Caroline Bassett
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Discontinuous continuity
How anti-computing time-travels

This chapter considers the temporal dynamics of anti-computing, focusing on the tendency of tropes of dissent and anxiety around the computational to rise and fall but also to return and trouble the present. The goal of the chapter is to produce a form of thinking the technological that is apt for the consideration of anti-computing formations – taking cognisance both of their material underpinnings and the ideological heft of computational capitalism and its claim to be compulsory. The route taken goes first by way of a critical but appreciative engagement with media archaeology, approached by way of Foucault’s discussion of the sleep of history. Media archaeological approaches, drawing on this, but exchanging the document for the technical material, and focusing on disjuncture and on non-linear accounts are then explored, and deployed to develop a sense of anti-computing as non-continuous but recurrent.

The focus then shifts to consider systemic factors that media archaeology largely sets aside in its concentration on the material effects of technical media; this demands a consideration of anti-computing as a formation produced by and within computational capitalism – and produces the conundrum of resistance within what has become compulsory. Finding a way through these conflicts it is argued that anti-computing itself can present a challenge to strongly new materialist forms of media archaeology whilst also making evident the need for forms of cultural materialism that continue to reach beyond representation and that find new ways to grapple with the specificity of digital media.

The use of concepts of discontinuity, rupture, threshold, limit, series, and transformation present all historical analysis not only with questions of procedure, but with theoretical problems. It is these problems that will be studied here.

(Foucault, 1972: 21)

What began as a cultural and medium-theoretic study roving across a series of sites increasingly involved engagement with issues of computer history; this came to seem essential to understanding and constructing anti-computing. But why look back? Following the turn of the decade, as I complete this book, there is abundant hostility to computing, anxiety about its impacts, and rejection of its visions in the here and now. Automation anxieties around the future of work are fuelling a new anti-computational turn, data-surveillance issues haunt formal politics, and there is rising concern over screen ‘addiction’ in the young. Limit points are being declared and last-chance saloons announced. The massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019, streamed live for a cruelly long time and endlessly disseminated, seemed to many to at once exemplify everything wrong with the platforms – deemed uncaring, unable to control what they unleashed, and not choosing to do so since their end goal is profit, not social well-being; and to point to everything wrong with digital humans, whose capacity to share ugliness and to share extremism appears to expand in tandem with the expansion of the means to do so. Since then, not much has changed, although that event has receded from consciousness – unconscionably quickly, perhaps. So, why not stay in the here and now and explore contemporary hostility? My response is that to remain entirely within the present and/or within near future horizons (real and imaginary) risks succumbing to forms of presentism prevalent both within the computational mainstream and within many of the anti-computational formations investigated here. These forms of presentism are questioned in this book.

So, as well as being a cultural study, this book is a cultural history, albeit of a discontinuous kind. The hope is that historical inquiry re-energizes explorations of the contemporary condition because it offers a route through which to examine the ‘plastic’ (Uprichard, 2013) forms of presentism that many have identified as part of the current ‘conjuncture’ or moment (e.g. Liu, 2004, Jameson, 2015). Presentism, explored further below, is a key element of computational capitalism. It has consequences for theorizing and understanding anti-computing. An exclusive focus on the present renders hostile responses to the computational into discrete and proximate issues (problems with this kind of corporation or this kind of architecture, this new technology or that new behaviour, horrified responses to this kind of screening, or that kind of digitally mediated hatred) cutting them off from larger, overarching formations and short-circuiting longer, more complex histories of refusal, critique, unease, anxiety, and activity.

Consider three sets of more or less hostile responses to the computational that have circulated in the decade since 2010, grouped together here because each declares that what it excoriates is novel. The first of these groupings is anti-platform, and increasingly anti-monopoly; it finds a key role for social media platforms in the crisis of democracy represented by Trump, and Brexit and its aftermath, locating this in the capacity of platforms to host and promote extremism and to enable fake news (the New Zealand case exhibits these logics). The second form of dissent, markedly critical of how computers are being used by nation-states, and of what they are being used to do to ordinary people, circulates in the post-Snowden era and is concerned with personal data in an era of ‘Big Data’ – the latter a label that itself makes claims about novelty. A third response is the postdigital analysis (Cramer, 2014). This assesses the state of the digital itself and is in this sense a meta-analysis. It is above all jaded and ‘disenchanted’ (Couldry, 2014, Bassett, 2015). It says that the digital, now instantiated as a pervasive material of the everyday, has lost its purchase as a defining cultural logic; it continues, and yet it is no longer really new or interesting, nor does it open new horizons. This has sometimes produced an aesthetics challenging invisibility and/or the normalization of pervasive mediation – Hito Steyerl's (2013) work and writing is germane here, but more often has fuelled a turn to a new new attraction. In the case of the postdigital there is still a new claim – since what is said to be new is the claim to go beyond the prioritizing of the new. As an aesthetic, the postdigital is thus hostile to ‘the digital’.

These three examples of anti-computational formations operating more or less in the present are easy to classify as newly arising, and are often seen simply as new. But all three also relate to earlier irruptions, from which they are now largely delinked. This is not exceptional; there are many forms of anti-computing that are not entirely new, and that may even be recognizable as familiar, even whilst this ‘familial’ relation is disavowed, set aside, or forgotten. Examples might include that falling away of enthusiasm for the fully computerized society that led Edmund Berkeley, editor of Computers and Automation, one of the first computer magazines, 1 to change the title to Computers and People. This is an early example of computational disenchantment based on dehumanization concerns, but it is not a formation that tends to be linked with current concerns around dehumanization and automation laid at the feet of contemporary AI. Or consider the 2001/2 bursting of the bubble, which deflated a form of net euphoria partly by identifying it as an (unjustified) euphoria about the new; the postdigital formation, clearly linking in to this earlier moment, isn't entirely novel, even if it often presents itself as such.

Then there are the anti-computing sentiments threading into the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s and centrally concerned with the rise of data and the perfection of the state ‘machine’ (Turner, 2006). The issues raised around that time have not been resolved, although neither have the most apocalyptic visions of a fully computerized world arisen (yet). The critique faded away, or, as the other kind of weathermen say of a storm, it lost its identity. Or consider the widespread opposition to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act in the UK in the early 2000s (John Naughton's commentaries in the Observer provide an indicative flavour of this). The investigatory powers legislation, which was passed into law, plays its part in contemporary surveillance regimes. The UK has since completed the implementation of what many regard as an extension to its terms, 2 rather than a simple renewal of some of the powers it legislated for. This has not gone forwards without hostile commentary, but even within that, the widespread opposition, unease, and hostility provoked the last time around, substantial in liberal, radical and mainstream media and amongst campaign groups, has far more rarely surfaced in public debate. Finally, consider the many late 20th-century campaigns against camera surveillance in public spaces in the UK and elsewhere. These were both local and national, and evidenced a widespread unease. When did that switch in attitudes which made it possible to market general surveillance as a necessary, if not desirable, part of public space come about?

The mismatches of scale and register in these examples are intentional. What links them is that they partake in the same logics of recurring appearance and disappearance. What might be termed, adapting Foucault (1972: 209), the dissolvability of anti-computing formations, their propensity to subside and vanish from view, even whilst remaining in the mix, is marked.

More examples: who would not find the notion of demanding an iron apron to word-process strange today? Iron aprons were a union-based response to early VDUs (visual display units) and to concerns with the health hazards screens might pose to pregnant women, and although more recent concerns with blue light recapitulate earlier fears about VDUs and eye strain, screen technology changed and the pregnancy concern died away. This indicates how older dissent may be delinked from contemporary issues, deemed irrelevant because the specific technologies that provoked them are ‘out of date’. A different issue is whether the critique of social relations which they entailed becomes irrelevant in relation to successor technologies and the dissent they afford. Here are two examples where the impetus for earlier hostility fading is less certain: first, what happened to opposition to Photoshop and digital photography from those in favour of ‘real’ photography as the guarantor of indexical realism and documentary ‘truth’? This was a debate held in professional photography circles, amongst other places, in the 1990s. Clearly, the stakes of this earlier discussion connect to unease around deep fakes today; this despite the fact that material indexicality is no longer the issue around which debate circulates. 3 Second, automated passport gates. Were you against them once? Did you view your objections as principled at that time? Many did. Do you remember why, or when, you changed your mind, or set aside your objections? Moreover, assuming your original objections were set aside, were they set aside for good? Or do they remain somehow with you, might they be refound as a set of responses that might inform a response to different modes of surveillance now arising? How does personal acceptance relate to a general hardening of borders, to populist nationalisms?

These examples indicate the fragility, and even the ephemerality (Chun, 2008a), of many forms of computational dissent, which are of their moment, and, to some extent, live in it (which is to say they also partake in a form of presentism). But they also evidence a paradoxical durability, obduracy, and persistence. Even when apparently terminally discarded because attached to an outmoded technology, or because attacking an outmoded problem, many anti-computing formations remain if not immediately ready at hand, then apparently capable of being reached for, invoked, ready to inform a new landscape. What is dissolved in, is not necessarily dissolved out. One reason, then, to explore anti-computing formations across time is to find a way to avoid being consumed by the force of presentism; but another is to register the limits of its operations, the limits of what it may suppress of the past. Walter Benjamin's sense of history as unfinished resonates here, with its argument that what appears to have been terminally consigned to a dead past, so that its place in history, and its significance, have been settled (and, in general, by the victors), may be unsettled, and may become active in the present (Benjamin, 2006).

This suggests to me two priorities. The first is to refind anti-computational formations in the past, and the second is to understand the dynamics of their recurrence. I want to draw out and understand a series of anti-computing formations, and to understand them both as discrete and as connected, as formations that, more than is usually understood, persist across time, and that might rise, fall, and revive, in non-linear, complex, and indirect ways.

This contrasts with linear accounts of the computational, which view it has having risen, apparently inexorably, to become a key operational logic in the cultures of late 20th- and 21st-century global capitalism; to have become that which organizes the present and that which constitutes the ‘superhighway’ to the future (the old 1990s term is apt to describe an ideological orientation, even if it never fitted the reality). This claim (highly ideological) is compromised once the anti-computational is taken into that account. The trajectories and circuits of the anti-computational are at times hardly to seen, at others brilliantly lit. They often appear disconnected, or produce nodes that seem to have risen autonomously, from nowhere at all, or as the direct consequence of something ‘all new’ (AI, automation, platforms, for instance), but they also seem peculiarly familiar, to have recourse to a series of recurrent and pre-existing tropes, or to make connections with earlier sensibilities or formulations. The central problematic of this chapter is how to identify and account for the forms of disjunctive continuity that characterize anti-computing as a material cultural form and that give it its ‘history’.

Doing ‘computer history’

The engagement between information technology and culture central to mid- to late 20th-century and early 21st-century life is complex, operating at a dizzying series of scales and registers, involving heterogeneous actors – humans, technologies, techniques, materials, environments – bound into multiple overlapping networks, constituted and reconstituted over time, in relations of radical and structural asymmetry. Computer historian Paul Edwards rightly observes that writing an entire history of computing would be ‘a colossal and difficult task, beyond the reach of any individual’ (Edwards, 2001: 87). The question, then, is how to make the cut.

Big stories of computing tend to be prey to a series of occlusions, often arising through forms of substitution. 4 Complex formations are replaced by abstract technologies, or ‘wizard’ inventors producing characteristic distortions across a range of technical histories (Edwards, 2001: 88). Such distortions arise when key individuals are invoked, not to ‘stand for’ or symbolize a larger formation as a particularizing synecdoche (Whitsitt, 2013), but as having themselves determined the history of a corporation; Steve Jobs has figured in this way, for instance. ‘Great men’ may also be replaced by ‘great software’ (Photoshop, for instance), or great algorithms (Google springs to mind). Institutional histories can produce less myopic accounts; a successful example is Steven Levy's history of Apple's early decades (Levy, 1994), but when institutional psychologism replaces the individual psychologism that informs wizard accounts and that is translated into a form of object agency, other problems arise. An insistent focus on how a company ‘thinks’ or performs its identity easily comes at the expense of what it does (its technologies, its relations of production), and even of its real location. Relevant here are accounts that neglect the working conditions of the industrial plants of the global South and the repatriated low-wage service centres inside the US in favour of poring over the temple architectures of the giant corporations in Silicon Valley in search of the ‘DNA’ of their owners and the character of what is (only very partially) made within their grounds. To read a homogeneous ‘global’ narrative of computerization off from this central dashboard is to misrecognize the significance of the location of material (as well as immaterial) production, the specific experience and use conditions of billions of instantiated users, and the complexity of the flow of technologies, ideas, and workers to and from the dominant hubs. Indeed, it renders computer culture ‘Californian’, perhaps leaving a small space for ‘European’ thought as its mordantly critical other, as Richard Barbrook notoriously suggested in the 1990s. Barbrook's analysis, radical in intent, is now striking for what it excludes. Where is the rest of the world here? Another consequence of this kind of ordering is a tendency to confine origin stories of resistant practices (e.g. hacking) to the same core region, when, as Kat Braybrooke notes, they have always been more widespread (Braybrooke and Jordan, 2017). The same tendency can be observed in (congruent) histories of cyber-feminism, always more than Anglo-American, Australian or European, but all too often compressed into that mould.

Making the cut: or why social history versus medium specifics isn't good enough

Lisa Gitelman's rejection of heroic stories of ‘how one technology leads to another, or of isolated geniuses working their magic on the world’ (Gitelman, 2006: 7), translates some of these issues into a narrower register – that of media/medium studies. Gitelman argues that technological media demand social and cultural histories. Making this case she is essentially mapping an established ‘media history’ approach, critical of populist hero histories but also of what it discerns as forms of reductive technological determinism, onto ‘new’ digital media history. Gitelman's work is representative of a form of media history that critiques technological abstraction whilst demonstrating an awareness of medium operations. Another example is found in Kate Lacey's (2013) work on early radio, which fuses sound studies with institutional histories. Both scholars help to make the case for demanding (more) recognition of the social and cultural conditions of possibility within which digital technologies, and the political economies they foster, come into being. This general approach has produced important histories of various aspects of the computational – for instance, of the role of IBM in the Second World War, of cybernetics as Cold War technology, of the technologies of everyday life in the constitution of American society/domestic life in the 1950s, of broadcasting institutions such as the BBC and others (see Gerovitch, 2001, Hendy, 2000, Black, 2011).

None of the writing invoked here is entirely social constructivist; indeed, most of it might be characterized, following Skågeby and Rahm's (2018) useful definition, as post-constructivist. Partly because of this, perhaps, it is rarely polemical about the virtues of its own method. It is nonetheless taken up as a target and used by new materialist critics of ‘traditional’ media-historical approaches, who (by framing it as such), argue that if attention is paid to medium matters, not enough attention is paid. This is felt to produce occlusions. Gitelman's rejection of teleological stories is based on her sense that ‘media are unique and complicated historical subjects’ (Gitelman, 2006: 7), and this complexity is recognized to inhere in part in their materiality. But for new materialist critics of ‘traditional’ ways of doing history this admission of the material may not suffice. What needs challenging, from their perspective, is that tradition which holds humans to be the history makers in the final analysis. For various flavours of German medium theory, notably, the conditions of possibility for agency and the nature of subjectivity itself are reconstituted by technical media.

Cuts and lines

This suggests a blunt division in the orientation of theoretical work, sometimes framed as a division between a focus on materiality or on representation, which needs to be questioned. This might begin by acknowledging the distances between, for instance, Leslie Haddon's engagement with domestic histories and gaming in the 20th-century UK (Haddon, 1988), Fred Turner's work on techno-cultures and Silicon Valley (Turner, 2006), and Kittler's essay on ‘Protected Mode’, a classic of medium history (Kittler, 1997), which are substantial. On the other hand, proclaimed absolute divisions between various forms of digital media research made by proponents of one side or the other do not necessarily reflect the opposing view in its complexity, nor indeed acknowledge the ambiguity and contradictions of their own positions, and may usefully be challenged.

Anti-computing is part of that challenge. If histories are cuts (and must be cuts, given the impossibility of completeness), then anti-computing is a cut. It is a cutter too, since with it I want to make particular kinds of incisions, to divide and to bring together. But cuts do not have to produce binary polarities. Cuts join, and there is always what happens along the line of the cut itself, and in the liminal zones around it, where contagion happens. Perhaps, as Ann Light suggests in her work on technology and subjectivity, there are ways of cheating the cut (Light, 2011). Light is drawing on China Miéville's novel The City and the City, in which rival polities overlap but also disavow one another's existence, producing an impossible but also real separation. The protagonist finds a way out of both cities by exploiting or traversing the cut that joins them. ‘I was learning … how to walk between, first in one, then the other, or in either … [a] covert equivocation’ (Miéville, 2009: 368). ‘To walk between’ different conceptions of media history is to challenge absolute divisions, all too often erected, between the social and the technical, and between ‘media history’, ‘medium studies’, and media archaeology. The point is to produce an account that is not reducible to technologies presumed to ‘determine’ our situation (Kittler, 1997), nor to institutional readings, whilst also disturbing accounts cleaving to representation rather than material that flatten the technological or render it into discourse. Anti-computing as a cut, a walk-through that gathers what it needs, is to be organized by a reading of the computational as a process of co-evolution between machines and humans and therefore as intrinsically (in its materialized and operating form) techno-social. In what follows this line is walked.

Archaeology and media archaeology

In the Archaeology of Knowledge Foucault (1972) explores distinctions between two forms of history. The first is a seeking for origins, an anthropological history, that which seeks in history to find reassurance of the sovereign subject, which works through this subject and presumes their coherence across time, an approach generating origins and positing a form of linearity which also indicates teleology. The second form of history is based on rupture and discontinuity. Championing the second form (and binding this to an anti-human reading of Marx, to Nietzschean genealogy, and to psychoanalysis, all of which are viewed as engaging in the decentring of the human), Foucault avowedly sets out not to attack history, but only a certain form of history. Moreover, he claims that his intervention is part of a larger shift, an ‘autochthonous’ transformation in the thinking of many scholars or ‘the eclipse of that form of history … secretly … related to the synthetic activity of the subject’ (Foucault, 1972: 14). Other disciplines, those which ‘evade the work of the historian’, are invoked, those which are concerned with rupture, and which search for ‘displacements’ and ‘transformations’ of concepts. Foucault notes emerging forms of the history of science, particularly those influenced by Gaston Bachelard, lauding such endeavours as a ‘new form of history’ at whose heart is ‘the questioning of the document’ (Foucault, 1972: 6).

Foucault writes that in these conditions (in this time of transformation) discontinuity demands reassessment. It is no longer a problem, a gap, something to be plugged in(to) a linear account. On the contrary, discontinuity should be focused upon by the historian, who may now explore ‘the limits of process, the point of inflection of a curve, the inversion of a regulatory movement, the boundaries of an oscillation’. Discontinuity becomes ‘an instrument and object of research’ (Foucault, 1972: 9). The distinction is between a history that provides for the subject (and renders history itself as) ‘a place of rest, certainty, reconciliation, a place of tranquilized sleep’ (Foucault, 1972: 14) and that new form of history, founded in rupture and focusing on discontinuity rather than linearity, that Foucault wished to develop. The flat line of the long sleep is to be interrupted. Something is to be jolted into new life – but vitality will not come from the old sovereign actors. It was the provision of a guaranteed place for them that produced history as sleep.

Object and instrument; discontinuity is instrumental because it is the blade that may shuck out the matter or material documentation that, says Foucault, must be grasped, explored, and worked upon. The goal is no longer to reconstitute ‘on the basis of what the documents say, and sometimes merely hint at … the past from which they emanate, and which has now disappeared far behind them’. Documents are no longer to be understood as ‘inert material’ which can only ‘refresh’ memory. History is ‘the work expended on material documentation’, and the point is ‘to work on it from within and to develop it’. History also now defines ‘within the documentary material itself unities, totalities, series, relations’. It is in this way that we can make sense of Foucault's declaration that documents become monuments (‘documents into monuments’), so that ‘in our time history aspires to the condition of archaeology, to the intrinsic description of the monument’ (Foucault, 1972: 7–14).

The Archaeology of Knowledge is concerned not only with disjuncture defined as pure schism, but also with generating new connections. Refusing the latter entirely would, it is acknowledged, leave only ‘a plurality of histories’; the distinction is between a total history and a general one. The blade here is subtle, it cuts, but, in cutting, it also sutures. Foucault is interested in dissecting ‘systems of relation’ between series, in the conditions of possibility that dictate ‘what series of series’ may be established, and in ‘what form of relation may be legitimately described between … different series’ (Foucault, 1972: 10). Thinking in tabulated form he articulates this as a question about what tables it becomes ‘possible to draw up’.

If the arguments of the Archaeology do not espouse absolute relativism or disjuncture, there is also an explicit refusal to frame the archaeological approach as simply a structuralist mode of doing history (or philosophy, or the history of ideas, for that matter). The question of legitimation (legitimate description), and the kinds of investigations this approach might suggest (including taxonomic work), needs to be understood, Foucault argues, in far more than purely formal terms. The Archaeology remains a critical project and resonates with his other writings on governmentality. The king, as he declared in Power/Knowledge must still have his head chopped off if we are to change how we are governed (Foucault, 1980).

Media archaeology: priority and determination

The archaeological intervention has latterly been felt with some force in media and cultural studies, in software or code studies, and via a somewhat discrete mode of media archaeology developed in cinema studies by Thomas Elsaesser (2004, 2016). One core activity has been in medium theory where Jussi Parikka has done much to define its activities and orientations (see later). Media archaeology has gathered under its aegis a wide set of writings and writers, some adopted retrospectively as progenitors – McLuhan, Mumford, and Ellul are often invoked, perhaps in ways that would make them uneasy, had they any choice in the matter. Media archaeology tends to be defined as a collection of related approaches rather than a single discipline (Parikka, 2012), but as a whole the project is deeply in debt to Foucault's archaeology, and influential practitioners of digital or computational media archaeology have found inspiration in Foucault's insistence on discontinuity, and his demand that attention be paid to series and strata, and their relations, rather than deferring to a presumed external ordering or system imposed from the outside. A reviewer of Parikka's work summed up a commonly held view by declaring media archaeology a ‘successor variant’ of Foucault's archaeological project (Anthony, 2012). Some practitioners, however, set aside the Foucauldian connection, with its insistence on power and domination, preferring the temporal politics of Walter Benjamin, or focusing on forms of direct experimentation and remaking (see Goodall and Roberts, 2019).

Media archaeology is a response to the challenge of writing media histories, a search for an approach and/or method that can adequately take account of the circular, the recursive, the submarining, the looped – these dynamics and characteristics being read as the temporalities of the machine, or as intrinsic characteristics of technical media. A fault in ‘standard’ media histories is summed up as their tendency to resolve the complex temporalities and simultaneities of technological operations into standard linear time (lines). Doing so, it is argued, means both that technical operations are not accounted for and that (therefore) the consequences of the instantiation of these technologies as cultural techniques, or as pervasive cultural logics, cannot be understood. Thus Geert Lovink characterizes the media archaeologist Wolfgang Ernst's work as a mounting a direct challenge to ‘the usual chronological reading of media, from photo and radio to television and the Internet’ (Lovink, 2003).

The critique is above all topical. The rise of technical media means rewriting history and/or demands finding new ways in which it may be undertaken. For media archaeology advocates, older theoretical frameworks are strikingly out of place in the contemporary world. Standard media studies are charged with an obsessive attachment to linear development, said to be a consequence of the desire to map a human narrative of progress at the expense of considering what other forms of ordering are out there – orderings which might come prior to what is viewed as a ‘reduction’ into narrative and its temporalities. This approach is said to strip out the complexities of technological orderings and temporalities. In response, the media archaeological project seeks to understand what other possible patterns emerge if the lens is widened, the perspective altered, and narrative organization set aside.

The above is in danger of over-compressing the multiple approaches of media archaeology. This media-archaeological thinking that focuses on priority, linearity and recurrence, and significance is now looked at in more detail, being found to offer a resource to assist in the project of doing anti-computational history whilst also being found to be problematic. This is a friendly critique, however. It is undertaken, as Skågeby and Rahm (2018) put it in their account of feminist media archaeology, with the intention of being useful.

Ernst, priority (and the material conditions of legibility)

Friedrich Kittler, the German medium theorist often regarded as a father to media archaeology (an aptly patriarchal label, given his gender politics), exploring cinema, gramophones, and typewriters, famously argued that the media have come to determine the situation (Kittler, 1997). Elsewhere, he took on questions concerning computing more directly, arguing that the dilemma between ‘code and language … seems insoluble’, so the program will run when the programmer's head is empty of words (Kittler, 2008: 46). The corollary of this might be that language may come (or be heard) only after code stops running. Echoes of Kittler can be heard in the account of computational temporality developed by Wolfgang Ernst, who makes strong claims that in the time of technical media new forms of inquiry are needed. Ernst's work is avowedly (also) in the lineage of Foucault (see Parikka, in Ernst, 2013: 4) and Ernst's M.edium F.oucault (2000), and he retains a central interest in questions of power. But if Ernst is an heir to Foucault's archaeology, he also breaks with it, replacing the document with the material. For Ernst, media now condition ‘the way in which we know things and do them – knowledge and power’ (Parikka, in Ernst, 2013: 6). In doing so, he is not alone. As Lovink (2003) notes, ‘whereas Foucault looked into social formations, today's media archaeologists are primarily interested in the (hidden) programs of storage media’.

For Ernst, this produces a project centred on an investigation into the material (pre)conditions of legibility, material conditions that temper time and space and determine the character of the place of possibility. This is understood as a historical inquiry, but also as an intervention into history itself, one that grapples with (what Ernst sees as) the transformed conditions of its possible operation. Refusing to flatten technology so that it can become just another element of a history that is smoothly linear partly because it dissolves the intractable and non-linear operations of heterogeneous materials in order to produce its text, Ernst mounts a direct ‘critique of media history in the narrative mode’ (Lovink, 2003). Recognizing that ‘(the) cultural burden of giving sense to data through narrative structures is not easy to overcome’, he nonetheless regards this as necessary. Ernst's work is striking for its formal concentration on questions of temporality that emerge outside of narrative structures. It is the techniques and temporalities of the computational, excavated through an examination of hardware, that inform his explorations of the new ‘conditions of the sayable and thinkable’. His media archaeology is defined as ‘an excavation of evidence of how techniques direct human or non-human utterances’ (Ernst, in Parikka, 2013).

How might what Ernst offers be responded to? His approach provides a sense of the complexity of the contemporary temporal order and, in challenging a history purged of the impacts of the operations of technical media, opens the way to undermine the conventional ascription of a narrative of linear progress to computational developments and to techno-social forms. However, one of the dangers of media archaeology is that it tends to essentialize.

The desire to fix on the material can, paradoxically, make technology into something imaginary, leaving no space to consider or acknowledge the impurity of the operational. The substitution of an abstract material for a materiality thought impure unless purged of its pesky hybridity produces accounts that ignore the intersection of the symbolic and the material, the discursive and the linguistic, the code and the hardware; the complexities of the interacting elements that constitute any computational network in operation, that handle mediation. Material specifics are lost as a series of disavowed replacements take place. Kate O’Riordan has aptly characterized ‘objects’ such as these as ‘unreal’ (O’Riordan, 2018). That this causes occlusions is evident. Returning to Kittler's proclamation that code and language are inimical, so that the dilemma between ‘code and language’ seems insoluble (Kittler, 2008: 40), we may note that it entirely steps over the question of how code – on its own – signifies. Jaron Lanier has explored this problematic in terms of scale (Lanier, 2010), and Wendy Chun in relation to the gap between the program and the program running (Chun, 2008b: 224). Both their interventions make it clear that it is in process that the disjuncture between the abstract system and its located instantiation is made most visible, and where the mutually informing relationship between the symbolic and material becomes inescapable. Refusing an absolute division between the symbolic and the material therefore seems to me crucial. This also means refusing the absolute priority and that absolutely chronological ordering that is seen in Ernst's work, that which divides the technological (as what came before) from the social world (as the social formation) as that which always comes after – the irony being, of course, that this ordering is itself insistently linear. One of the consequences of Ernst's argument is that it inserts a prior to the prior; what came before technical determination, how can the genesis of the technical be contemplated? Stiegler's development of co-evolution, which includes an account of originary technicity, produces a useful contrast here (Stiegler, 2013). Even Parikka, a media-archaeological loyalist, talking of myths rather than imaginaries, suggests that Ernst is in danger of ‘mythologizing the machine as completely outside other temporalities, including the human’, in his attempt to offer ‘insight into the a priori of writing’ (Parikka, in Ernst, 2013: 10).

Linearity and recurrence?

A different media-archaeological intervention is made by Erkki Huhtamo, who seeks to grapple with non-linear and discontinuous histories, these characteristics both informing his theoretical orientation and also discerned as operational temporalities in a multimedia age (Huhtamo, 1997, 1999). His identification of patterned recurrence cleaves rather tightly to, and develops, Foucault's sense of the series and its connections/disconnections. It is developed specifically in relation to media technologies and works through a theory of topoi that prioritizes discourse rather than material (here is the break with Ernst). 5

Parallels between recurrence as Huhtamo explores it and the less media archaeological, but nonetheless archaeological orientation found in historian Valerie Traub's consideration of the deep history of bodies and sexualities (referenced in Chapter 1 and later explored further) can be drawn here. Demonstrating the recurring ‘salience’ or intelligibility of various bodily tropes (tropes expressed as bodily materializations of various forms of sexuality) across long periods of human history, Traub's focus on what is written on or through bodies indicates ways in which inquiries that focus on discourse may deal – albeit in very different ways, and not in ways likely to satisfy Ernst – with the latter's demand for an inquiry into legibility and its material conditions in technical times. Moreover, as is further explored later, both Huhtamo and Traub are concerned to acknowledge continuities and simultaneously to comprehend discontinuity and disjuncture.

Significance: media archaeology and its subject choices

How does media archaeology choose its objects? It has a penchant for neglected histories and forgotten or obscure objects or people. Often it selects its research objects in the interests of producing new patterns or circuits, or discerning new connections across categories that are conventionally divided. Zielinski's deep history of devices for hearing and seeing is an example of this (Zielinski, 2006), Parikka's Insect Media (2010) another. Then there are studies focusing on small, abstruse, or unlikely elements of assemblages more often and more ‘obviously’ explored at different scales or in different registers. Ernst is one such practitioner and is reinvoked later. Finally, experimental media archaeology is focused on remaking and building and reusing old technologies now obsolete (Goodall and Roberts, 2019).

Media archaeology has been criticized for these choices, charged with maintaining a preference for ‘what matters less’ that is voguish, whimsical, or fractious. Even some of its own adherents fear that bad object choices undermine the larger project of media archaeology, defined as the remaking of medium history (e.g. Hertz, 2010). From outside the tent Scott Anthony (2012) is again representative, summing up one vein of external criticism of media archaeology through this scathing description of its ‘values’:

The ‘what if’ of roads not taken is prized over a present whose virtues are assumed to be overstated. To pay dues to the mainstream, to accept at face value, or take common parlance seriously is nearly always to be beneath contempt.

This criticism provokes a defence of media archaeology's choices – and perhaps also of my rationale in working through ‘non-obvious’ objects in my exploration of the anti-computational. Playing at ‘what if’ as an end in itself is found in media archaeology; however, it doesn't fit as a description of the whole (it might characterize a largely uninteresting form of work). In its most incisive forms media archaeology sets out, using tactics including the counterfactual, precisely to question those relations between the past and present that have produced, as the present, and as the present imaginary, a set of naturalized objects and naturalized histories, already lined up and ranked as the ‘mainstream’.

Jussi Parikka has taken up this issue, arguing that in his writing apparently unlikely, or trivial, or arbitrary object choices are valued because they can confound established categories through which standard histories work. Thinking of insects as media, for instance, he intends to confuse divisions between (what tend to be thought of as) media and other systems; precisely those divisions which set the boundaries of various forms of intelligibility – conditioning legibility in public discourse, or policing disciplinarity and knowledge claims between defined research fields, for instance. It can be argued that one way in which media archaeology does engage with ‘the mainstream’ is by challenging its border and limits, its banks and its dams.

Ernst's rationale for paying attention to technical media represents a different challenge to media archaeology's object choices. The burden of his position is that technical media constitute the mainstream even if this is not widely recognized (yet), nor its implications traced out. His objects of study are those determining the new overarching conditions of intelligibility. If computational technologies beat out our time, condition utterance, or discourse, and remake writing, then it is crucial that we study them, no matter how obscure they may appear. What is closely argued in Ernst is arguably present as an ambient sensibility informing digital media archaeology in general; it underpins claims made for the significance of the technical over the representational, a prioritizing that also determines how mediation is understood and what its stakes are. This is the case ‘now’ if not before, since ‘now’ we live in times of pervasive computing, in the aftermath of a shift in episteme ushered in by the rise of technical media. You don't have to go all the way with Ernst to recognize the value of the perspective his work opens up.

Media archaeology versus cultural studies?

Media archaeology has often been hostile to cultural studies. The latter is framed as preoccupied with representation, obsessing over the abstract operations of ideology, and focusing on the technological imaginary, rather than attending to the thing itself. The charge is of tilting at ghosts rather than tangling with the real, of failing to understand the impact, and importance, and/or the informing force of the material operations of technical media. There are commonalities between media archaeology and other engagements with revived forms of (new) materialism. The computational turn (see Wing, 2006, Lanier, 2010, Berry, 2011), traditional digital humanities, software, code, or protocol studies, objected-orientated philosophy (OOO), represent very different critical/post-critical orientations – but all resonate sympathetically with the media-archaeological suspicion of the utility of cultural studies approaches to the study of media (Bassett, 2020).

Against this I make a case for (a form of) media archaeology as (a form of) cultural studies, seeing this as both nascent in various ways and as a desirable evolution. The argument to be made is that cultural studies approaches can contribute to developing forms of more critical media archaeology, and media archaeology can contribute to re-materialization of cultural studies – and cultural histories. Bringing the two together produces new approaches; not least, it enables new forms of digital humanities to be developed. To stress, this is not a matter of joining what was before entirely divided; it is to acknowledge that media archaeology, like digital humanities, is a cultural study – or it is nothing.

Some unpacking is needed. This begins with an acknowledgement that in some of its iterations cultural studies has neglected the informing force of material in favour of an exclusive attention to representation, which latter is understood as powerfully performative, constructing that which it names in accordance with ideologically determined presuppositions and alignments. The result is a failure to attend to the operations of technical media and the forms of ordering that arise as a consequence of their technical affordances. If some forms of media archaeology strip out the imaginary as a necessary component of the technical, some cultural studies strip out the operations of – the matter of – the medium, producing a woefully flattened understanding of what is under investigation and of how it is powerful. Crude representationalism can never grapple with new forms of data-driven visuality that organize platform subjectivities, for instance, nor can it grapple with the space-time compressions/distensions characteristic of digital operations. However, currents within cultural studies have responded to the clash of materialisms, asking how historical materialism (and other modes of critical analysis) and the various forms of attention to ‘the material’ that new materialism wishes to prioritize can be brought into new relation. By the late 20th century, the New Cultural Studies reader (Birchall and Hall, 2006) had already included vociferous calls for new kinds of post-humanities – explicitly declaring the need to break with earlier traditions, or to remake them in relation to rising forms.

But cultural studies, certainly in its Birmingham or UK versions, never confined itself to representation, in any case. In many of its most influential forms it has been explicitly informed by a desire to engage with material culture. It is salutary to remember that Stuart Hall, thought of as a co-founder of the field, explored the racist discourses of policing in the UK through an exploration of ‘mugging’ which never lost sight of the material violence acted out on discriminated-against bodies (see Hall et al., 2013). Even Hall's work on encoding/decoding, widely viewed as the epitome of a particular kind of media and cultural studies, which avowedly privileged the semiotic moment in circuits of culture, did not set aside material processes and technologies involved in production, nor those involved in reception (Hall, 1992).

There are also connections to be made with a mode of anthropologically orientated media studies undertaken in the 1980s and 1990s, which evidences further an extant tradition of engagement between medium theoretic and more discourse-orientated research – and a prioritization of non-obvious research objects. Scholars of media and everyday life (Silverstone, 1994, Highmore, 2001) influenced by Hall found resources in the medium thinking of Marshall McLuhan and in Joshua Meyrowitz's (1986) exploration of technical time and space, as well as in the historically materialist work of Raymond Williams (2003). Of note is the degree to which the 20th-century French tradition of the study of everyday life informed this work – particularly that of Silverstone (1994) and Morley (2007). Following this trail is relevant because the French focus on the objects, textures, materials, and orderings of everyday life led to a re-evaluation of the significant. Perec's forensic investigation of the infra-ordinary, often deploying data-driven or automatic techniques to pay attention to apparently insignificant object (pens, desks, spoons), produces a meditation on everyday life and its objects that sees them as both what matters least and what matters most. It can be understood as simultaneously a kind of media archaeology and cultural studies (Perec, 2009, Bassett, 2017).

Perec's work can seem fey. Perhaps it appears consciously vogueish – to return to the critique of media archaeology invoked earlier. But a harder look at his writing on the everyday and its relentless rhythms and repetitions reveals an account that is always aware of matters of resistance, and also of systematic domination. At this point we can link it forwards and see it as part of that tradition of cultural studies which has never forsaken the material, but which has also always refused to divide the material from the symbolic, which has always been aware both of power and of its multiple operations; cultural Marxism, after all a reasonably standard description of Hall and the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies, was never purely a matter of the study of representations and the ideological positionings they revealed circulating in discourse.

Returning to terms Foucault used (and Wolfgang Ernst adapted), we might say that if cultural studies refuses the substitution of the document with the machine (Ernst's move), since it continues to maintain a sense of the importance of the symbolic – in the mediating operations of the computational, as well as elsewhere – it also refuses to stay with discourse. Rather, it enables a theoretical space within which more than a reversion to the document, as a response to the lacunae produced by media archaeology's focus on the purely technical as that which is significant about pervasive mediation, can be contemplated. To invoke an example here, in a later chapter I argue that the fact that ELIZA, a software program, could tell stories and had a cover story as a therapist was of significance. The argument is that these aspects of what ELIZA did were as materially informing in the bot's reception as the script and algorithm that formally constituted the program. Contra Ernst, machines may tell narrative histories. More, they may become operational in machinic ways. Going back to Foucault, and to the much-disavowed structuralism that, despite Foucault's own protestations, haunts the Archaeology, we might note that narrative itself has for a century or more been subject to attempts to understand it computationally (Bassett, 2007). ELIZA has also been explored through feminist theory (e.g. recently by Sarah Dillon, 2020) and another key locus here is feminism, particularly feminist techno-science, whose influence on cultural studies has been large and which has long understood and argued for a blurring of precisely these boundaries (e.g. Bassett, O’Riordan and Kember, 2020). Neither document nor technical media, then. Through cultural studies the Foucauldian document has been re-materialized differently – and in ways that expand rather than simply switch over what is taken as the proper object of study. The result is the possibility of a socio-technical media study containing multiple materials, multiple temporalities, multiple actors. This also defines an expanded – and desirable – form of digital humanities.

Forgetfulness and anti-computing

The basic position outlined above can now be further developed and brought closer to the proximate concerns of anti-computing through a consideration of forgetfulness – which latter can be understood as a feature of technical media, as a logic strongly operating within contemporary forms of computational capitalism, and as entailed in computational imaginaries. Forgetfulness is one key to understanding the operational version of the presentism identified as an extant feature of anti-computing. Accepting that divisions between media archaeology and cultural studies are not absolute, that parallels and shared orientations to be found, that the grounds each claim are already partly occupied by the other, then potentially they may be put to work to grapple further with what has been defined as a key characteristic of anti-computing, its persisting disappearance and reappearance across time, which is to say how it is forgotten and remembered. This dynamic challenges attempts to account for anti-computing through forms of history relying entirely on disjuncture, as well as those that understand significance and order strictly in terms of continuity and linearity. The issue might be how to bring these accounts into relation, and how that might be productive. Approaching this, I intend to work through forgetfulness from both sides.

First, then, technological forgetfulness and machine ontology. Contemporary emphases on technical media and the organization of temporal experience resonate with earlier work exploring cinema. The trajectory identified (roughly from Kittler to Ernst, from film to the computational) links the mechanization of the persistence of vision with the rise of computational operations and mediation, and sees both as the conditions enabling and organizing other social and cultural forms (which then become inadequate as ways of understanding the world, since they cannot capture the reality of things, including such media things – this is more or less Ernst's argument with narrative history). Kittler's discussion of cinema explores how technology automates the ‘persistence’ of vision, or the burning in of an image so that it persists as an after-effect, a phenomenon of human optics (Kittler 1999, Bassett, 2015). What is received is discontinuous but so organized that we may accept its results as continuous – to echo Foucault on the Panopticon, and by doing so point to how these arguments relate also to matters of power. In the case of the computational, persistence is not the issue, but a different form of discontinuous continuity does pertain: that which is produced by reprogrammability. The universal machine, based on reprogrammability and simulation, has to forget in order to operate the next program (and storage is not the same as working memory). Even neural network-based AIs find memory difficult. 6 Computational operations are discrete, even if, as Beatrice Fazi, suggests, there is a case for arguing that they are not entirely determinate (Fazi, 2018).

Instantiated computational technology expands this affordance to require forms of forgetfulness in its users, in particular, inviting, even demanding, forgetfulness (absent-mindedness) about the technical media system itself and about its mediating operations. This is the promise of direct connection, of object manipulation, of ‘writing’ on a screen without having to think about writing as coded. Here, then, the injunction to forget has taken a new form. It has it has passed from the necessary forgetfulness of the cut that joins, that also joins human vision to cinematic technique, to produce the image, which was essential to cinema. It has passed to an interface that conceals, and suggests forgetting the concealment not of a screen apparatus but, rather, of that which is not screened but is nonetheless computed and therefore mediated in new ways (not only as vision, but in code). A measure of what is deemed successful in interface design has, after all, long been that we (feel we) reach through, touch directly, internalize the interface (suddenly cinema and computing move closer together). An examination of the technical affordances of this form of technical media can suggest all this.

What is still missing and needs to be included is the degree to which forgetfulness is ‘built in’ as a standard industrial and marketing strategy. And this takes us towards matters of political economy. Consider, then, that the injunction to forget is intrinsic to what might be termed upgrade culture in general, the logics of which are exemplified in the upgrade itself. Upgrades, that is, are designed to ensure that sufficient continuity is quietly provided – whilst novelty is loudly delivered. An example at one scale is the tablet, emerging as an elision between the computer and the smartphone, but proclaimed as a new category; the versioning of software providing for high levels of skilled use by retaining key organizational features whilst promising radical advances constitutes another. The continuous renewal of the skeuomorphic features of interfaces and devices, a constantly upgrading invocation of what was there, in the last version, or the last but one, is characteristic of this formation in general; contrary to claims that the imitative interface is over (Worstall, 2019), imitation is a generalized principle. The chameleon capacities of the computer, and of code, its capacity to imitate, and the tendency to retain but push into the background what has become stable means computing developments can take on the feel of the era when they emerge, silently and very fast. 7 The result might be an amnesiac condition, partial but real, partly consented to, that could be said to extend from (what is given as the affordances of) technologies and platforms, through use, to users themselves. Contemporary generations of ‘digital natives’, supposedly the inheritors of an extreme form of what Jaron Lanier (2010) terms cultural neoteny, become relevant here. For these perpetually refreshed, and therefore perpetually infantile, groups of users, so we are often told, the world before the technological now, their digital, is literally ‘unthinkable’. Moreover, their version is what counts. They are the mainstream, and the backwaters of the past, with all its old lags, human and technical, do not really count in the ‘here and now’ at all.

Finally, forgetfulness, explored through a consideration of the ontological qualities of the computational, of the contradictory demands for compatibility (familiarity) of the novelty which the market generates (and satisfies to some temporary extent), and of the kind of forgetfulness this encourages, may be explored at a larger scale still; that is, as organizing elements in the techno-social relations of computational capitalism. At this scale these relations entail another (related) kind of forgetfulness.

Compulsory technology?

Ellen Meiksins Wood has argued that an older market system became capitalist when it became compulsory (Wood, 2012: 40). Computing is now a core part of that (market) system's logics and underpinning operations, and, following Wood's line of thought, it can be argued that a variant on this – informational or computational capitalism – emerges as computation becomes necessary, or itself compulsory, as the figure and material form of that system, part of its emergence as a truly global system, organizing (the uneven terms of) relations for all within its spaces of flows and its backwaters (Castells, 1996).

We live within this formation. The global reach of satellites and the intimate touch of population databases, and the rise of biotech, provide proofs of that if they are needed. What does this mean? Does it mean that the only form of computing we have now is what we are ‘given’ by the market, and that the way of life (and forms of culture this enables/entails), the compulsory way of life, is the only form of life available? Is choosing between pre-set options the only choice that may be made? Matt Fuller has convincingly argued that the software forms which the market makes are not the only forms that may be made, and this pertains at other scales. I will return to this. For now, it is clear that what is implied is that computing arrives materially and symbolically in chains, that it tends to take forms or develop along trajectories that appear to be ‘inevitable’, or ontologically directed. It is easy, then, to forget or overlook the degree to which they are formed contingently in relation to markets or to the social structures that are bound into them. The forms of the computational are thus so mainstreamed that they appear ‘natural’, perhaps. 8 The computer industry itself plays a part in this. It forecloses, by way of the visions it offers, by way of the technologies it does not support, through the closing down of open systems, the systematic acquisition of the innovative by the giants, on that vision or sense of how computing could reach beyond the market and could take different forms entirely. It would rather we choose between those (highly constrained) ‘choices’ within the grounds it prescribes, and these are the grounds of compulsory capitalism.

This strongly articulated invitation to forgetfulness, discerned as part of the ontology of the computational object, identified as a material possibility exploited and operationalized by the computer industry in its designs, so that it becomes embedded, reinforced through the production of a technological imaginary that fetishizes the new but – in the manner of the fetish – also withholds it, can thus also be connected to dominant techno-cultural temporal logics with their intense focus on the present, and their claims, urgent environmental issues about the future notwithstanding, for the obliterating significance of the now. And we should talk of the space of the now as significant, since that prioritization of space over time, which Jameson (1991) understands as operationally dominant in late capitalism, is very clear here. Computational forgetfulness and present-obsessed capitalism are co-dependent in the contemporary formation, designating what constitutes its mainstream and informing its relation to the past and the future.

Anti-computing, as a found phenomenon, developed as a critical intervention and constituting a methodology, both confirms this state of affairs and disrupts it. It confirms it by its tendency to fade, to appear novel, to fall out of the present. It disrupts it firstly in that it points to the possibility of other possibilities by refusing or dissenting from that which is offered (and in that restricted sense it works by way of negation). Secondly, it is significant in that it arises at all, since in doing so it questions the authority that compels us forwards; compulsion falters. Anti-computational formations produce questions about what ‘we’ are supposed to want, or how ‘we’ are ‘supposed’ to think about computers, how ‘we’ are ‘supposed’ to forget them, on the one hand, and move on with them in the smoothly reassigned grounds of the permanent present of the markets they support and help to create, on the other.

A third way in which anti-computing is disruptive is that it arises again. Alongside forgetfulness, or the tendency of anti-computing formations to subside, to fail to have continuous purchase, to operate horizontally as it were, is that other (related) characteristic already identified – recurrence or recrudescence. When anti-computing arises or gains some purchase its forms are distinctive in that they relate to arising events or technological developments, but they are often also very familiar. The same questions have been raised, the same objections voiced, the same unease generated, around certain elements of computational culture, over and over again. Further, if they are often raised each time as if new and/or in less than perfect knowledge of the last time around, which is say that they are raised forgetfully, they also, having risen, reconnect and refind earlier forms of contestation. Anti-computing has a submarine legitimacy to draw upon.

Anti-computing is a recurring position, and the moments I explore, which exhibit complex temporalities within themselves and which are assembled as matter-centric collections, heterogeneous archives rather than documents, are fragments of a much larger-scale loose formation, operating across time and developing, scaling, albeit not in linear ways. The erratic persistence of many forms of anti-computing matters. To explore the form this takes demands a brief return to further explore the cyclicality of the reviving salience of anti-computational sentiment. This perhaps suggests a diversion, but the patterned recurrence characteristic of anti-computing formations suggests how anti-computing operates as the illegitimate other of compulsory computing and can also be used to clarify a distinction between compulsion (or what is compulsory) and (technological or any other) determination.

Valerie Traub's account of the recurring salience of bodily tropes over time can be reinvoked here. Salience is the term Traub uses to understand the recurrence of forms of bodily intelligibility across history, and thereby to account for a form of historical patterning. Traub is concerned to understand forms ‘whose meanings recur intermittently and with a difference across time’ (Traub, 2007: 126). She wants to understand how ‘certain perennial logics and definitions remain useful, across time’ and how these moments emerge ‘at certain moments, silently disappearing from view … re-emerging as particularly relevant (or explosively volatile)’ (Traub, 2007: 126). Traub is not talking about universal types or trans-historical categories that comprise or subsume historical variation, nor about basic concepts. Her focus is on something more contingent, and more likely to operate at multiple levels. She claims that the logics and definitions of the particular material forms bodies take ‘tend to reappear in a different guise under changed social conditions’, and notes that the discourses with which they are articulated shift and mutate as well (Traub, 2007: 128). In other words, reappearance is never total, and each emergence has singular, as well as common, qualities. This is not only a matter of meta concepts returning, but of a more heterogeneous persistence, what I might term a reactivation. What Traub wants to document (or takes as her ‘document’, relating this back to Foucault and ‘doing history’) is the technology of the flesh across long time spans. Hers looks like an account of the discourses that conform bodies, and so might be thought to be informed by the immaterial, to be ‘only’ a matter of representations and recurring discourses (in this sense it might seem to confirm the media-archaeological objection, and the long-standing objections to Butler's work on materialization, to which Barad responded with intra-activity theory (Butler, 1993, Barad, 2003). This reading of Traub forgets, though, that in her account it is through and in real bodies, as real bodies, that these returns are made – that conformation is productive and operates to shape matter. That is, it is bodies that operationalize and remake revenant discourses; bodies that are the grounds of this discourse, a key part of its fleshing out. To stress this obvious but often overlooked feminist insight – that bodies matter, which is what Butler also taught us – is also to point to an important way in which discourse and its materials are not to be entirely divided – and this may also be applied to the computational. As for bodies, intermixing the symbolic and discursive with the flesh, so for machines. The material is not all on one side and all the discourse and representation on the other. This is new materialism's fetish, but not one we need partake of.

Traub's argument constitutes an accounting with relativism and new history, an attempt to reintegrate a sense of continuity whilst avoiding a simple return to grand narratives. Drawing on archaeological approaches, she is interested in the limits of oscillation (deploying Foucault's term), pushing back against the tendency to develop forms of history that are entirely disjunctive; a tendency that has been identified earlier as a characteristic of some forms of media archaeology. Her avowed intention is to route around the binary set up by continuist and disjunctive theories of history (specifically, the history of sexuality, but the approach can be put to work here). This places Traub at some distance from the feminist ‘anti-history’ of Carla Freccero et al., which refuses all linear histories in favour of a kind of encounter (Freccero, 2006).

I go with that distancing, since what I want to generate is emphatically not (pace Freccero) an ‘anti-history’ of anti-computing. Nor, as is already evident, in so far as media archaeology refuses entirely a certain kind of narrative history, is what I want to do entirely media archaeological. The point is to let these moments of anti-computing come into relation with each other, to recognize their complex temporality, and also to think them through in relation to larger social fabrics and dynamics. Traub, though, has some sympathies with the ‘encounter’, even whilst she also breaks with it, and I too find this useful. She suggests a history ‘motivated, both in form and content, by the question: how might we stage a dialogue between one … past and another?’ (Traub, 2007: 137–138). This dialogue is not entirely ‘invented’ or ‘staged’ by the historian; the ‘pasts’ that are the subjects of this dialogue are already trespassing on each other's space, are already in dialogue. This is not a matter of a pristine emergence. Traub's thinking is informed at least as much by Benjamin's sense of non-linear time as Foucault's sense of history (Benjamin, 2006, Eagleton, 2015), and in this way also points us back to the influence of Benjamin on various forms of media archaeology itself. Her sense of the return of various representational features (Traub, 2007: 128), of bodies and bonds, is complex. She does not simply seek to bring the old back into view – this would bring back only the dead – nor to deal only with the found return of old representations, particularly if these are viewed as discrete from their ongoing and contingent incorporation (the parallels between bodily incorporation and machinic instantiation are clear here). Her concern is with what is brought back into active discourse and bodily operation, that is, what is re-incorporated or re-materialized. At issue is what becomes affective and active, and once again explosive; what may therefore also transform. Traub wants to ask what history does with its bodies. I find this interesting and helpful because I want to ask what it does with its machines. The continuous operations of markets both fragment and defragment technological histories by relentlessly bringing technology stories into the present (compressing them); only what is new and on the shelves can be supported (literally and metaphorically) by the continuous orderings and reorderings of neoliberalism, which include the reorderings of history. If this leaves the history of computational dissent in ruins, the point is not only to refind the ruins. It is to rethink how these ruins relate to other moments and to greater wholes. And it is also to see how shards of the past trespass on the present and might also in this way project into the future – perhaps as moments when compulsion is refused.


In these two opening chapters anti-computing has been developed and is used as an organizing concept. It takes the place of, for instance, a local focus, or a specialist history, or work around a single technology, moment, or subject. It tells a series of related stories and in doing so produces an overlapping ordering of things. It is the response I offer to Edwards’ call to do computer history despite the difficulty of doing it. But anti-computing is, as well as an organizing perspective, something discerned out there in the world. It already has a certain coherence – the same forms and dynamics recur – and do so prior to the taxonomic operations of anti-computing as an identificatory methodology that I undertake so as to give them some further coherence, or to amplify their salience. The following chapters explore some unlikely, forgotten, revenant, familiar and strange features and moments of anti-computing.


1 Datamation is widely claimed as the first computer magazine.
2 See e.g. the Covert Criminal Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act (2021).
3 Public and expert debates around image manipulation in the interests of truth and aesthetics continue in the 2020s, of course. See e.g. for a photographer's view.
4 See Ithiel de Sola Pool's Technologies of Freedom (1983) for an interesting example.
5 Chapter 4 of this book is in oblique dialogue with Huhtamo's serialization of interactivity, undertaken in relation to automation. I return to some of the same grounds but establish vectors that bring cybernation debates back into play in relation to labour-precarity issues rather than following his trail, which links cybernation to interactivity as a medium form (Huhtamo, 1999, see also Bassett and Roberts, 2020).
6 Their limited capacity to ‘remember’ is, however, something that differentiates them from other more forms of machine learning – for instance, Markov chains.
7 Catherynne M. Valente, Silently and Very Fast (2011).
8 See Graeber (2015).


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