What is Media Archaeology?

Alright, I will address Jussi Parikka’s question.

I have long supposed that, inasmuch as archaeology or material culture or stuff we desire, accumulate, circulate and eventually dump, communicates agency, identity and status it defines our genus Homo as much as our individual selves.

Archaeology is media and media are us.

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And, of course, the stuff of media the transmitters, carriers, receivers and all the ancillary equipment and associated infrastructure of audio-visual recording, playback, signal processing and broadcast are material culture: archaeologies of the contemporary world.

If perhaps, a pertinent observation this all-inclusive definition is not too illuminating and hardly research friendly. Nevertheless, set in train by an

IMG_0057invite to BBC TV Centre for a relaunch of the ill-fated and hugely expensive Domesday Project, which was developed using bespoke technology made instantly obsolete by the World Wide Web and a tangle of unwound cassette tape discovered on a Bristol pavement, I began to think about abandoned media technology and in 2011 to collect relict media objects encountered ‘on the street’.

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Given my catch-all definition of media-archaeology I would rely on definitions of what might constitute a ‘media object’ to emerge from practice and be refined with each find. While my initial find – the tangle of unwound cassette tape – was unambiguously historic media stuff, my next find caused me to wonder, on the nature of chance as much as the matter of media.

Bristol tapetangle 2

What I found at a refuse collection point in north London among a strange scatter of women’s footwear was a TV treatment. My chance discovery was a pitch document for a television series based on the colourful and completely implausible adventures of fictional marine archaeologists.

What are the chances?

TV Treatment

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Where is Media Archaeology?

Media-archaeology has become a thing, a recognised discipline, or at least, a cluster of sub-disciplines or theoretical tendencies. But until recently, those archaeologists belonging to a mature yet constantly evolving tradition of method, practice, and yes theory, were hardly included in a discourse largely inhabited by scholars of media-studies, cultural theorists, film-historians and fellow travelling steam-punk enthusiasts.

While the title of a recent book by the excellent Jussi Parikka asked “What Is Media Archaeology?” – making it clear (in his previous book) that whatever it was it was not about muddy archaeologists digging through basements and layers of household detritus – as media worker turned archaeologist and avid life-long consumer of radio, TV and film, I ask a different question: where is media archaeology?

Small screen - leaves hand reflection

As many of my archaeologist colleagues – perhaps particularly those who research recent or contemporary material culture (stuff) – would agree, media archaeology can indeed, at least partly, be about digging through layers of household waste to find traces of wiring or terminal. Yet, looking at the above picture, taken of a detached netbook screen found in my home street in November 2011 with the camera of an iPhone 4, I wonder just where the archaeological artefact is? Obviously, as a shiny, reflective thing and a physical, manufactured object the abandoned screen is an artefact. And as part of a computer linked to the World Wide Web the screen was surely also a media artefact. Of course, in the absence of the material artefact archaeologists look for its trace. So, how to consider the pixels of the image above? Or, the reflected image of the iPhone held in my hands that took the above picture? Where is the archaeology? As the phone or indeed its image has simultaneous and multiple material/virtual reality – in my pocket and in bits, bytes and nibbles in remote media-farm, your computer, phone or tablet RAM and elsewhere, are these potentially near infinite physical locations not also proper to media archaeology? What happens if I take a picture of this post with my iPhone 4 and add that to this page?

Where is media-archaeology?

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