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Media archaeology is a new field of inquiry, whose researchers have been active just since the 1990s. Jussi Parikka’s “What is Media Archaeology?” (Polity Press, 2012), a relatively short (205 pages) but important book, maps out what the field has done and is doing to make itself known. Its relevance to media workers is in it’s yearning to comprehend media production in its entirety: as machinery, thought, practice, a means of imagination and more.
Archaeology is the study of objects from past times. What is a measure of time becomes an issue in the “What is Media Archaeology?” The sweep of historical time—such as can be seen in the pre-industrial and the capitalist eras—is mentioned by Parikka as time in large measure. Parikka is also interested in time in small measure, like the tiny bits of time it takes for electrical signals to operate within the chips that make possible the production of digital media in today’s world.
On what you might call the “macro” level, the study of our historical era is often a critique of capitalism. Parikka writes:
"The recent years of cultural theory have been talking of ‘cognitive capitalism’ and affective labor as new regimes of capitalism in which our ways of thinking, communicating and socializing have become key motors for value creation, and hence under new forms of control."
On the other hand, what you could call the “micro” level, Parikka says, miniature electronic media processes we work with escape our sense perception and almost our ability to measure. Because we cannot sense them, in a way they leave the human sphere.
Every work of media studies is tied in some way to the media technology of the time in which it was written (although some transcend more than others). Concerns have sometimes been similar for our predecessors and us. Today, for example, cloud storage is questioned regarding its safety from interference. From a British magazine from 1881 Parikka quotes a passage about the telegraph lines of early capitalism, citing similar issues: “The telegraph is not always, or to everybody, the unmitigated boon and blessing enthusiastic admirers have represented it to be. … There is always more or less uncertainty attaching to a telegram, both in regard to the length of time it may be on its journey, and in regard to the way in which the wording may be reproduced.”
More often than they stay the same, ideological and scientific concerns change through time, and they do so in a kind of parallel to the evolution of machinery. This is brought into striking relief in Parikka’s discussion of the complaints of the mad. Obviously no stricken person could have reported that there was a radio broadcasting in his or her brain before the invention of radio, with its new invisible wireless transmissions. I think Parikka sees the mad as canaries in the coal mine, whose health reflected the existence or lack of poison gas in the mine (although without the connotation of media technology being poisonous). He writes:
"New media have constantly been imagined as a media or mind control. The delusional side is only the paranoid schizophrenic hyperbole of what happens with technical media that do not translate easily into everyday language and understanding. … Remove the imaginary, remove the supposedly fantastic otherworldly, and see what is revealed: a word of social relations, networks of communication, and new worlds of media technologies where are non-human in the deep scientific sense of reaching out to the non-phenomenological worlds of electricity, electromagnetic fields and, a bit later for example, quantum mechanics."
It is a bit mind-bending for even normal people that there is now media comprised, for example, of electronic flows in chips that are directed by software, which are in fact very hard for anyone besides the most highly trained experts, versed in advanced computational mathematics, to comprehend, and upon which we utterly depend for our means of communication. Parikka argues processes should be broken down into more common understanding for media workers, and perhaps it is just a matter of time until they will be.
There is an element of practice to media archaeology as well as its research aspect. Parikka reports that this is mostly in the area of avant-garde art. My feeling is that such a focus might expand upon but also could limit the horizons of the field, which can be of a more profound utility if its discoveries are made more generally accessible to all kinds of media workers, be they broadcasters, photographers, bloggers or even computer programmers.
The above review of course reports on only a portion of what “What is Media Archaeology?” has to offer. The book, while heavy on jargon, is rich in references to the work of intellectuals in many areas of study who have contributed to the overall effort to give their emerging field a greater presence. It is a starting place, as it was intended to be, and it is highly recommended.