Artifacts: An Archaeologist's Year in Silicon Valley
Author: Christine A. Finn
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002
Review Published: October 2004
In an office block high above London, t-shirts once worn by a Silicon Valley journalist as he covered the dot.com boom, rise and fall on their wire hangers, a mobile blown by hot air. A few feet away, a typewriter golfball lies deep in a nest of shredded newspaper. In a small, darkened room, a mound of defunct computers, some scattered with mouse droppings, cower in dust, glimpsed only by the single bulb of a lamp. And on a window ledge, the artifacts of 2000 -- computer collectors, a trio of techies, cubicle toys -- are seen in photos framed like family portraits. All gone now, and very soon so will the 7th floor office be gone, and everything above and below. More than vacated, this 30-year-old teardown is making way for a thrusting new block -- with improved technology.
Revisited, my photo essay from 'Artifacts,' seemed an appropriate way for me to articulate the events of a dot.com year in an art installation called 'Sonya's Office.' The collaboration, with London artist Richard Ducker, came about when he heard me talk about 'the computer heritage industry' on a BBC radio programme. He was also pondering the rate of obsolesence, transforming old monitors and keyboards into art, immobilising them with textured paint, and leaving them in a limbo state on trolleys, as if in a morgue.
Ducker's interest spoke of the incredible potency of old technology, and Julia Chenot Goodfox's final sentence is much welcomed in this context; the computer lives after they have been switched off, as data revived after days, or trapped in limbo for years. Change over time, however accelerated, leaves space for transformation. The photographs of people, places, and objects that I took on the hoof in January 2000, became illustrations for a book I had no idea I was writing until four months later, when the intensity of the story left me little option but to stay rooted in Silicon Valley, to capture the fall-out. Raised again, just weeks ago, and framed in gilt, the snapshots memorialised a lost time.
The oak tree portrait, which Julia Chenot Goodfox describes so well, is indeed a snapshot of ephemera. Visitors to the show thought it resembled a 19th century engraving heralding, in that context, the industrial age.
The computers huddled in the dark in 'Sonya's Office' had once been used there -- one still bore 'Post it' notes. I had found them dumped in the basement, all ready to be trashed, and hauled them up to give them a new context, as 'art.' A kind of archaeological rescue. Less sculpture, more social comment, as one reviewer noted. And, indeed, visitors stood in silent reverence, sometimes whispering 'I had one of those...'
Julia Chenot Goodfox is quite right about the book reading as autobiography in parts. Throughout 2000, I was shuffling back and forth between Silicon Valley and Oxford, a technological gulf of two years or more connected in a 10 hour flight. I was exhausted not by what I was finding on my travels -- my utter fascination overrode that -- but the almost-visceral jolt of those technological shifts, and the confusion of charting a territory where "all that was solid was melting into air" to paraphrase that great commentator of Modernity, Marshall Berman. Sometimes I fought to articulate what I was finding; 'The Upshot' as Julia Chenot Goodfox sagely notes, is as much about my trying to find myself again after a year of clutching at fragments.
Her comment about my descriptions of the cultural groups is a valid one, and in hindsight perhaps my sin is one of omission. However, SiliconIndia was a significant aspect of the cultural phenomenon, and one which celebrated its ability to retain an identity in California -- and that included dress and custom; my main interviewee's comments came out of her cultural experience, and it would have been disingenuous to leave those aspects out. At my request, she read the text before it was published. (The interviewees for my next book, btw, include a Navajo artist, who talks about using technology in a specific way; I feel no similar personal description necessary in this context). I did talk at length about foods sought out by the British, and that penchant for 'home' spoke a lot about my own culture, certainly.
'Artifacts' came about by happenstance -- a chance conversation on a plane after I had been bumped off another flight -- and so it was with that spirit that I attempted to chart that tumultuous year in Silicon Valley. Between the hardback of 2001, and the paperback of 2002, so much changed that I wrote an afterword, placing it after the index so not to disturb the original context. It also allowed me to discuss the book's reception in its heartland. I estimate that 80 per cent of what I gathered in my hunch-driven manner could not be gathered now. But the heritage once ignored as some old, old thing is back as a potent force. My book, and that of Castells, and 'Cultures@Silicon Valley' out of the ten-year project by Chuck Darrah, Jan English-Lueck and others at San Jose State University, can all be read as history.
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