Jones: Material Readings of Technology

“Archaeology, as opposed to history, refers to what is actually there”(57), Wolfgang Ernst

In trying to reconstruct my understanding of the type of epistemological approach to media archaeology that Ernst was trying to advocate, I wonder what really was the “cold” reading that Ernst explores? To me, it appears that Ernst was interested in a very material reading, digging down into the purposes, substance, or intents of the machine. Yet Ernst’s reading seems to obscure the cultural or the human in from the devices and their accoutrements, privileging a calculated and objective “fairness” that does not incorporate how technology and humans are intertwined culturally and politically.

While reading, it seemed to me that Ernst was separating the cultural from the material. For Ernst, “media archaeology adds to the study of culture in an apparently paradoxical way by directing attention (perception, analysis) to noncultural dimensions of the technological regime” (61). When Ernst reads technological output, coils, or the smaller pieces of devices and machines, is he trying to elevate technology from human biases? Is there such an escape for technology? Both Latour and Pickering have attempted to in some way show how technology and culture are intertwined, with Pickering showing the two as entangled in co-evolution. Yet for Ernst, it appears that objectivity can exist within technology without a “narrative”, and that  “experience when cut off from epic tradition, could not be communicated in a narrative way anymore” (61). If we think of technology as the product of material cultural collaborations and productions, I’m wondering if perhaps another type of narrative reveals itself?

For example, during one class we discussed how precious metals are extracted for phones, tablets, computers and this has led to conflict, struggles, and violence in areas of the world[1]. Yet if we view this through a non-cultural analysis and see only spare parts, the abuse may disappear. I wonder if perhaps Ernst may have alluded  to this narrative, but I did not find as much evidence to support a cultural reading of material aspects of technology. Instead when discussing a recording device, Ernst mentions that the machine allowed “for an analysis of the acoustic event” that could be dispassionate (61). I question whether this two-fold production (human and machine) can ever truly escape a narrative of their co-evolution? While technology companies today may try to obscure or hide these narratives, I wonder if like Kirschenbaum’s Mechanics¸ these narratives can be reclaimed to show how both agencies are working towards and against one another? Ernst may suggest that “What cannot be explained by such analysis is the cultural-meaning of these microevents, because such voice analysis is unspecific and indifferent to “meaning” treating any random noise with the same technological fairness” (63-64), however, we return to the question of, “is a tool ever neutral”? Isn’t technological “fairness” really just the parameters set by the creators? Can parameters or functions be equitable? Perhaps they can be applied equally across a group, but even creating charts is not simply a neutral analysis. How is the information being pulled or extracted? What groups are filtered out or purposely excluded to create or inform specific hypotheses or operations? Even in Jocker’s computing work we see the coding of sentiment, and to me, quantifying emotional valences hardly seem neutral or indifferent.

Even in a media lab like the MAL, it doesn’t seem like experience is torn from technology. When playing with games or trying to use the devices, the human element is collaborating with the machine in exciting or frustrating ways. Or does media-archaeology simply account for the material “options and limitations” by exposing “culture to noncultural insights”(63)? This may imply that technology transcends the cultural, in order to inquire into or extract cultural operations. This transcendence is seen in Ernst’s reading of a recording device that “pays equal attention to all kinds of sounds without ever being affected by their emotional value” (63). Is Ernst conflating the lack of distinction with perfect objectivity and emotional detachment? Is this a function of technology devoutly to be wished? I would argue that lacking distinction does not mean that machines lacks bias. How is a tool being employed? What is the setting and again, what are the excluding parameters?

A tool is often the material output of cultural biases, and attempting to infuse a machine with “fairness” may hide or mask procedural biases in order to maintain “objectivity”. In the terms of Parikka’s work, “Things mater in terms of their politics and how they participate in the constitution of our world” (65). In this sense, I think that it’s unnecessary to use only a “’cold’” reading. Removing historiography could potentially remove invisible and minority voices from the machine. Media Laboratories should be critical of the technological in regards to its infrastructure. This would be similar to a reading like Parikka’s review of Kittler’s work, a work that is more than “substance-based”, where “Technology does not just determine arts, science does not just determine technology, and art is not only creation and contemplation of beauty. They all work in a co-determining network of historical relations where the aesthetics is also tightly interwoven with science and technology” (Parikka 69). This requires material readings of how the infrastructure was harvested, gleaned, or taken out of the material world and the many political or cultural implications that arrive with the coils, metals, or devices that Ernst is reading.

Bibliography

Ernst, Wolfgang. 2011. “Media Archaeography: Method and Machine Versus History and Narrative Media.”

Gettleman, Jeffrey. 2013. National Geographic: The Price of Precious. October. Accessed October 25, 2015. http://www.cfr.org/congo-democratic-republic-of/national-geographic-price-precious/p31562.

Parikaa, Jussi. Media Theory and New Materialism. 2012.

Notes

[1] http://www.cfr.org/congo-democratic-republic-of/national-geographic-price-precious/p31562

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