The Geology of Media

Future archaeologists will have a lot of material to dig through. An Object Lesson.
The Space Store

Thinking about the Earth as an object requires some imagination. As far as objects go, it is a really big one: The Earth’s diameter is about 8,000 miles (with a bit of variation when measured at the poles). It’s also very old—it has an age of about 4.5 billion years. It’s pretty dense too, and is composed of various chemical compounds, mostly silica, but also significantly alumina, lime, magnesia, water, carbon dioxide, iron oxide and so on.  

But there is something that textbook facts and measurements like these don’t really capture. It feels insufficient to think of the geological Earth as an object, when it is made of up so many connected and interdependent things, such as the atmosphere. It is an object of interfaces: the magma, the terra, the atmosphere, and so on—so many envelopes in which we live as part of deep space.

By the 18th century, increasingly accurate measurement techniques forced humans to consider the Earth as a scientific object. This shift required acknowledging the layered structure of the earth, and recognizing that this structure corresponds with temporality. Depth digs through time, and deep excavations down into the earth involved a kind of time travel.

Scottish geologist James Hutton conceived of this immense scale of time of the Earth, in which the seeming solidity of the land was actually part of a longer timescale of processes of destruction and decay that were essential for life: plants feed on soil, which itself  “is nothing but the materials collected from the destruction of the solid land.” The Earth was reconceived as a dynamic entity, one that reached back millions of years. The solid land is one temporary consolidation of organic and non-organic processes. Just give it time.

Today, we acknowledge that the Earth consists of geological layers in both directions. Moving down from our feet we find the lithosphere, the crust, the upper mantle, the mantle, the asthenosphere, the outer core and the inner core. Moving up from our heads: the troposphere, the stratosphere, the mesosphere, the thermosphere.

We usually see media as an immaterial sphere of communication, one detached from the human world: Ever since the telegram, messages have flowed faster than their tangible manifestations could have been conveyed. We sometimes understand information as a sphere of its own. This habit continues today, with digital culture pitched as an immaterial sphere of information where ideas become coded into zeroes and ones, independent of material substrate, transportable on the vague and indeterminate channel of “the Internet.”

Warner Bros.

But digital culture is completely dependant on Earth’s long duration. Despite the fallacy that media is increasingly immaterial, wireless, and smoothly clouded by data services, we are more dependent than ever on the geological earth. Geology does not appear in normal conversations about media and culture, but there would be no media without geology. This isn’t a simplistic joke, that without the Earth under our feet there would be no need for universities talking about the Earth or offices of social-media startups in Silicon Valley plotting away metaphorical business strategies like the “mining” and “dumping” of data. Rather, the resources and materials gathered from geological depths enable our media technologies to function.

Sometimes we do acknowledge the work of the smart people behind such innovations: scientists and engineers who enable high tech industrial processes from electricity to network engineering, from processor technologies to the meticulous development of screens that convey high definition audiovisuality.

But the materiality of media is something “harder” than the usual hardware layers we mistake to be the endpoint of media materiality. Our electronics are like mini-mines of minerals and metals themselves: copper, gold, lead, mercury, palladium and silver among other metals. Too often, the extraction of Earth has simultaneously poisoned it, for example the coltan (columbite–tantalite) mines in Congo, which have fueled bloody wars there.

Paul Downey/Flickr

For this reason, the long-lasting legacy of Silicon Valley will not amount to corporations or branding or creativity or individualism, but its soil: the heavy concentration of toxins that will last much longer than the businesses and remind of the geological afterglow of the digital hype, the residue of the tech companies use of chemicals in the manufacturing of our devices. Benzene, trichloroethylene and Freon are not necessarily “things” we associate with digital media cultural ephemerality, but they are some of the historical examples of health hazards caused from production of disk drives.

Presented by

Jussi Parikka is a writer, media theorist, and reader in media and design at the University of Southampton. He is the author of Insect Media.

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