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.

Indeed, the dynamics of the Earth are increasingly the focus of our technological culture: from technologies of measurement concerning climates and geological resources, to maximizing the communication capacities of satellite orbits and gauging wireless traffic through the air—the Earth is now an object dealt with on its own scale, a thing to be put to use as a whole, though we’ll still use it piecemeal as well.

There are various natural and fictional histories that imagine the Earth as a bizarre, living organism. Arthur Conan Doyle’s “When the World Screamed” (1928) features the prototype of the mad scientist, Professor Challenge, who pierces through the various layers of the Earth, making it scream. Later, James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis argues for a massive dynamic interdependency among the planet’s ecosystems, suggesting that we see the Earth as alive in another, less familiar way.

By realizing the geological importance of the Earth for media culture, we might also acknowledge that the Earth is a communicative object itself. Not only that we keenly visualize, talk and imagine the Earth as an object through media representations—but that there would not be any media without the resource base offered by its geology. Even that the Earth as living creature communicates via the assembled resources it fashions and provides.

A cell phone dump site (David Ohmer/Flickr)

Whether as an organism or a communicator, the Earth now also subsumes the new materials we have fashioned from it. The philosopher Gary Genosko has suggested reframing the pre-Socratic theory that the world consists of the four elements of air, water, fire and earth in relation to their industrial applications. Today, industry takes advantage of high-technological processes to extract and use earth elements, leaving behind an excess of after-products in the process: nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and sulfur dioxide. Centuries or millennia hence, these residues will remain long after our iPhones have been forgotten. This commercial geological domain is no longer restricted to the Earth, either: space asteroids have become a popular future target for mining valuable minerals, materials necessary for the reproduction of technological culture, including the technology of mining itself.

Practitioners and theorists of digital culture often look for the edge cases, the exceptions, seeking an avant-garde of media arts to underscore the unseen technological possibilities of our gadgets. Glitch art and the “New Aesthetic” have emerged as new domains of practice in which computers do unexpected things without us. And media archaeologists like Siegfried Zielinski have mustered the paleontological term “deep time” in reference to media culture, looking for longer histories of today’s media arts than we usually write.

But we need to take this further. Imagine what the fossil record will look like in millions of years. A future media archaeologist digs through the ruins of electronic media culture, finding few traces of media devices, keypads or touch screens, headsets or power cables. Rather, she discovers a range of environmentally hazardous materials that forms part of the growing waste piles that are the true leftovers of “dead media”—the residue of our expired industrial equipment and personal devices. Silicon, found in abundance in normal sand, was an important discovery for computer culture. Perhaps a future abundance in the decayed materials of a geological strata will be made of computers and other digital objects we will have left behind.