Theory, Culture & Society: A Geology of Media
Frederick Wiseman’s 2014 documentary National Gallery, three hours of patient observation of curators, conservators, workmen, administrators and invigilators, makes a memorable case for a particular form of media archaeology. Watching archival chemists labouring over minute fragments of varnish, it is impossible not to recognise that for the medium of oil painting, the the vehicle is the art work. This is not at all always the case. Most of us detach the text of Shakespeare from the inks, paper and typefaces of its material presence. Though, since Benjamin (2003), we tend to regard this detachment as a property of mechanical media, it is far older. Music exists apart from the instruments it is played on, and though we may mourn the future disintegration of the last Stradivarius, we know it will not be the end of Bach. This is not the case with digital media. Electronic records are entirely dependent on the equipment on which they are recorded, equipment that is always obsolescent in the constant innovation in hardware and software that characterises electronic capitalism. With a great deal of time, expertise and energy, data can be restored from even the most damaged drives, but the forensics are far too expensive to perform on the vast numbers of devices in use today. We think our content will last but our machines are ephemeral. The exact opposite is the case. Long after our content has succumbed to magnetic fields, degrading plastics and format supersession, the media devices we throw out today will persist as plastic landfill and unwanted fragments of metal and glass long after we ourselves are dead and gone. This is one aspect of Parikka’s geology.