Babbage Claim: A Media Archeology Primer

Steampunk, that excitingly innovative yet alienatingly weird subculture, possesses hints of nostalgia, punk-rock attitude, and a love for self-styled, homemade gadgets. William Gibson and Bruce Sterling provided an easy touchstone with their 1990 book The Difference Engine (Bantam Spectra), a revisionist history of the world in which Charles Babbage actually finished a steam-powered calculating machine and the information age preceded the industrial revolution. Another great example is Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985). The movie’s ontology operates atop what Barry Brummett (1999) points out is a machine metaphor. He writes, “Several references within the film make it clear that the characters regard their society as if it were a machine” (p. 122). Certainly Babbage aimed at divining this universal machine or at least harnessing its hidden power (see Spufford & Uglow, 1996; as well as Babbage’s memoirs, 1864; 1994), and so it goes with steampunk as a whole.

Sam Lowry takes the promotion, disappointing his boss Mr. Kurtzmann.

This strange machinery is keeping you from seeing me.
— Ride, “Leave Them All Behind”

After applying a twisted version of media archeology in his last book, Jussi Parikka has come to explicate the approach proper. Under the playful guise of legitimizing a steampunk approach to media studies, What is Media Archeology? (Polity, 2012) introduces the field with just as much fun and fervor. It makes way more sense that it seems to at first. Steampunk, so named to contrast it with cyberpunk, looks to the past as well as the future and wonders whether certain initial conditions could change the outcome of our machinic media-madness. Digging up pieces of the past, media archeology seeks the same. So, beyond the weak tie to a sci-fi subgenre, what is media archeology? Parikka breaks it down on his website like this:

If you ask Erkki Huhtamo or Siegfried Zielinski, you might get a different answer than from asking me. For Huhtamo, it is the recurring topoi/topics of media culture; for Zielinski, a poetic exploration of deep times and variantology; and so forth. For me, it is an exciting theoretical opening to think about material media cultures in a historical perspective. However, it expands into an experimental set of questioning about time, obsolescence, and alternative histories as well. In one way, it is about analyzing the conditions of existence of media cultural objects, processes and phenomena. It picks up on some strands of ‘German media theory’, but connects that to other debates in cultural theory too. I like what Bernhard Siegert has said about the early ethos of media archaeology being that of Nietzschean gay science — experimental, exploratory, radical. Perhaps in this vein, media archaeology is one answer to the need to think transdiscplinary questions of art, science, philosophy, and technology.

Following Michel Foucault, Friedrich Kittler, Paul Virilio, Katherine Hayles, Geert Lovink and Jeffrey Sconce, among others, the field has a pedigree, and Parrika’s book is the first to align its lineage. Further afield, Media Archeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications, edited by Parikka and his colleague Erkki Huhtamo (University of California Press, 2011), samples the many flavors of media archeology. In many ways, the field offers an alternative to simply historical views of media (see Wolfgang Ernst, this volume). It is “first and foremost a methodology,” as Geert Lovink (2004) put it, “a hermeneutic reading of the ‘new’ against the grain of the past, rather than telling the histories of technologies from past to present” (p. 11). For example, citing Howard Rheingold‘s discussions of the development of Apple’s Smalltalk (primarily by Alan Kay; see Tools for Thought, 1985), and Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language (Oxford University Press, 1977) via the germinal book Design Patterns (Addison-Wesley, 1994), Casey Alt illustrates how object-orientation pushed programmers from mere computer programming to media-making. By allowing them to see the machine as many machines, each with access to all of the machine’s resources, they could see potential past its place as one big computing device.

Also consider the indexing of dead media. Media are “dead” based on their manufacture, adoption, business viability, etc. (or lacks thereof rather), but all of these aspects vary, overlap, and waver in and out of relevance. “Radio didn’t kill newspapers, TV didn’t kill radio or movies, video and cable didn’t kill broadcast network TV;” writes Bruce Sterling, “they just all jostled around seeking a more perfect app.” From the onset of the digital and imaginary media to dead devices and the world of sound, finding these (non)lineages as such and predicting the present is what media archeology is all about. As Manuel De Landa (2000) wrote, “Human history is a narrative of contingencies, not necessities, of missed opportunities to follow different routes of development, not of a unilinear succession of ways to convert energy, matter, and information into cultural products” (p. 99). Indeed.

So, what if Charles Babbage had finished the Difference Engine? What if one cog in the universal machine were different? What happens when dead media come back to life? Outside of the speculations of steampunk and science fiction, media archeology provides a method for finding out. If you’re interested in a finding a new way to how we got to today, these two books are the place to start.


Babbage, Charles. (1864; 1994). Passages from the Life of a Philosopher. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press

Brummett, Barry. (1999). Rhetoric of Machine Aesthetics. Westport, CT: Praeger.

De Landa, Manuel. (2000). A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History. New York: Zone Books.

Gardener, Mark. (1992). Leave Them All Behind [Recorded by Ride]. On Going Blank Again [Record]. United Kingdom: Creation Records.

Huhtamo, Erkki & Parikka, Jussi (Eds.). (2011). Media Archeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Lovink, Geert. (2004). My First Recession: Critical Internet Culture in Transition. Rotterdam, Netherlands: NAi/V2.

Milchan, Arnon (Producer), & Gilliam, Terry. (Writer/Director). (1985). Brazil [Motion picture]. United Kingdom: Universal Studios.

Parikka, Jussi. (2012). What is Media Archeology? Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Rheingold, Howard. (1985). Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Spufford, Francis & Uglow, Jenny. (1996). Cultural Babbage: Technology, Time, and Invention. London: faber & faber.