Presented at TAG Syracuse Session 006, May 4, 2019. Below is the text-as-presented. Click HERE for the MP3 audio, which I pre-recorded (should you want to listen). My sincere thanks go to Þóra Pétursdóttir and Geneviève Godin, session organizers, for their patience and willingness to host a pretty odd paper.
Pottery is easy. Archaeologists understand the material. We understand the shape. The decoration. We see its context within its findspot. It might have waited for us for two thousand years, but here it is now, breathing again under an Adriatic sky. We feel the smooth slip and the jagged break. We read part of an inscription. We compare the curve of the rim to those of other pottery we’ve found here. We activated the sherd, this diagnostic fragment with a lucky sweep of the brush across the trench’s floor. It existed then, as now, viewed differently across time with other sets of eyes, yet it is the same thing, albeit with a different intention and purpose in 2019. This sherd is older than us, and it will survive us, once darkly buried in the earth and now confined to the dark of a lot-box in the excavation house or museum store, infinite in its information, awaiting yet another activation and interpretation. Someone made this for someone else once upon a time, and the sherd served its functions as part of a pot two thousand years ago, as fill under a house’s foundation several hundred years ago, as an archaeological curiosity now, and as data five years from now. The sherd is always present, riding that line of deep time outside of human comprehension. We do not—we cannot—see it change. Pottery persists.
Digital is different. It is out of time, or perhaps outside of time. When we speak of the Anthropocene perhaps we think of our machines, of mass production, of media of all kinds from plastic to celluloid to aluminum. We made these things, and they pile up around us, entombing us in rubbish so the modern archaeologist must dig up instead of down. We must dig hastily lest we lend our own bones to the archaeological record. Our material culture keeps coming. We cannot escape ourselves, but we try. Out of room in this world, we build habitats in the next one, digital built environments filled with words and images and the means to make our own synthetic worlds be it with the Unreal Engine 4 from 2014 (itself built from C++ code) or the very first version of Microsoft Word from 1983, which was written in C# and Visual Basic. Words build worlds either seen by the eye or in the mind’s eye. Once built, the digital environment becomes a monument, an artifact, a site, a landscape, made from human time, labor, and money, made by machines, made of natural resources. Its contents can be otherworldly, yet the digital’s creation remains very much of the world, material culture of the immaterial.
What of the digital artifact then? Unlike its poor pottery cousin the digital exists in many states, an embodiment of both potential and kinetic energy depending on the activation it receives. In 2014 archaeologists excavated a dump of 800,000 Atari video game cartridges in Alamogordo, New Mexico, a contemporary example of an ancient pottery dump, each cartridge considered by Atari to be a “waster”, something made but ruined and unfit for human use. The cartridge-artifact exists in one time, persists in another, and contains an entire other, timeless dimension.
Take for example the 1983 game E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. It was written in Atari assembly code by Howard Scott Warshaw over a period of five weeks, an astonishingly fast achievement in the history of interactive digital entertainment done at a corporate level. Once set up, manufacturing of each cartridge took a matter of minutes, from molding the cartridge case to creating the silicon-and-metal board, to applying the adhesive label. Production of intellectual property is slow compared to the creation of actual containers serving as vessels for that data, vessels that can last from a few weeks to many, many years.
The E.T. cartridges exist in human time as most digital artifacts do. The human lifespan can cover the creation, use, and abandonment of many digital things during their period of active use, prior to their hibernation in landfills. These self-contained capsules of digital entertainment exist inside of capitalistic, corporate time, which lasts only a few human months to a few human years: design, production, marketing, sales, use, retirement, and disposal. Obsolescence. These cartridges also exist in human time, something separate from corporate time, something that lasts as long as a human life, or longer, depending on how a game is used: creation, production, acquisition, play, abandonment, disposal, burial, and in the case of the excavated Alamogordo games: recovery, analysis, auctions, and a nostalgic afterlife regardless of the stench caused by reactivated landfill bacteria slowly eating the cartridge and its packaging. None of these games are playable now, but they carry other information, invisible encrustations, a patina of mythology.
There is a third aspect of time in these cartridges once buried and now reactivated: game-time. The potential energy of a digital artifact becomes kinetic when electricity is passed through it. Energy-activated and engaged with a hardware-artifact, one enters a new space both within and outside of the natural world. Human moments pass while the player “dies” any number of times on an accelerated timeline pursued by ghosts or aliens or enemy ships. A successful play-through of Pac-Man board might only take a human minute, but for the ghosts on that board their lives are over. But the boards persist. The ghosts respawn with each newly activated game to fulfill their purpose again, to kill or be killed in a few blinks of the human eye.
Compare this to the persistent open worlds of contemporary games such as those in the Elder Scrolls series, wide landscapes always waiting for that human agent to enter and engage. The game rests in stasis until activated and then populates its interior world with trees, rivers, and mountains as well as animals and embodiments of evil. The digital landscape was always there, and it always waits, and will continue to wait far beyond the time when functional hardware can no longer be obtained to mediate that player-environment experience.
As archaeologists we can visit these digital built environments whenever we like, again and again. Visiting the continent of Tamriel in Skyrim looks and feels the same from one day to the next, or after an absence of five years. Nothing has changed in the game, but the player has changed. After repeated plays, and after a hiatus long enough to engender a feeling of nostalgia, we can return to a favorite spot in the game and enjoy it because we know it, we remember it, how it looks and how it sounds. Time has passed but has not passed, and we can take our own time in investigating that digital space because it persists unchanging.
Or does it change? Consider the lifecycle of software. Rarely is it static. The synthetic world within might persist, but the wrapper of code producing the environment that invites human usage can be updated continually from patches to bug-fixes to entire new versions. Microsoft Word then is like the Mississippi River: it is the same river with new water as it creates new oxbows in the landscape over time, new features and functions to carry its human and non-human travelers along over the water’s surface. After one million years, the river is still the river, although its changes affect human settlement and engagement, just as human interaction affects changes in the river, and under it. Such as it is with Word, the same word processor from 1983 until now, yet with new features and functionality, a new look with every iteration, yet still unmistakably Word. Think of Word (or any software application) as being like the site and landscape of New York City. There is an early, even prehistoric core atop which lies human innovation and constant construction. The New York of 2019 arguably looks nothing like that of 1619, yet it is still New York, still the same over centuries, but ever-changing every day.
But unlike traditional archaeological sites, which can be excavated only once, software can allow us to return to many different times and to many different versions to operate within those spaces from 1983, 1997, 2011, to experience these digital places as they were. We do bring a new set of eyes to these islands trapped in our human time-stream. If we used Word from 1983, we will remember it, our fingers instinctively reaching for the keyboard shortcuts now embedded in our DNA. We should partner with someone, though, who has never seen that version of Word, or perhaps someone who has never used Word at all. What can they see that we cannot because of our familiarity with that digital space? What can we learn from them?
Let us return to our potsherd for a moment. It is still there, and will likely always be there, suspended in a matrix of soil to be discovered or not. Its simplicity of material and form can yield data easily through context, through shape, through decoration, and through the chemical contents of the clay itself. With the digital, however, while the hardware and software media can persist, the potential energy wanes over time as the Earth leeches away the possibility of media being read by optical drives. Worse yet, with contemporary media and contents increasingly cloud-based, this evidence of human labor and creativity could be gone in an instant, creating a hole in the human archaeological record. In the case of the digital, time is both chaotic and finite and can be independent of human intervention when it fails at the whim of a broken electricity generator, a tired server, a destroyed server farm. Humanity has built itself out of the digital loop, expecting our digital platforms and creations to persist throughout the Anthropocene and beyond when in fact they could stop at any moment, and there is nothing that any of us can do about it.
This then is what drives the urgency of the archaeology of the recent past and of Late Capitalism, the likelihood that things fail, that complex systems behave in unexpected ways, and people lose what is now intangible heritage that can then only be remembered in stories, images, and video. People forget how things work, but remember what things did. People remember using a thing, but forget exactly how a thing was used. Knowledge of both the doing and the making and the using are required to complete the archaeological picture, but the very real danger of losing the knowledge of how to access and engage with digital spaces in a variety of environments and contexts is perched on our shoulder like some morbidly curious raven whispering in our ear, “you’re only a mortal.” If archaeologists do not conduct their digital work now, there may be nothing left to investigate in a year or five years or fifty years. We will have missed our window, and the plastic and metal boxes used to mediate the human-digital experience will no longer be able to access and run those digital built environments because their media is absent. We cannot consult a YouTube video on how to use the command line when there is no YouTube to consult.
With the exception of salvage archaeology, “dirt” archaeologists have all the time in the world with their artifacts trapped in amber. Digital archaeologists of the Anthropocene are already far behind where they need to be to keep up with the speed of technological innovation and obsolescence. Perhaps then there should be two archaeologies of the digital, one that is rapid-response, and the other that can afford to be slow once that digital content is saved and preserved. We see this already with the Internet Archive as it becomes a clearinghouse for Open Access research data on past digital content. Perhaps one day corporate producers of digital intellectual property will turn over their archives to the archaeologists for safe-keeping and for study. Initial signs are doubtful, however as companies deny access to source code, ROMs, and other core pieces to human creation in the 20th, 21st century, and beyond. But even these archives are themselves, by their nature, digital and ephemeral. Five hundred years from now our books will remain alongside these shiny black boxes that used to hold something: our writing, our photos, our music, our entertainment, our money. But all the archaeologists will see are physical materials passed down in human time, a modern analog to that pottery sherd. We understand form and function but not necessarily what that particular vessel held: water, wine, or oil, or what that particular computer contained: digital games, business software, or evidence of human love. For pottery, the contents are long gone, but they leave a residue. What residue can be found within a bricked CPU?
The abstract for this session raises two questions about a slow and patient archaeology of the Anthropocene: 1) what would a sincerely object-oriented form of care involve, and 2) what would it mean to operate at the pace of things? Digital things are ephemeral by design, their lifespans of designed activity significantly shorter than more traditional artifacts. This is not a mystery that things die, specifically digital things. We expect and accept it. Perhaps a digital archaeology investigates these electrical sites while they are still alive and actively used, and again when they are abandoned, and yet again when they are buried. It is much easier to study something that operates in real-time, so maybe there is first the digital ethnography of how things are before we write about how things were. To perform object-oriented care, it is more about planning for the afterlife of digital things, which includes planning for their resurrection.
Care for our digital artifacts must include non-digital things: design diagrams, meeting notes, scribbles and doodles, bills and receipts, printed code, and other records not only of the creation but also of the use of things, of their reception. Every digital artifact can come with an archive of complex human and non-human interactions both digital and non-digital, and archaeologists can set up nets across the river to catch this meta- and paradata as they race past in the increasing flood of information. But the more we make and the more we consume, the more difficult the task of the digital archaeologist becomes. This is as true of manufactured things as it is of Big Data.
An object-oriented form of care about digital things must also include self-care, Earth-care. These digitalia do not sprout fully formed from electric wombs. The digital comes from the earth, and ultimately returns to it even if the worlds they contain seem far away: our minds wander, but for many of us our minds are still a few feet off the ground. We are rooted to the Earth, and the products of our human growth encrust the planet in a thin, scabrous layer. When we study the digital we must also study the natural; they impact each other leaving different residues at these sites of collision, sites of manufacture, sites of disposal, affecting both human and non-human lives in ways we are slowly and fearfully beginning to understand. The digital drives all of this, even in places far from ubiquitous computing and smartphones, far from reliable electricity. As an archaeologist, I study digital things that are both current and of the recent past, to see how they are created and used, and to witness their unintended effects on the landscape. I don’t like where we are today, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be studied. Perhaps digital archaeology is Dark Heritage.
In his 2007 essay “Materials against Materiality,” anthropologist Tim Ingold famously informed his readers to go outside and get a rock, place it on a dish, and pour water on it, returning later to observe and interpret the results. I would ask you now to find your mobile phones and other devices, immerse them in water, and then observe what happens not only to the drowning digital, but also to your own quality of life, and that of your neighbor’s. I dare you to try.
—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming