Media archaeology is necessary so that we can understand what really is new in computer culture and what is just recycled. A media archaeologist studies motifs and patterns which travel through time and then re-emerge, and attempts to find previously undiscovered connections or essential differences. The curator of the Alien Intelligence exhibition, Erkki Huhtamo, has worked towards developing a media archaeological angle in research
What are the most common fallacies about media archaeology?
Some people think that media archaeology is a sentimental armchair journey into the past, at the expense of the present and future. This is a misunderstanding. Even though media archaeology researches the past, it tries to understand the present at the same time. Many phenomena in modern culture, even though seemingly novel, are based on concepts that have been part of the media culture of eras long past. There are connections to be discovered between the 18th century automatons imitating real people, and modern computers. Once you discover these similarities, you also have to consider the differences. By throwing light on parallel phenomena throughout history, we also learn to understand the dimensions of change, in other words true cultural innovation.
Who do you consider to be the first media archaeologist or the father of media archaeology?
Undoubtedly the early 20th century German cultural researcher Walter Benjamin. His most famous, unfinished, project was his research into the 19th century cultural history of the city of Paris. No source was too insignificant to serve as a media archaeological source for Benjamin. Besides the material culture, Benjamin was interested in peoples' hopes and dreams, even the unfulfilled ones. Everything had its own probative value, including media technology. Media archaeology is a specific approach to research, and I myself have been involved in developing it. All media archaeologists define their field in their own manner. The Germans Siegfried Zielinski and Friedrich Kittler are probably the best-known figures in the field, even though they do not even use the term media archaeology.
Is there a lot of co-operation between researchers in the field?
There is co-operation, but it is initiated through personal contacts, because there is no such thing as a 'media archaeology school of thought'. There are only researchers who have discovered similarities between their various approaches to the subject, and who have read each others' publications. We trade ideas through e-mail and every now and then in various conferences to do with the media field. On the other hand, in recent years there has been more emphasis on the importance of researching historical and cultural contexts, which has created fertile ground for media archaeology.
Can media archaeology be studied in universities, for example?
As a major subject, no, but for example at the University of Lapland, media archaeology is one of the dimensions included in media science studies. I suppose I'm partially to blame for that. I acted as a faculty professor there some years ago, and I still lecture there - on media archaeology. But it is primarily a matter of individual researchers' own interests in the area.
ARCHAEOLOGY OF THOUGHT
Where can the most expansive media archaeological excavations be found, globally speaking?
Practically anywhere. It is, after all, just a new way of studying and interpreting the traces left by the history of media culture. Media history has traditionally focused on the victors - the most successful inventors, the ones that made most money, the stars, the media moguls, and the grand-scale industry of the field, are what are heard most about. But they represent only part of the truth. A considerable part of media culture has been completely forgotten. A media archaeologist searches for these long-forgotten inventions, ideas and traditions. Often he finds out in the end that what was thought to have been lost, has later been realised, but in a way that nobody noticed at first. In this manner, media history is polyphonic; it has many voices, even though the official history has tried to present it as mere solo singing.
How many of the significant discoveries end up with private collectors?
Many of the discoveries, such as thought models, opinions, statements, or plans, are non-material. They can be ideas that never have been followed through in a concrete form. This does not necessarily mean that their historical probative value is any less than that of an actually executed idea or medium. Thus, the media archaeologist does not actually search for treasures to display in museums, but tries to interpret media history in a new, more holistic way.
Are there any media archaeological museums?
Since media archaeology is more of an approach than a traditional field of study or culture, there aren't any media archaeological museums as such. Naturally there are museums with an abundance of interesting and often unresearched source material in their collections. Unfortunately, most museums represent exactly the kind of history of conquerors that a media archaeologist tries to combat. For example, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London could be the greatest media archaeological museum in the world, if measured by its collections. Unfortunately, it never displays the kind of Victorian material, such as strange optical apparatuses and other representations of the 'cheap' popular visual culture, that interests me. It displays china bowls, court dresses, baroque beds and other self-evident elements of high culture. A media archaeologist has his work cut out for him!
WORTH FOR WORTHLES
Grave robbers used to be the bane of archaeologists. Do media archaeologists suffer from similar problems?
What mostly come to my mind are thoughtless people who through the years, and even centuries, have disposed of a lot of material that would have been very valuable to a media archaeologist. Objects of media culture or, say, posters for a magic lantern show, were not considered worth keeping, because they were popular rather than high culture. They have been considered worthless and out-of-date as soon as they have been replaced by something else.
What are media archaeological fossils like?
A magic lantern, untouched for 120 years, then discovered among some Parisian estate, could be one. Or a memory circuit for an early Whirlwind computer, found in an American archive. Or M. Speculatrix, the first autonomic robot in the world, which was thought to have been destroyed in a fire in Australia long ago, but which then popped up in a British basement. Or a sales catalogue for mutoscopic equipment from a flea market. Generally, anything that draws a media archaeologist's attention.
You were the editor of the publication Virtuaalisuuden arkeologia (The Archaeology of Virtuality). How does it differ from media archaeology?
Virtuaalisuuden arkeologia was a media archaeological project, in which I wanted to research the cultural backgrounds of virtual reality, which became fashionable in the early 1990s. Many thought that the concept was new, and not previously experienced. The publication pointed out that virtual reality was based on cultural phenomena that had emerged in various places several times before. Certain things keep coming back in new guises. Later, I wrote the book Elävän kuvan arkeologia (The Archaeology of the Moving Image) (1996), in which I searched in a similar media archaeological manner through several centuries for the backgrounds of the modern audio-visual culture.
Media Researcher Erkki Huhtamo was interviewed by Piia Laita