Introducing Media Archaeology, Archaeogaming, and Digital Archaeology

Over the last week or so, I’ve been working off-and-on on a chapter for my book on the archaeology of contemporary American culture. You can see what I’ve been up to here or read another fragment of this chapter here.

The chapter looks at three things: media archaeology/archaeology of media, archaeogaming, and digital archaeology. 

Here’s the introduction:

If a distinct concern for things and materiality emerged in both academic and popular culture during the late 20th century, these same years produced a growing interest in immateriality, media, and its relationship to our material culture. The ubiquity of television and radio over the second half of the 20th century, anticipated the digital revolution which introduced home computers, video games, and ultimately the internet to American households and communities. The presence of cultural artifacts in American society that lack a material form has both challenged the kind of statements that archaeological investigations based on physical objects can make for contemporary society and provided new opportunities to expand the reach of archaeological work to consider directly non-material artifacts. The Atari games excavated from the Alamogordo landfill, for example, represented something more than just plastic cartridges encasing silicon chips. In fact, the object of the excavation was the recovered the physical manifestation of a the E.T. video game that some critics considered among the worst video games ever made. The game itself, of course, was a reference to a blockbuster film by the same name. The excavations were conducted as part of a documentary on the game which received funding from Microsoft as part of their effort to develop their Xbox gaming console as a media platform. In other words, the entire Alamogordo excavation was situated at the intersection of media and archaeology. Micah Bloom’s Codex project, detailed at the conclusion of the last chapter, likewise explores the fate of media cast out of context by a the Souris River flood in Minot. Bloom demonstrates how the topics and titles of the abandoned, damaged, and forlorn books create subtle ironies, emphasize their abject state, and communicate the intimate potential of media. E. Breck Parkman’s excavation and cataloguing of the vinyl records recovered from excavations of the burned remains of Rancho Olompali where the Grateful Dead had lived as part of a larger commune for almost 2 years before a fire destroyed the rented mansion in 1969 offers another example of how media offers a particularly vivid window into the recent past (Parkman 2014). The discography recovered presented a wide range of collecting and listening habits from July Garland to Doc Watson, Frank Sinatra, various Broadway musical scores, and jazz artists. The presence of lead and asbestos in the debris required extensive remediation before archaeologists could record and study the material. Like so many of the books recovered by Bloom’s Codex project and the Atari games collected from the Alamogordo landfill, the records were largely unplayable, but nevertheless told the story of the “eclectic and contradictory” tastes of the commune surrounding the Grateful Dead and Parkman noted that this spoke to the diversity of tastes present in the Olompali commune in the late 1960s and complicates a narrow view of late 1960s counter culture.

Media archaeology draws upon larger trends in American popular culture. As early as the mid-1980s films such as Bladerunner and novels such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer offered visions for future world where the boundaries between media and the experience of a gritty urban reality blurred. Gibson, in particular, anticipated the development of the World Wide Web and the dynamic world of digital media, in a virtual reality world called the “Matrix,” that contrasted sharply with the dystopian landscape in which he sets his novel. The interplay between futuristic digital culture and an urban backdrop characterized by decay, drugs, and violence created a foundation for the cyberpunk aesthetic. Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1990) which proposed an alternative history in which Victorian scientists created technologies based on Charle Babbages 19th century computers and the radically improved steam engines. The development of the “steampunk” style of fiction informed Sterling’s later “Dead Media Project” in 1995 that sought to document various earlier media technologies. The interest in so-called “dead media” reflected a growing interest in the contrasting styles, genres, and aesthetics between obsolete technologies and the modern digital world. Shannon Lee Dawdy relates the cyberpunk, steampunk, and less well known “clockpunk” genres to Walter Benjamin’s Arcades project which explored the ruins of consumer capitalism in the declining shopping arcades of Paris (Dawdy 2010). Contemporary fiction writers shared Benjamin’s interest in complicating the linear flow of modernity and progress and creating worlds where the past and the present intermingle. The attention to the temporal dimension of modern culture resonates both with claims that our world is accelerating and calls for “slow” practices that resist the seemingly inexorable pace of technology.

Contemporary critiques of technology and various digital media forms a key element in Gibson’s Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson 1992 novel Snow Crazsh. These works trade in a paranoid style anticipated in the science fiction of writers like Philip K. Dick. This distrust for technology as a way to obscure the corrupt nature of capitalism, the modern state, and notions of progress becomes particularly clear in films such as Tron (1982), WarGames (1983), or Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil (1985) and more recently in the Matrix trilogy (1999-2003) or, Steven Spielburg’s adaptation of Ernie Cline’s Ready Player One (2018). These films pit individuals against technology and various powers that serve to use that technology as a method of control. While the plots, aesthetics, and degree of paranoia vary, they all blur the line between the digital and the physical world as characters are sucked into the mainframe in Tron, discover that a simulation on a hacked military supercomputer actually start the countdown to nuclear war in WarGames, or find that the search for a “Golden Easter egg” in a complex virtual reality game has consequences in the real world in Ready Player One. Thomas Pynchon’s 2013 novel The Bleeding Edge set in the immediate aftermath of the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000 and the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001 combines a paranoid vision of the “dark web” with the uncertainty and fear in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks. In the final pages, Pynchon’s intrepid investigator Maxine Tarnow who is spending more and more time in an online virtual reality portal called DeepArcher which draws from the deep web. As a result, she begins to experience “virtuality creep” as her physical surroundings begin to pixelate and reconfigure themselves as they would in DeepArcher’s virtual landscapes. Jussi Parikka noted that the immateriality of digital culture not only prompted growing attention to things as things, but also a corresponding struggle to accommodate the ambiguity of digital objects, experiences, and encounters that work to obscure the very materiality that makes them possible (Parikka 84-85). As Raiford Guins has argued that digital technologies offer new methods for control (Guines 2009) and surveillance (Zuboff 2019) many of which are invisible to users.

While these films, works of fiction, and critiques may initially appear remote from conventional archaeological practices, as contemporary American culture becomes increasingly mediated by digital technology, archaeology has followed suit. The following chapter will consider that the role of archaeology in understanding the place of digital technology, media, and practices in contemporary American culture. The first part of the chapter will explore how the field of media archaeology and the archaeology of media have sought to document and analyze the material manifestations of our digital world, from game consoles to hard drives, mobile phones, and the internet itself. The rest of the chapter will consider how archaeology has also extended to include applying archaeological methods and practices to the study of digital media. The emergence of “archaeogaming” with its focus on the archaeology “of and in videogames” demonstrates how archaeological methods can serve to document the increasingly complex worlds developed in digital environments (Reinhard 2018). Moreover, the field of digital archaeology has sought to look at the growing impact of digital technology, methods, and practices on the field itself.

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