Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications

By Erkki Huhtamo; Jussi Parikka | Go to book overview

14
Digital Media Archaeology
Interpreting Computational Processes

Noah Wardrip-Fruin

The media archaeology approach has often unearthed forgotten moments from predigital media and, bringing them into the present media context, has both seen them anew and used them to illuminate the media culture of today. This chapter, instead, attempts a media archaeology of the more recent past—unearthing forgotten moments from the early history of digital media.

In particular, this chapter is a prototype of an archaeology of specific digital works and systems. Such an investigation cannot limit itself to published accounts of the system outputs, or even to stored interaction transcripts. It is important to understand how the digital artifact and the systems that supported it actually functioned—the operations, the processes.

The example discussed here is Christopher Strachey’s 1952 love letter generator for the Manchester Mark I. This work, likely the first experiment with digital literature and digital art of any kind, is fully documented in notes and program listings found in Strachey’s papers at the Oxford Bodleian Library. Fully engaging this work turns one not just to an explication of its operations but to their interpretation.

This, in turn, points toward a central issue both for the development of a digital media archaeology and for the future study of digital media generally: How do we engage a work’s processes? Digital media are not simply representations but machines for generating representations. Like model solar systems (which might embody a Copernican or geocentric perspective while still placing the sun and planets in similar locations), the operational and ideological commitments of digital media works and platforms are visible more in the structures that determine their movements than in the tracing of any particular series of states

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