I’ve been eagerly following the increasing media coverage of the Atari E.T. video game burial in Alamagordo, New Mexico over the last few months, thanks to the recent interest of Fuel Entertainment and Microsoft in this seminal urban myth (and perhaps urban truth?) of digital culture — there’s been coverage of the burial and of the ongoing effort to excavate it in Slate and the Associated Press and on All Things Considered, among others, and on the more academic side of things, Andrew Reinhard and Nick Montfort have both offered some really useful responses to the re-emergence of this story.
Although the excavation project seems to be at least momentarily on hold, it’s exciting to see this intriguing limit case of digital materiality getting so much attention in these contexts. The burial is something I’ve been thinking and writing about for a while: I published a piece on it in a special week on media nostalgia at In Media Res, and I’ve given talks on it at several conferences in the recent past. The piece below, which I imagine as part of Deletions, has itself been (wait for it) underground for a while, and I thought this was a good time to uncover it and bring it into the emerging conversation around the burial.
A few notes by way of introduction: this piece is perhaps more theoretical than a lot of what’s been published about the burial thus far. It’s also relatively unrevised from the form in which I last presented it, at a seminar on “Digital Things” at the 2012 ACLA Annual Meeting (my thanks to Benj Widiss, Charles Tung, and Joseph Jeong, who organized this seminar, as well as to my other fellow panelists for their comments and conversations about it). So rather than trying to take account of recent developments in the story just yet (as in the pieces I’ve mentioned and linked to above), as part of Deletions, this essay draws on media archaeology as a way of using the burial to think more broadly about the aesthetic, political, and historiographic turns that take place when media objects and forms disappear from circulation in radical material ways. I’d be grateful for any and all comments, and I hope to continue posting additions to this piece as the story develops!
Of Trash and Temporality
There is an archive in the desert. Not of paper or of celluloid, or even of magnetic tape, but rather of plastic and silicon, of circuitry, casing, and memory. Location unconfirmed, unaccessed and untouched, buried, sedimented, rusting. Or, perhaps precisely the opposite—there is no archive, no objects, nothing but sand. The difference between these two possibilities is, of course, absolutely everything. Yet as we shall see, this difference perhaps also means absolutely nothing.
The legend goes something like this: in early 1982, the Atari video game company and its parent unit Warner Communications were on top of the burgeoning video game industry, controlling as much as 80% of the home gaming market. Yet this success was destined to be short-lived: by the end of 1983, Atari had lost more than half a billion dollars, and had been sold off by Warner in what has since become known as the video game industry crash of 1983, a market-wide decline that would not be reversed in the United States until the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System several years later.
Part of the reason for Atari’s decline was surely financial, the result of dramatically overpromised earnings and allegations of insider trading. But this crash was also equally product-driven, the result of several high-profile failures: after a less-than-successful adaptation of the arcade smash Pac-Man, Atari signed a costly licensing deal to produce a video game adaptation of the blockbuster film E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Hoping to place the game in stores in time for the Christmas shopping season of 1982, the corporation allocated only six weeks for the entire development process from start to finish. Perhaps unsurprisingly, E.T. was a resounding failure, critically and particularly commercially: the game is often cited as one of the worst of all time, and out of five million cartridges produced, only 1.5 million were sold.
At this point, the facts become less widely agreed upon: popular legend has it that in September 1983, Atari drove somewhere between 10 and 20 truckloads of merchandise, including but not limited to a massive collection of unsold and returned E.T. cartridges, to a landfill in Alamagordo, New Mexico, buried this material, and paved over it with concrete. The site has subsequently become a touchstone of video gaming lore. Official and popular narratives of the events vary widely with regard to what was buried and why, with Atari executives and developers claiming that what was buried in New Mexico was inoperable, broken, and obsolete, and various gaming aficionados insisting that it must be something like the complete trove of missing E.T. cartridges, just waiting to be uncovered in the desert.
The Atari video game burial, as it’s come to be known, has acquired the status of urban legend, documented on Snopes.com, parodied in music video, and—perhaps most impressively—discussed and debated ad infinitum on the fan forum Atariage, in a 58-page, 1429-post thread dating from March 2005 to the present. One possible way to study this artifact, then, might be by way of a kind of anthropology or media history of the discourse that surrounds it online.
But I want to pursue the more suggestive and speculative possibility that there indeed are several million copies of a bomb of a video game buried somewhere in the New Mexico desert. In taking the myth at face value, I’m aligning myself with a set of critical approaches that often get categorized under the heading of media archaeology. Media archaeology seeks to circumvent media studies’ disciplinary fixation upon the new, reaching back into the media of previous decades and centuries not only in search of novel objects of study but also, more importantly, in search of a new method of study and a new narrative of media history itself.
In this sense, media archaeology seeks to operate as a kind of historical salvage operation, retrieving the dead ends and false starts of technological development in order to rewrite media history in the image of this detritus. As understood by Jussi Parikka, one of the methodology’s most vocal practitioners and proponents, within media archeology, “temporal excavation of media functions as a theoretical force as well; a reading of old media and new media in parallel lines. Media archaeology is decisively non-linear . . . it believes in the radical assembling of history, and histories in the plural”—what Parikka and Erkki Huhtamo describe in the introduction to a recent collection of essays on media archaeology as “alternate histories of suppressed, neglected, and forgotten media that do not point teleologically to the present media-cultural condition as their ‘perfection.’”
What kind of alternate history of the digital might we be able to trace if we take the desert location of the Atari burial as the imaginary birthplace of the digital? What narratives of materiality, capital, circulation, labor, and play might we be able to write if we take the site of the burial as a kind of ground zero of the digital? We might think of a number of symbolic locations as central to our narrative of media history: perhaps Bletchley Park, where British mathematician Alan Turing did the World War II codebreaking work that would lead to the development of the computer, or the California garage where Apple cofounders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak pioneered personal computing and the graphic user interface in the late 1970s—what happens if we replace these charged, symbolically dense spaces with the empty span of the desert?
Of course, part of the reason I want to think about the Atari burial along these lines is that the usually metaphorical valence of media archaeology as a critical rubric is in this case tantalizingly literal: what remains unseen to be unearthed here is not merely a lost history of digital things, but indeed the lost things themselves—not only the economic and cultural failure of the E.T. game, but also the detritus of its material aftereffects. In their looming, monolithic invisibility nearly 30 years after their presumed burial, these millions of identical objects laid against one another insist that we think the relations between materiality and temporality in new ways. In its massive, overwhelming and confounding scope, the burial seems to demand that we attend to the material specificity of the digital at levels that are paradoxically bracingly microscopic. Although it is a landfill in the literal, ecological, environmental sense of the word, it has a uniformity that one imagines is rarely found in more traditional landfills—it’s like something out of Borges, a vast lost library that’s profoundly different from a lost library comprised of multiple different texts (such as Alexandria) or from a singular, grail-like missing text. Yet at the same time, it is not the ultimate case of Baudrillardian simulation that it might at first seem to be; on the contrary, the burial’s seemingly endless proliferaton of the copy belies an equally dizzying idiosyncrasy, at once a dream and a nightmare of digital forensics.
Matthew Kirschenbaum, author of Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination, states that “Forensic method pries open the homogenous black box of on-screen electronic phenomena and allows us to discriminate among different types of data effects; different orders of volatility; different modes of storage, retrieval, and erasure” (“Every Contact”). Attempting to apply such discrimination to the contents of the Atari burial sends us down a rabbit hole of digital materiality: Which of the buried cartridges have been played? How many, and for how long? To what stage of completion? How many were never shipped, returned from retailers unsold, returned from buyers unopened, returned opened but never played? What technologies and techniques of retrieval, restoration, and emulation would it require to find out? In broaching questions such as these, we unearth the materiality of the digital in the colossal, hulking banality of individual consumer use, disuse, and disposal. Of course, given the contingencies of time, the elements, industrial compaction, and corporate subterfuge, such an exhaustive taxonomy of the landfill’s archive is as impossible as it is telling—or perhaps telling precisely in its impossibility.
In this sense, the landfill fits into Mark Sample’s vision of the category of fugitive texts, “fading away before our eyes, slipping away in the dark, texts we apprehend only in glimpses and glances. Texts that remind us what it means to disappear completely forever. The fugitive text,” Sample writes, “stands in defiant opposition to the archive. The fugitive text exists only as . . . a trace, a lingering presence that confirms the absence of a presence.” Sample’s conceit shows us that the question of the liminal visibility of the Atari landfill is a profoundly archival question on multiple levels. Present through its absence—nothing more and nothing less—the landfill is an archive that is itself a gap in the archive, a silence we can never grasp because of both its invisibility and its scope as a site of storage.
In thinking about how we might reckon with the macroscopic space of such a fugitive archive, I’m reminded of the American photographer Chris Jordan. Jordan works both ends of the representational and material scale that the Atari landfill occupies. His early work focuses on journalistic documentation of e-waste that veers towards abstraction precisely because of its massive material scale rather than in spite of it, while his more recent series employ a kind of meta-pointillism that produces representational, often canonical images by materially representing staggering environmental statistics that seem otherwise abstract—for example this image Caps Seurat, which reproduces Seurat’s Isle of La Grand Jatte through 400,000 bottle caps, the amount consumed in the United States every minute.
Yet if such a nonlinear history allows us to juxtapose the rusting, decades-old cartridges of the burial with Jordan’s contemporary e-waste, the burial also resonates with past historical moments of corporate material disposal in uncanny, unsettling ways. It’s commonly believed that part of the reason Atari made so many E.T. cartridges disappear was as a tax writeoff. A similar financial motivation runs through the history of the Zong, a British slave ship from the late eighteenth century. Sailing the middle passage in 1781, the crew of the Zong threw 133 slaves who had fallen ill into the Atlantic Ocean in an attempt to collect on their insurance policy. Rather than taking the risk that the slaves might not arrive in Jamaica in a salable state and that they thus might not be able to make a return on their investment at the slave markets in Kingston, the Zong’s officers reasoned that their cargo was worth more dead than alive. There’s a financial parallel between the actions of the Atari executives who approved the clandestine burial and the actions of the Zong’s officers: each group protects its economic interests by jettisoning inventory that the market might deem worthless, attempting to secrete it from view and from memory in a kind of geographical no-man’s-land, and relying on the workings of modern capitalism to weigh in their favor after the fact. However, I’ll be quick to acknowledge that, financial strategies aside, there’s a dramatic ethical difference here between the destruction of living human bodies and the disposal of electronic objects.
Yet that distinction becomes harder to hold as an absolute when we broaden our scope to take into account the complex system of production that exists around any digital object. Not unlike the lost histories of the slave trade, with its silent gaps in the colonial archive, these systems of production are often all but invisible—yet occasionally they explode into public view, as in the recent media attention to labor conditions within the Chinese electronics manufacturing corporation Foxconn. Foxconn is the largest private-sector employer in China, and is responsible for producing components for the iPhone (for which it’s perhaps most infamous), the iPad, Amazon’s Kindle, Sony Playstation 3, Nintendo Wii, and Microsoft Xbox 360. The company has been in the public eye a good deal in recent years, both for a number of industrial emergencies and for a rash of suicides that eventually prompted them to install suicide prevention nets.
Foxconn became well-known most prominently through coverage on NPR’s This American Life—the show aired an excerpt from storyteller Mike Daisey’s one-man-show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, in which Daisey, an avowed Apple fanatic, narrates the details of a trip to a Foxconn factory in the Shenzen Special Economic Zone, where he encounters workers who are variously underage, disenfranchised and disempowered, and physically and neurologically impaired because of working conditions there. Shortly after the epsiode’s initial airing in early 2012, NPR disclosed that Daisey fabricated much of his material, including some of his most graphic and affecting scenes, and This American Life has retracted the episode in question. There’s been a tremendous conversation in the wake of these events, touching on the meanings of journalism, art, narrative, genre, and witness, among other questions, and I couldn’t even begin to do justice to it here. But in a sense, my argument isn’t about Foxconn or Apple per se, but rather about the more global unevennesses and instabilities of the digital economy. After all, even if Daisey’s work becomes best known because of his misrepresentations, it’s precisely in the controversy around those misrepresentations that we see the need for a richer, longer, more complex material history of the digital object, whatever that history might yield. Indeed, the recent traumas and controversies around Foxconn prompt us to recognize that a digital object is never merely an object, but rather a complexly situated product, whose components are mined, produced, packaged, transported, and recycled by human subjects who live and die under these systems of advanced global technocapital.
Thus the forensic questions we might bring to the material of the Atari burial, or indeed any such digital object or collection of objects, start to multiply and take on double meanings in the shadow of such a history. We have to reckon with the unanswerable questions that I raised earlier regarding each cartridge’s microscopic material specificity, but we also have to reckon with an equally specific and unanswerable set of material questions about the human physicality, vulnerability, and mortality that fuels the chain of production: where was the object built, and by whom? Who mined its materials? Who will break them down once the device inevitably becomes “obsolete?” How do we allow their stories to be told, and what stakes do we face if we refuse or fail to do so? I haven’t found any definitive information about Atari’s industrial infrastructure in the early 1980s, but I want to suggest that we have to ask these questions of E.T. as well as of the iPhone, of the past as well as of the present. Daisey’s show, precisely in what has been described as a failure of credibility, underscores the impossibility of answering these questions, of doing justice to such a fragmentary, nonlinear, lost history of the digital object—but in raising these questions, and in tracing the geoeconomic circuits they illuminate, we see another layer within that history.
In his book Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History, Ian Baucom theorizes the Zong tragedy through an unread letter from the ship’s officers to the Lords Commissioners of the British Admiralty, seeking their recompense for their lost investment of 133 human bodies. In response to the gap in the archive produced by this letter going unread, by this silence within history, Baucom imagines a theory of history influenced by Walter Benjamin, Giovanni Arrighi, and Edouard Glissant, in which “time does not pass but accumulates. . . . [H]istory comes to us not only as flash or revelation but piling up,” enduring and sedimentary in a fashion that resonates with both the lost bodies of the Zong and Atari’s countless cartridges buried in the desert. Yet this is an economic theory as much as a historigraphic one: in reflecting on the brutalizing abstractions of eighteenth-century finance capital that provide the conditions of possibility for the Zong tragedy in particular and the slave trade in general, Baucom suggests that the twentieth- and twenty-first-century present is not the waning residue of these conditions but rather their intensified persistence. Borrowing from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, he ends his work with the haunting assertion that the history of the Zong “is, not was. . . . Because all of it is now, it is always now” (333).
I want to end by suggesting that even if it’s at a starkly different political level, the Atari burial of 1983 is always now as well—that it’s part of a historical palimpsest that cuts across the spaces of the Atlantic, the desert of New Mexico, and the electronics factories of Shenzen, as well as perhaps the Congolese mines where workers extract from the ground the precious minerals that line the circuitry of our cell phones and the recycling fields of Guiyu, China, the world’s largest electronic waste site, often referred to as the world’s electronic graveyard, where workers strip those devices back down—indeed even as we follow a single digital object from cradle to grave, we cannot avoid returning to the same scenes in reverse. There’s an eerie constellation of forces among these locations, shaped by burial, sedimentation, accumulation, silence, invisibility, disposability, reuse, the mortal vulnerability of the laboring human subject, and above all by the ways in which capital pressures the things that no longer fuel it to disappear from its history—the dying body, the obsolete technology, what Sean Cubitt refers to as “last year’s model” that becomes an avant-garde by way of remaining and decaying rather than through transforming and returning. Viewed through such a constellation, if we see the silent space of Alamogordo, New Mexico as a birthplace of the digital, perhaps we also have to see it as a place where we have already been and a place we will return to again.