I’m feeling far from the Indiana Jones of media archeology lately.
I know that analogy doesn’t work on so many levels, but perhaps it best captures my rather bumbling cluelessness as I attempt to grasp what it means to experiment with old technologies without slipping down the cave entrance into nostalgia with all its “it was better back in the day” sentiments. After all, Zielinski makes it clear that’s not the intention:
“My quest in researching the deep time of media constellations is not a contemplative retrospective not an invitation to cultural pessimists to indulge in nostalgia” (10).
Or here’s another way of putting it a page later:
“These excursions into deep time of the media do not make any attempt to expand the present nor do they contain any plea for slowing the pace” (11).
So, already I feel like I’m off to a rather bad start. When I approached the NES in the lab last week, it was difficult not to begin putting the machine in a nostalgic context. I recalled with fondness the hours spent playing it in my grandparents’ basement on an old, wooden framed television set, what it meant to be young in the 90s and oops, here we go. Instantly, it feels like I’ve put the machine into a “had to be there” category. Perhaps it would be easier if I selected something outside my realm of experience and memory, though it seems that media archeology does not require these artifacts to be alien or long buried and nearly forgotten before being examined; in fact, it seems crucial–in unhinging this dominant, homogenizing narrative of technological progress–that we always look to the recent past, no matter what our involvement (perhaps our witnessing makes our reflections all the more poignant).
Therefore, back to the NES. Will and I fired up some Contra (we didn’t remember the 99 lives cheat code, so that was short lived), followed by Super Mario Bros, followed by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2. I tried to keep in mind Zielinski’s vision of what such study should be:
“The goal is to uncover dynamic moments in the media archaeological record that abound and revel in heterogeneity and, in this way, to enter into a relationship of tension with various present-day moments, revitalize them, and render them more decisive” (11).
Or, to say this in another way:
“On the contrary, we shall encounter past situations where things and situations were still in a state of flux, where the options for development in various directions were still wide open, where the future was conceivable as holding multifarious possibilities of technical and cultural solutions for constructing media worlds” (10).
But yikes, that second excerpt’s past tense usage, when situations were still in flux, when options were still wide open, when the future was conceivable as holding multifarious possibilities. It was hard not to read that like the fall of man, or the opening song to All in the Family nostalgically titled “Those Were the Days.” Because if things were open, what were they now? Was all hope lost now that we were no longer in that past time of openness, that we had moved to a monopolized technological present where user-friendly ideology had squashed innovation and experimentation? I could certainly get behind that. But, in avoiding cultural pessimism–the thinking that the past was always better–didn’t this conclusion directly conflict with the main tenants of media archeology study? Perhaps we’re not supposed to assign any value to “open” and “closed” (as good and bad), but it’s a binary that I feel is being set up and not entirely dismantled. I would be more comfortable thinking that as some things streamline, others are moving into flux or chaos, therefore making the past tense unnecessary. (An example of this may be how the music industry streamlined to CDs, then mp3s, but now, between internet piracy and hipster demand for vinyl, we’ve seen changes in both media and profits.)
“Do not seek the old in the new, but find something new in the old” (3)–despite my other issues with understanding the examination of the deep time of media, perhaps this was a statement I could truly get behind. After all, it did not seem to be passing judgment, but instead erasing the distinction between new and old. And, this process of finding the new in the old is paramount to showing how narratives of technological progress have thrown out anything that hasn’t lived up to the present under the guise that it simply wasn’t as good (a survival of the fittest mindset for technology).
So, as Will and I played TMNT 2, I tried to keep thinking new in the old, new in the old. And I came across its overt product placement.
Every few feet in the platform style game (as we fought ninjas down the hallway of April’s burning apartment complex), there were posters on the wall with the Pizza Hut logo. In ways it was unsurprising (considering product placement today), but the ways it was implemented were strange. Of course, modern sports video games (Madden, Gran Turismo) make great use of product placement which often–crazily enough–adds to their “realistic” factor. But what surprised me–even in a game where it’s well known that the characters dig pizza–is that we don’t see more in-game product placement today. Why not have Commander Shepherd sipping on a Coca Cola in a Mass Effect cut scene? Why not have the Joker eating McDonalds as he taunts Batman in the Arkham series? (The clown angle even!)
Product placement is so often done in movies and television shows today; it does seem strange video games have not been similarly NASCARed. Of course, a notable exception may be mobile device gaming, where ads either interrupt gameplay or run as banners above and below the screen. However, if one chooses to “buy” the game, the ads usually go away. We pay much, much more for TV shows (commercials aside) and movies, but we don’t get to “pay away” their product placement. Though I am somewhat glad that we aren’t being as advertised to on top of all the other ideologies broadcast by video games, it does seem that something new was left in something old. Don’t tell “satan’s little helpers,” as the late Bill Hicks would say (I kid because I’m a moonlight marketer, I’ll expect rotten cabbages tomorrow…)
Nevertheless, I worry that this is still not the point of media archeology. With such discussion of flux and possibilities and heterogeneity, pointing out some minor detail feels like I’m missing the bigger picture. I suppose it’s because I feel that media archeology functions more successfully on a macro level than a micro one. Then again, maybe it’s just going to take time to undo this grand narrative indoctrination that the new is always an improvement on the old, or that the things left behind were left behind with good reason. Right now I still feel stuck in the snake pit, or between the closing walls….whatever Indiana Jones reference you’d like.