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Artifacts: An Archaeologist's Year in Silicon Valley

Author: Christine A. Finn
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002
Review Published: October 2004

 REVIEW 1: Julia Chenot GoodFox
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Christine Finn

In The Rise of the Network Society, the sociologist Manuel Castells states that technology neither determines society nor does society "script the course of technological change." "Technology is society," argues Castells. As he begins his description of information technology as society, Castells points to a notable location in computer history whose activities assisted in releasing the computer from its hitherto primary function as a jet quick mathematical calculator and data processor. The increased merging of information and electronic computers in the 1970s, Castells reminds us, occurred from a particular "segment of American society" working mainly in California, specifically in the fifteen cities which journalist Don Hoofer popularized as "Silicon Valley" (Castells 5). Networked Society is the first volume from The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture, an engaging three volume macroscopic analysis of, among other things, tracking modern social and cultural patterns of the computing society [1].

The archaeologist Christine Finn's book, Artifacts: An Archaeologist's Year in Silicon Valley, explores the Valley in its role as a fountainhead of the computer society. Despite the vast disparity in length -- and the different intellectual homes of Finn and Castells -- there are significant overlaps between Finn's collected vignettes and Castells' mammoth undertaking. Both works share an interest in presenting new understandings of location, economy, employment, and identity against the backdrop of computers. As an archaeologist, however, Finn's methodology involves gathering evidence through observation, reading material culture, and conducting interviews. She then weaves together microscopic or episodic pastiches in an attempt to chronicle actual and perceived "rates of change in meaning" (123).

In the chapters "The Way to San Jose," "I Remember the Orchards..." and "Is This It?", informants do explicitly discuss their respective confrontations with changing meanings while residing in SiVa. But midway through Artifacts, Finn quotes Nicholas Negroponte: "Computing is not about computers anymore. It's about living" (103). Indeed, it is the Negroponte quote that Artifacts seems most concerned. Over the course of twenty-seven chapters or what she terms "a series of snapshots," Finn is mostly directed to national, regional, personal, and material perspectives of "computing is living" with and without capturing rates of changing meaning. And whereas Castells illuminates how technology is society -- computing is living -- through detailed and insightful extrapolations gathered from the social sciences, Finn illustrates the Negroponte quote through testimony garnered from the voices of the Silicon Valley residents themselves.

It is not uncommon for computer scholars to mention The Fear. The Fear is of producing quickly out of date scholarship on a technology that changes as rapidly as do computers [2]. Finn addresses The Fear not in the beginning of her book, but in her Afterward which itself was uniquely placed after the Index. Artifacts circumvents this concern through its focus, not on computing technology per se, but on the environmental and social context of Silicon Valley. The result is a book that should be of interest to scholars working in computing -- and also to a multidisciplinary range of individuals working in American studies, ethnicity studies, history, regional studies, sociology, urban planning, and, yes, material culture and archaeology. Finn's fine journalistic writing style, including a lack of footnotes, also serves to make this book accessible to the general reader. Indeed, she finesses her narrative with pleasant turns of phrases, including my favorite in which she describes lost or missing data as the Aurora Borealius of cyberspace (173).

Finn categorizes her fieldwork into four sections: The Place; The People; The Tech; and The Upshot. In addition -- and in keeping with the snapshot nature of her methodology -- Finn begins Artifacts with a thirty-two paged photo essay. The photos are arranged in sets on two-page layouts, and arguably provide the book's most compelling testimony to Finn's rates of change thesis which is visually represented in the orchard industry (the valley's initial major employer), the housing market (hefty priced 900 sq. ft. homes), and computing landmarks (the Hewlett-Packard garage and ubiquitous Yahoo! marquees). In its juxtaposition of images, the photo essay also draws parallels between museum and personal artifacts, and, intriguingly, the costumes worn by workers at Intel and at an undisclosed amusement park. The essay ends rather poignantly with a newspaper ad stating "A month ago, you were a 28 year-old millionaire. Now, you're just 28" opposite of a photo Finn took of an oak tree. Abandoned shopping carts lie underneath the tree. Newsprint is harvested from trees, and so the oak tree photo reminded me of that time when personal computers began to proliferate non-enterprise locations and "the paperless office" became an in-stock phrase. Of course, increasingly sophisticated and inexpensive printer technology halted the paperless ideal. As I examined this concluding set of photos, I wondered if Finn meant to convey a relationship between the environment, the environment of computing technology and consumerism, and the ephemeral? No doubt other readers will form differing interpretations.

Environment, notably built environments, is an implicit yet central actor in Artifacts. While regional studies of the computing industry traditionally focus on education and employment, Finn is centrally concerned with the ways in which residents understand and interact with their "computer is living" environment [3]. The foregrounded role of residents, which includes individuals who do not explicitly work in the computer industry but nevertheless interact with its economy, makes Artifacts a unique contribution to computer studies. Interestingly, Finn does place import on the particularistic identities of her resident informants. That is, she describes the ethnic, national, and workplace cultures of some Silicon Valley residents. Irritating, however, is Finn's non-reflexive habit of pointing out "the otherness" of those residents who are not "white" or "Anglo" in characterizations such as "another Oriental woman" (164). This habit is particularly notable in "The People" section. In the chapter "Crossing Cultures," Finn explicitly describes the physical appearances, dress, and scent of her informants from India or whose ancestors are from India—turbans, saris, hennaed-hands, aroma of lunchtime curry. She briefly describes the Hakone Japanese Gardens in Saratoga, California, as "another cultural conundrum." Since none of her informants have mentioned navigating multiethnic cultures as problematic, I wondered for whom the conundrum existed. When Finn describes the British residents in the Valley, she neglects to mention their physical appearances or specific scents.

Finn's focus on environment and place, including displacement, is the unifying thread in her study of "computing is living." In the book's first section, built environments and disappearing landscapes are among the subjects as Finn touches upon faux-Egyptian architecture and diminishing orchards. The social construction of place is a significant actor in the section "The People." In "The Tech," Finn directs her attention to informants who engage with the computer landscape through activities that include collecting and recycling computers.

Yet displacement also is a key actor throughout the sections as informants share tales about losing documents somewhere in a hard drive or changing jobs. At times, however, it seems that Artifacts is somewhat autobiographical, and that it is Finn, away for a year from her home in England, who must contend with dislocations. In the concluding short section "The Upshot" -- which is introduced by a second photo of that oak tree -- its meandering nature provides less focus than was present in the rest of the book. She begins the last chapter, "Logging Off," by stating that Silicon Valley is the most culturally-diverse area she has ever visited on the globe. Finn concludes the chapter with her impression of a telephone interview that she attempted with a weary Arthur C. Clarke whom she believes "wants little more than some old, old thing" (213). Does this sentiment also reflect the musings of Finn the visitor, herself a stranger in a strange land, who at the end of a culturally rich "archeology" site describes it as an exhausting tour?

Interestingly the bulk of Artifacts reads not just as the reflections of an archaeologist excavating a computer society. Artifacts also is reminiscent of one of the first literary genres that emerged about what eventually became the United States: the travelogue [4]. These early travel writings were concerned with many of the themes that Finn explores -- science and technology, the culture of living, alienation and connections, the other. I must interject here to say that, up to now, "the other" has never explicitly appeared in my readings of computing history. I was fascinated by Finn's exploration of Silicon Valley given that her aim was to write Artifacts "from the perspective of an archaeologist as a foreign correspondent" (xiii). As scholars know, such research is mined with the ever-present danger of overlooking subtleties, misunderstanding cues, and relying on misleading assumptions (i.e. Finn's past-tensing of Indigenous Peoples throughout the book). With this in mind, Finn's intellectual training in archaeology provides her with a mindset in which she poses questions -- that she does not always choose to answer -- which traditional computing scholars might not ask. Indeed, if technology is society, or computing is living, then Finn's book serves as a reminder that computing does not end when one turns off her hard drive.

1. Lest Castells or the informants in Artifacts implicitly or explicitly assume that electronic computers created our information age, Alfred Chandler, Jr., and James Cortada edited a volume arguing that an information infrastructure was vital to the creation and growth of the United States. See Chandler, A. and J. Cortada, eds. (2003). In addition, Castells' "technology is society" thesis will be familiar to readers of earlier technology scholars Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul.

2. Paul Ceruzzi provides a salient description of this phenomenon in the Preface to the Second Edition of A History of Modern Computing (2003). Recently a RCSS book reviewer provided advice on not producing quickly dated scholarship. See Edward Castronova, "Trigger Happy: Videogames and the Entertainment Revolution," January 2004.

3. See Saxenian (1994).

4. It was not unusual for English travel literature, including captivity narratives, to describe activities which the modern reader would categorize as science and technology. An anthology of these works includes Wendy Martin, ed., Colonial American Travel Narratives (1994).

Castells, M. (2002). The Rise of the Network Society, 2nd edition. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.

Ceruzzi, P. (2003). A History of Modern Computing, 2nd Edition. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Chandler, A. and J. Cortada, eds. (2003). A Nation Transformed by Information: How Information Has Shaped the United States from Colonial Times to the Present. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Martin, W. ed. (1994). Colonial American Travel Narratives. New York: Penguin Books.

AnnaLee Saxenian's Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128 (1994), Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

Julia Chenot GoodFox:
Julia Chenot GoodFox is a doctoral student in American Studies at the University of Kansas where she researches science, medicine, and technology of the Americas. Her current projects are (1) constructing the cultural histories of software development and use in the United States and (2) researching the relationships between the public health of selected American Indian Nations, federal policy, professional organizations (e.g. AMA), and educational institutions during the nineteenth century. She reviewed Bootstrapping: Douglas Engelbart, Coevolution, and the Origins of Personal Computing for RCCS.  <goodfox@ku.edu>

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