Media Archaeology and Archaeologies of Media

There’s will be a little delay in todays post as I spend the morning writing the final couple of paragraphs in a section on media archaeology and the archaeologies of media for my short book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. You can check out my first three chapters here.

I’ll post something, with any luck, by noon. 

Here’s some of the middle section of my chapter on media archaeology. It’s still very clunky, but it’s a draft and that’s kind of where I am these days. Drafts. Sorry for the delay!

Over the last decade, the archaeology of the contemporary world has found parallels with “media archaeology” which emerged from the fields of media studies, communication, and cultural studies. Media archaeology as an approach has drawn more on Foucauldian notions of archaeology, than the disciplinary practices associated with archaeology as a discipline. Foucault’s developed his use of the term to describe the unconscious rules that govern systems of knowledge and articulated it most clearly in The Order of Things (1966) and The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969). Among media archaeologists, Foucault’s methods encouraged them to unpack the way in which particular media and technologies came to exist and function within society (Parikka 2012, 6); Siegfried Zielinski saw Foucault’s archaeological approach as a way also to discover the deep structures that will shape future media (1996). Among German media theorists, the literal potential of media archaeology perhaps became most clear. Friedrich Kittler and Wolfgang Ernst, in particular, encouraged the careful study and preservation of older and obsolete forms of media. This attention to the physical forms of media, especially in the English language work of Finnish scholar Jussi Parikka, found ready overlap with the archaeological interest in modern material culture. While he emphasizes that media archaeology is distinct from disciplinary archaeology, their shared interest in media, technology, and “the material manifestations of culture” (Huhtamo and Parikka 2011; Perry and Morgan 2015, p. 94) encourages the cross-pollination of methods and ideas. Michael Schiffer’s book on the portable radio (1991), for example, recognized the importance of media technology in both American national identity and economy as well as every day life. Ian Hodder’s early interest in punk fashion and identity in Symbols in Action (1982) and Shanks and Tilley’s study of beer cans recognized the influence of media — music, television, and advertising — on contemporary practice and identity.

In the 21st century, archaeologists of the contemporary world have continued to recognize the significance of media and have drawn upon media archaeology to develop more sophisticated readings of the technology that shapes our mediated world. The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of the Contemporary World (2014) included entries on mobile phones (Maxwell and Miller 2014), film, drawing, and the internet authored by archaeologists and media theorists. In 2015, the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology included a 150 page forum titled “Media Archaeologies”that brought together media archaeologists and archaeologists to compare methods and research questions. The work featured in these collections emphasized the materiality of our digital mediated and immaterial world. Colleen Morgan and Sara Perry’s ”excavation“ of a digital hard drive, for example, demonstrated how archaeological methods can serve both to document the hard drive itself as a physical artifact and its content. Perry and Morgan note that the hard drive as physical object lent itself to documentation practices typical to archaeology. The digital media derived from the files on the drive and, of course, from the files on the computer, revealed a more expansive “landscape” that required a method more akin to intensive pedestrian survey and its attention to sampling.

The last 20 years saw a number of compelling studies focusing on the material, cultural, social, and technological history of videogames. Influential works like Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost’s Racing the Beam (2009), for example, played particular attention to the relationship between code, hardware, and the social and cultural expectations of game play. They called this approach platform studies and much like media archaeology it emphasized the relationships that create the experience of game play on a particular console. More recent works have expanded the social and physical context for video games to include their place within notions of domesticity and the challenges associated with the material preservation of game consoles.

Michael Newman’s book, Atari Age (2017), pays particular attention to the social history of video games in the 1970s and 1980s. He argues that video games underwent a process of domestication from the early 1970s when Pong was introduced to bars and video arcades emerged as the digital equivalents of gaming parlors to the later 1970s when game consoles by Fairchild, Magnavox, and eventual Atari brought games into the home. Videogame consoles originally entered the home as new ways to interact with your television as the names of various consoles, such as the Fairchild “Channel F” suggest. Consoles like the Atari 2600 and the Magnavox Odyssey clad in faux wood finishes blended in with the wood-paneled family rooms and televisions of the 1970s and 1980s and located home videogames within the suburn, middle-class American home (Newman 2014, 54). At the same time, Newman argues that the relationship between the new gaming console and the television challenged the prevailing view of the television as a passive device with little cultural value often marketed to women. Domesticating the part of the gaming parlor experience transformed the television into an active device and this, combined with the popularity of games associated with war (e.g. Space Invaders, Combat) and male dominated sports, to transform the television and the family room into a more masculine encoded space. Videogames influenced the gender of domestic experience in ways similar to how the backyard grill channeled the ruggedly masculine experiences of camping and outdoor adventures to the space of the home patio in the 1950s and, in part, created an acceptable way for men to participate in the domestic work frequently associated with the feminine space of the kitchen (Miller 2010). An archaeology of the video games as both physical objects in a spatial context and as media contributes to understanding the transformation of domestic space in the postwar decades and anticipates the emergence of the television and gaming console as a key components of the 21st-century man cave.

Raiford Guins’s work Game After: A Cultural Study of Videogame Afterlife (2014) takes the physical nature of cabinet games and gaming consoles even more seriously. Guins considered, for example, the way in which the art on the cardboard packages of the game contributed to the game experience by clarifying and expanding the rudimentary graphics capacity of early gaming consoles. The larger point of this example is that understanding the context for videogames extends well beyond well beyond the digital media itself. While the digital content of games can be preserved to some extent through various emulator that allow for older games to appear on contemporary devices, Guins’s careful study of the curated videogame collections, the challenges facing game restorers, and the way in which the physical character of games contributed to how players experienced gaming. Perhaps the most compelling and archaeological aspects of his analysis is his study of the wear marks on game consoles that showed the physical aspects of game play by demonstrating where players and spectators leaned against the cabinets. Guins was also attentive to the challenges facing museum and collectors in keeping their games working. CRT monitors are no longer made making it more and more difficult to restore screens. Key features of the devices like buttons and controllers have become increasing rare and circuit boards, microchips, and other aspects of the games inner workings are essentially irreplaceable. Ironically, efforts to preserve these complex machines often limiting access to the games which may well help protect them from wear and tear, but also further removes them from their dynamic social and cultural context.

The relationship between the physicality of the object and the expansive world accessible through the object also finds parallels in the study of mobile phones. Cassie Newland’s pioneering master’s thesis at the University of Bristol (2004) concisely explored the relationship between technology, legislation, practice, and even protests associated with mobile phones in the UK. Newland argues that mobile phones created new forms of social organization grounded in practices like texting as well as resistance to the encroaching of cell phone towers, for example, among groups concerned with the adverse impact of radio frequency radiation. Richard Maxwell and Tory Miller’s (2014) chapter on mobile phones in the Oxford Handbook similarly emphasized the freedom associated with mobile phones, but also contrasts this with the new forms of surveillance possible through mobile technology and the environmental damage required to produce the range of materials present in each device.

The interest in the materiality of the ubiquitous digital devices and the seemingly immaterial media has created an intellectual productive tension. Maxwell and Miller provide a depressing litany of environmental and social damage produced by mobile phones from increases in power consumption to the risk of cell phone towers to wildlife, the use of toxic chemicals in manufacturing, and the social and environmental damage associated with extractive industries necessary for our digital devices. Jussi Parikka’s book on the Geology of Media (2015), for example, considers digital media as both figurative and literal expressions of geology. Figuratively Parikka plays on the concept of stratigraphy to understand how digital devices reflect layers of time and technologies densely superimposed on one another to create a functional surface. Literally, his emphasis on geology recognizes the complex cocktail of minerals necessary to make our digital tools work. Key rare earth minerals such as tantalum and coltan come from mines in Congo worked by child labor and in inhuman conditions (Maxwell and Miller 2014, 709. Lithium, gallium, indium, platinum and other rare and expensive elements require large scale extractive industries that function on a global scale and at a significant environmental and social cost. The microchips and cases are manufactured and assembled in factories and dormitory labor in free trade zones in China which have their own history of exploitative practices, suicides, and abuse. Josh Lepawski’s Reassembling Rubbish (2018) makes the materiality of digital media even more explicit when he considers the weight of the internet. He contrasts the observation made in Discover magazine in 2007 that the internet weighed only “0.2 millionth of an ounce” with arguments that weighing the internet must take into account more than just the electrons that carry messages, but also the massive infrastructure that processes, transmits, powers, receives, and stores the digital data. Even the most immaterial media require a massive material infrastructure.

Likewise, the waste and byproducts associated with manufacturing this infrastructure, our digital devices and the other digital staples to our consumer culture leave traces in bodies and landscapes both in the United States and around the world. Silicon Valley, California has become synonymous with advances in digital technology and American innovation, and recent work has shown a growing awareness of the impact of digital technology on the landscape. Christine Finn’s early archaeological study of Silicon Valley (2002), for example, emphasized how the growth of the high technology industry in the region impacted land use in the region with fruit orchards giving way to glass and steel corporate buildings, strip malls, and suburbs. Significantly, she also includes a chapter on rise of businesses that managed the waste produced from the high speed research and manufacturing cycle associated with digital technology. The site of business that recycled circuit boards and microchips. A decade later, Jennifer Gabrys’s book, Digital Garbage (2013), starts with a discussion of the same landscape, but emphasizes the 20 Superfund sites associated with former microprocessor manufacturing sites in the region.

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