Marshall McLuhan, in his widely read 1964 book, Understanding Media, declared to the world “the medium is the message.”1 That is to say, the medium through which we communicate holds as much meaning as the content of that message. McLuhan adds, even the “content of any medium is always another medium,”2 so through time messages become mediums become messages, layering themselves into dense strata. Over the last two decades, scholars in disciplines across the humanities developed media archaeology as a theoretical foundation for understanding these historical layers of our media. By “layering” media next to each other (like geological strata), we can compare and analyze the attributes of each medium as well as track innovations and erasures across a media history. The field looks backward in order to observe the present—media archaeology is “retrospective, even if it is not traditionally historical or progressivist,”3 it “excavates the ways in which newer media work to remediate earlier forms and practices,” and “sketches out how older media help to premediate new ones,” reading the “‘new’ against the grain of the past.”4 Media surround us everywhere and not simply as immaterial information but as a web of practices, physical objects and spaces, as well as ideas. By comparing our media of the present to the media of the past, and our current impact on our planet to our impact of the past, we find ourselves in a better position to speak to our current habits and make informed judgments on the future implications of our actions.

In A Geology of Media, Jussi Parikka proposes an alternative media history that extends to “materials, metals, waste, and chemistry,” i.e. the physical as well as the temporal dimensions of our media technology. This “environmental and ecological agenda,” gives Parikka’s book an exigence that surpasses other more historically focused studies in media archaeology. A Geology of Media approaches media in a way that can reveal the metallic makeup of an object, the environmental impact of production, the labor conditions in the factories, and the impact of the waste produced upon a media object’s disposal, all of which can be measured to divulge a much larger meaning in their media history and speak to the material impact our communicative practices have upon our external environment.5 The book not only directs its attention to the most granular components that make up our media, but it also closely attends to global economic concerns. Parikka argues that “the nonhuman elements contributing to capitalism must become more visible, grasped, and understood—as part of surplus creation as well as the related practices of exploitation.”6 By understanding our media and its role in our economic and labor structures, we might better understand our human impact upon the earth, revealing the true costs of our communication systems.

Given the fact that theories of media have sprung up at the same rate as new media, it’s fair to ask what this media archaeology offers. Why should we use this approach to understand the history of media studies, and why choose this manner to observe the ideas and objects we relate to in our world today? Media archaeology, as a field of critical media studies, is generally considered a means of engaging in comparative media studies. Wolfgang Ernst elaborates further, “media archaeology is both a method and an aesthetics of practicing media criticism, a kind of epistemological reverse engineering, and an awareness of moments when media themselves … become active ‘archaeologists’ of knowledge.”7 Siegfried Zielinski, in his own media anarchaeology, investigates the deep time8 of media, examining particularly intensive periods of productivity in the history of media by making cuts in time, studying the exposed surfaces, and observing individual variations (similarly informed by the geological metaphor), that speak to larger turning points in the long timeline of media history.9 Both Ernst and Zielinski set the foundation for engaging with a historical approach to media studies, a groundwork upon which Parikka builds. While Media archaeology has provided a basis for studying media history in layers and is seen as an approach that looks backwards, digs, and excavates in order to understand the present, Parikka adapts the field’s geologically inspired metaphors to contemporary material concerns in a far more granular manner. Where previously, periods of media history were cut and cross-sectioned,10 now A Geology of Media proposes a framework that permits closer observation of the media and their materiality. Parikka, engaging with a comparative media approach, tends to focus his writing more on the present period while remaining invariably conscious of the past events leading up to those of the present. Certainly Parikka is intrigued by a layered media history and the importance of looking back in time, but for Parikka, this involvement need not come at the cost of attending to very real concerns surrounding contemporary labor, material, and environmental expenditures.

One of Parikka’s most compelling arguments is derived from his split with traditional notions of the “deep time of media.” In the first sense, the deep time of media concerns itself with the “affordances that enable digital media to exist as a materially complex and politically economically mediated realm of production and process: a metallic materiality that links the earth to the media technological.”11 In the second sense, and a particularly consequential claim, he writes that temporalities such as deep time are understood as not just an “alternative account as concretely linked to the nonhuman earth times of decay and renewal but also to the current Anthropocene and the obscenities of the ecocrisis—or to put it in one word, the Anthrobscene.”12 This term, the Anthrobscene, refers quite literally to the obscenities of the Anthropocene. More than this, the term signifies a way of understanding the environmental impact of the energy intensive age caused by human production and destruction. As Parikka explains it, “environmental themes become a way to articulate a global history that offers a complementary narrative to globalization, as told through the media technological and capitalist expansion of trade, travel, and communication routes over the past centuries” as well as its “acceleration in past decades.”13 The Anthrobscene is a mode of understanding the physical human impact on the earth from the inception of our species to the present, particularly upon the accelerated energy consumption dating from the first instances of human coal mining.14 To map the distribution of the human species on the globe, we might abridge its explanation in Anthropocene (or Anthrobscene) climate terms—according to “Anthrobscene logic: the North affords the Cool, the South provides the Cheap (labor).”15 Through the text, this term remains a recurring theme and reference point that speaks to an entire era of intense human impact on the environment and the subsequent narrative that emerges, not from the human voice, but told through the existence and study of media technology.

The global and geological nature of media’s impact can be found in one component of the earth’s geology, spread across the entire planet, dust. Dust surrounds us everywhere—it can transform itself and can escape any grip, it is amorphous and metamorphic, and most importantly, “dust forms geological strata.”16 Dust is a byproduct in modern manufacturing, but can also disrupt the very devices and systems it was once a part of. Dust, although very slowly, buries human things, it layers our “obsolescent technologies, wrecks, and monuments” and provides archival provenance, when it “marks the temporality of matter, a processual materiality of piling up, sedimenting, and … transformations of solids to ephemeral and back.”17 In one of Parikka’s examples he describes how aluminum, particularly polished aluminum, becomes a fetishized object in the current era—its “fetishlike shininess defines Italian futurism as much as post-World War II automobile culture.”18 It is not until we recognize what it takes to produce the “shiny” effect that we observe the “labor—of factories, production lines, and lung diseases—shows a different notion of immateriality;” the immateriality of the lungs appears more measured as we consider the ways aluminum dust can come to disrupt otherwise overlooked breathing habits.19 This material effect, the mirror-like aluminum, is achieved at the expense of the workers’ health, traced through the act of their very breathing. Parikka’s investigations are not limited to the geology of the media itself, but address humanist concerns surrounding the production, refinement, and fabrication of the material assemblage. Employees at major factories, including Foxconn, a primary supplier for Apple, who live in company housing in work environments plagued by “worker suicides, which are indexical of the wider health issues;” these suicides directly result from performing the labor that ensures “our iPads are shiny and properly polished.”20 Thus, the process of “surplus creation” and the “related practices of human exploitation” become perpetually clear, making apparent the necessity of contemporaneously observing the human and nonhuman factory elements.

Parikka describes his book as part of the material landscape it defines,21 leaving little room for misinterpretation about the ubiquity and consequent exigence of his topic. This is clearly evident in the text’s construction, from its precisely demarcated, stratified chapters, to the coherence of the argument within each layer; the book, indeed, has a geology of its own. Parikka is inspired by the materiality of our technology and exposes its construction in an attempt to strip away our biases—the NSA’s colossal PRISM program is described as a collection of “lonely data server farms”22 and other post 9/11 surveillance mechanisms are described as arrangements of physical networks, their components are studied piece by piece.23 Parikka, again and again, details intriguing cases that link our network infrastructures, storage devices, and screens to the mines and factories that enable their production—he traces rare earth mining operations to iPhone, revealing how “the bigger picture becomes clear when we realize the extent to which technical media end up disused.” It is at this point, he says that this media “reveal their geology.”24 As we examine this book and dig deeper into the text, we as readers find ourselves not forsaken at the bottom of a hole, but rather standing in a vast cavern, observing the intricacies of each strata.

  1. Marshall McCluhan, Understanding Media: Extensions of Man (McGraw-Hill, 1964), 1. Available online

  2. McCluhan Understanding History, 1. 

  3. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “Enduring Ephemeral, or the Futue is a Memory,” Critical Inquiry 35 (Autumn 2008), 151. Available online

  4. Parikka quotes Geert Lovink in his introduction to Media Archaeology. Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka, “Introduction: An Archaeology of Media Archaeology” in Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka, eds., Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications (University of California Press, 2011), 3. 

  5. Parikka A Geology of Media, 5. 

  6. Parikka A Geology of Media, 20. 

  7. Wolfgang Ernst, “Media Archaeography: Method and Machine versus History and Narrative of Media” in Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka, eds., Media Archaeology, 55. Ernst describes media archaeology “associated with the rediscovery of cultural and technological layers of previous media.” 

  8. This is originally a geological term. 

  9. Siegfried Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media: Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means (MIT Press, 2008) 7. This is what he calls forming his basis on the “variantology of the media.” 

  10. Zielinski Deep Time of the Media, 6-7. 

  11. Zielinski Deep Time of the Media, 44. 

  12. Zielinski Deep Time of the Media, 44. 

  13. Zielinski Deep Time of the Media, 19. 

  14. As Parikka notes, the emergence of significant coal mines datesto the Song Dynasty (960-1279) of China (A Geology of Media, 17). 

  15. Parikka A Geology of Media, 25. 

  16. Parikka A Geology of Media, 85. 

  17. Parikka A Geology of Media, 85-6. 

  18. Parikka A Geology of Media, 89. 

  19. Parikka A Geology of Media, 91. 

  20. Parikka A Geology of Media, 89. 

  21. Parikka A Geology of Media, 25. 

  22. Parikka A Geology of Media, 29. 

  23. One example of network infrastructure Parikka describes are the submarine fiber-optic cables that connect our global communication networks (the “Atlantis-2 connects South America to Europe and Africa”) (A Geology of Media, 29). 

  24. Parikka A Geology of Media, 47.