Media future media past

As I remember, when a boy in the early 1950s, my Eagle Comic subscription came with membership of the Eagle Space Club an organisation that guaranteed pre-paid passage on the very first passenger flight to Mars (although other planets were even then available, it was always Mars). I think this pre-Ryanair bargain ticket was supposed to be honoured sometime in the 1980s although to be fair I’ve since lost the paperwork.

Anyway, the great Eagle Comic along with muscular Christianity, post-imperial ennui, Dan Dare pilot of the future, Luck of the Legion,  a cricketing hero (whose name I forget), PC 49, straight bats, left-hooks and lantern jaws that every week pervaded its pages, are all long gone. Except, that is, for lingering UKIP friendly empire-fancying.

But Eagle’s promised trip to Mars was not the only broken contract. Throughout my boyhood, then as a youth and again as a young man, I was repeatedly promised the same three key technological advances. These would definitely usher in a brave new world.

In order these were:

(i) Jet Packs (alternately Jet-Pax, Jet Paks or Jett Paxx): Personal transporters in a convenient back-pack would effortlessly and affordably propel everyone through the air and into a bright sunlit future.

(ii) Nutro-Pills: all our daily, weekly or even monthly, nutritional needs completely supplied with one convenient small pill. No more chewing nonsense, kitchen or dining room mess, eating utensils, crockery or napkins, cooking smells, cooks, cooking or cookers, washing-up or marital squabbling.

(iii) Vid-Phones: say farewell to secretive yawning or eye-rolling, mouthpiece covering, whispered aside or covert gesture; and see a real-time movie of your caller on phone-booth video screen.

I’m sure Robots were also mentioned, but rather than promised as our floor-polishing friends or automatic web-servers, these were warned against as potentially revolting servo-slaves.

So, dressed as we would be in our metallic-silver (or perhaps bronze) onesies, these were the three promised technological breakthroughs that would signal our arrival in the Space Age. Oh! And landing on the Moon. We did do that one.

Well, although Jet-Pax were built and tested by our military/leisure/toy industry – often by test-pilots who hovered heroically in metallic silver/bronze/white onesies – too much fuel and too many bums were burned in the process for the technology to be deemed economic, fireproof or fun.

Like Jet Pax, the idea of Nutro-Pills also never really took off. It turned out that too many people (even married couples) actually enjoyed cooking and eating (if not washing up).

It was the video-phone (Dan Dare’s communication device of choice) that did take off, and with far less whooshy hoo-ha than any sporadic attempt to master the physics and commodification of personal Jet Pax powered flight. And better yet, with the ubiquitous smart-phone in every pocket, handbag or onesie-holster we didn’t have to trudge (or hover) to a Space-Age pavement kiosk to attain instantaneous audio-visual communication with bank manager – do these fabled creatures really exist? –  colleague, friend, family or loved one.

But I don’t remember anybody making that much fuss, or even especially noticing the introduction of Skype or Face Time as paradigm marking the Arrival of the Future. This particular science-fiction trope – the Vid-Phone – seemed to have been historically and psychologically submerged in general bewilderment and the background noise of a spiralling ecology of ever-evolving communication technology.

Equilibrium is thus punctured by stealth. Yet more is to come as we still await the full Me-Me-Me-Movie experience. Or did we? With the all-immersive selfie the future has already been here .

A personal-to-personal phone is now promised for the “Total Selfie Experience (TSE) for today’s solipsist” in the very very near future. Sam-pple Inc. tomorrow pre-announced the iMe 1 just as soon as wrinkles in the space-time continuum were ironed out (that will remind me, time-travel was also a signifier of futurity) when in “Our Own Good Time” (OOGT), we all endlessly chatted to, rolled our eyes at and made covert gestures in the direction of our lanterned-jawed selves.

Remember, I heard it here last.



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.


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’.


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

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?