! and Fighting Fantasy, and other media that center around riddles and branching narratives. The articulation of cassette-as-riddle is particularly intriguing in this regard, due to both its technical affordances and the temporality of spoken-word media. However, as a starting point for this probe, I choose to examine a 2-XL media archaeological exercise that has already come to fruition: Echo 2-XL. This project came to my attention while conducting background research on 2-XL, and it takes a very different approach to studying the device.

Echo 2-XL is a tinkering project that fuses two pieces of outmoded technology: the original 2-XL from 1978 and the second generation Amazon Echo Dot, released in 2016 and quickly supplanted by third and fourth generation models. The purpose of Amazon Echo 2-XL, as conceived by its creator Collin Cunningham, is to create “a new face and voice for the Amazon Echo Dot” (Cunningham) by combining it with the interface and aesthetic of a vintage 2-XL unit. Despite being created forty years apart and with entirely different audiences in mind, Cunningham keenly noted the similarities between the two technologies. Released long before development of the algorithms that facilitate Alexa and similar voice assistants, the 2-XL was nonetheless a two-way communication device that — through careful navigation of audio on an 8-track tape — created a rudimentary illusion of artificial intelligence. In its original form, communicating with the 2-XL required deliberate button pushes following distinct prompts from the machine itself. However, through careful engineering, Cunningham routed the Amazon Echo Dot through the 2-XL and altered its output to mimic the original toy’s vocalizations and LED lighting patterns. The result is a voice assistant that crosses temporal boundaries and speculates on what a contemporary communication device could look like if it were designed and introduced far before the technology that powered it was conceived.

I would contend that Cunningham’s work can be considered part of Parikka’s conception of retro-mediation, in which a newer device is remediated backwards onto an older medium (rather than a newer one, which is a much more common practice). In Inventing Pasts and Futures Speculative Design and Media Archaeology, Parikka elaborates on this process by describing several retro-mediation projects, perhaps most prominently Garnet Hertz’s Outrun Mod, which combines an 8-bit arcade driving simulator with the established “old media” technology of a physical automobile. When driving the Outrun Mod, users look through a “windshield” computer screen that rapidly transforms the real-world road into an 8-bit simulation, allowing users to engage in screen-mediated navigation (Parikka 214). The simulation is no longer presenting an entirely fictitious space, instead relying upon real-time environmental input from a car-mounted camera, placing both the automobile and Outrun in contexts that exceeded their original design specifications.

In the case of Echo 2-XL, Cunningham has essentially sent an early-generation home assistant forty years in the past by fusing it with a children’s toy. By combining a device that has been obsolete for years with one that is rapidly approaching its planned obsolescence, Cunningham has reimagined both. As Hertz and Parikka note, this type of experimental practice can serve as a “useful counterpoint to envisioning digital culture only in terms of a glossy, high-tech ‘Californian Ideology’” (427), accomplished through the creation of custom devices that lean into the weird, antiquated, and even campy. Sitting in a room with the 2-XL can be vaguely unsettling, as its cold stare and computerized voice starkly contrasts the sleek designs and disembodied voices produced by Amazon, Google, and other big tech companies.

This type of tinkering is also productive in studying the 2-XL as it heavily relies on depunctualizing the device. Punctualization is a concept rooted in Actor-Network Theory (ANT), in which components are brought together “into a single complex system that can serve as a single object” (Hertz and Parikka 428). From a design perspective, this often means that the object is deliberately made opaque through black-boxing that is resistant to consumer intervention — “the technology is intentionally created to render the mechanism invisible and usable as a single, punctualized object” (Hertz and Parikka 428). With the 2-XL, this punctualization serves an additional purpose beyond preventing user tampering: to further its conceit as an intelligent, personable robot. Reflecting the visual and sonic aesthetics of science-fiction robots from the 1970s and 1990s, the two 2-XL models were designed to evoke the idea of a semi-conscience machine. If users were given the ability to peer inside the robot’s mechanisms or fully deduce how their audio tapes functioned, this facade could be compromised. Thus, circuit bending and hacking a 2-XL has allowed Cunningham (and other tinkerers) to tactically push back against corporate strategies designed to blackbox the device and gradually push it toward obsolescence, and also question how technology has been humanized to imbue it with value as an entertainer, teacher, and assistant.

I opened this probe by recounting my surprise at how quickly the 2-XL had been forgotten — not just the device itself, but also the protocols for it use and the software library that allowed it to flourish upon its release. Many of the challenges I have encountered while studying the device are rooted in its perceived lack of value, the destruction of its paratexts, and the failure of the hardware itself. Reflecting on Ernst, Hertz and Parikka note that “media is itself an archive in the Foucauldian sense” (427) and that investigation should start at the media assemblage itself — a device that is operational. However, making a technological object operational can prove to be incredibly difficult, and may require thorough restoration and even replacement parts. Thus, as a prelude to my presentation next week, I would like to then pose a question: as media archaeologists, how much leeway should we give ourselves to tweak or alter a device in order to return it to functionality? This is not a new question, of course, being more-or-less an iteration of the Ship of Theseus thought experiment (i.e. whether an object that has had all of its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object). However, even my simple investigations into a relatively functional 2-XL required a replacement power adaptor and a bootleg cassette tape, so the question remains a pertinent one. 

Bibliography

Appadurai, Arjun. “Introduction.” Commodities and the Politics of Value. In The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, edited by Arjun Appadurai,Cambridge University Press, 1986, pp. 3-63.

Cunningham, Collin. “Echo 2XL.” Adafruit, learn.adafruit.com/echo-2-xl. Accessed 2 March 2020.

Hertz, Garnet, and Jussi Parikka. “Zombie Media: Circuit Bending Media Archaeology into an Art Method.” Leonardo, Vol. 45, No. 5, 2012, pp. 424-30.

Parikka, Jussi. “Inventing Pasts and Futures: Speculative Design and Media Archaeology.” New Media Archaeologies, edited by Ben Roberts and Mark Goodall. Amsterdam University Press, 2019, pp. 205-32.

Strauven, Wanda. “Media Archaeology as Laboratory for History Writing and Theory Making.”  New Media Archaeologies, edited by Ben Roberts and Mark Goodall. Amsterdam University Press, 2019, pp. 23-44.

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By Michael