The relatively new discipline of “media archaeology” examines the materiality of media objects through time. Media archaeologists propose that media never die, but instead assume afterlives in society, the environment, and linguistic signification. Pioneer media archaeologists and precursors include the likes of Michel Foucault, Friedrich Kittler, and Bernard Stiegler. In recent years, newcomers to the field have approached information networks, sound environments, and image cultures as also encompassing a plethora of social and political contexts. In short, media archaeology has spawned a series of interdisciplinary, theoretical approaches to the ways in which our medias’ pasts can be identified and experienced in the historical present [Image 1].

Shannon Mattern’s recent book, Code and Clay, Data and Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media, engages this second generation of media archaeology. Using both a theoretical and practical framework, Mattern conducts an actual archaeology in the modern city, complemented by theoretical methods that assess the social and political stakes of the field. Her critique of “smart cities,” for example, illustrates how smartness is not tethered to technological innovation. “Our earliest settlements were just as smart,” Mattern writes, “although theirs was an intelligence less computational and more material and environmental” (x). Planners, city policymakers, and architects have always been interested in improving the quality of life, even before quantitative means to do so became available. One only needs to consider some of humanity’s most innovative enterprises, from Egyptian pyramids to bicycles, umbrellas, and daily bread. Some of these truly smart inventions might seem overly simple but designed simplicity, as Robert Venturi reminds us, is the end product of a complex process of strategic refinement.1 Likewise, smartness in cities does not necessarily mean more complex or better. Nor are newer data-driven approaches to urban management smarter or more sophisticated than noncomputational precursors. Media archaeology uses the realities of the past to bring light to the delusions of the present.

Research for Code and Clay began with a course Mattern designed and taught at the New School in New York City beginning in 2003. The course examined disparate media, from the telephone to architectural plans, magazines, architectural photography, and cinematic space to aid students in finding reoccurring motifs in the history of the media city. The method she used brought to bear “topics, which at first seemed like so much distant history,” but by the end of the semester, “reveal[ed] themselves as foundations for the built world of today and tomorrow,” always proffering the same perennial “dreams and broken promises” in each new and old media cycle (xiii).

This thematic return of the old-in-the-new reoccurs throughout the book, beginning with the first chapter’s invocation of contemporary sound visualization projects, collectively indicative of the growing prevalence of noise in urban space. For Mattern, this noise of the past is discursive, illustrated through each chapter’s elegant move backward in time as the chapter begins, yet ending in the contemporary moment by the end of the chapter. Chapter 1, for example, opens with the early utopian hopes and dystopian fears surrounding the advent of the radio in the early twentieth century and the telegraph in the mid-nineteenth century. Like any magical new substance, these new media invoked existential questions about “presence, temporality, and corporeality” (2). Why did this occur? In part, it is the novelty of any new media that, if innovative and radical enough, cannot help but accrue projections of religiosity and mysticism. On a formal level, Mattern explains, by way of citing James Carey, that radio and “the telegraph allowed for the separation of transmission from transportation” (2). One’s voice could travel around the world while leaving the body at home. What could be more mysterious and miraculous? But again, such mystical projections seem absurd if they are not placed in technological and historical context, as this archaeological examination aims and succeeds at doing.

No sooner did an aura of mystery attach itself to the new media than it became prosaic and banal. Citizens demanded regulation for what was now deemed noise. The 1930s marked the advent of acoustic meters and agreed-upon norms surrounding sound limits, when then Mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, declared a “war on noise,” casting unwanted sounds as a problem of space, not technology or behavior. La Guardia’s declaration led to the city’s first noise ordinance and by the 1960s and ’70s, Mattern observes, Mayor John Lindsey aided in passing “the city’s first comprehensive noise code” (11). People, and concerns with health and well-being, form an equally valid lens in Mattern’s media archaeology.

Mattern also considers other changes humans faced at the time: downsizing, obsolescence by way of machine automation, and new forms of homogenized bureaucracy in life and work. Kittler refers to such new work spaces as “architecture for machines,” by which he had in mind a new kind of architecture akin to “signal-processing machines” (24) where “human operators interfaced” (22) with machines and the logic of machine processing more so than anything or anyone else. Mattern gives the example of 33 Thomas Street in New York, the 1974 location for AT&T’s “Long Lines Building,” whose twenty-nine floors were so “densely packed with machinery” it “could accommodate only five or ten human bodies” (25). Mattern shows how other centrally located buildings also transformed their architecture to accommodate new switching technologies for telephones, and there too, massive “internal architecture[s] evolved,” with an “increased use of vertical channels of cables,” and a “decreased presence of human beings,” let alone concern for heat, dust, or natural light.

A few decades later, urban centers like New York no longer require the same masses of bulky “electromechanical switches and operators” (31). As a result, Mattern explains, these once spectacular art deco buildings and old-world monoliths have been transformed into luxury condominiums or new-century data centers. Examples abound in New York today: 60 Hudson Street (the former Western Union headquarters); 32 Avenue of the Americas (the former AT&T Long Distance Building); and 33 Thomas (the former Long Lines Building) have all been transformed into data centers and surveillance hubs, or reportedly, the National Security Administration”—all to meet the needs of the information age (31).

As suggested, it is only after a material and historical analysis—i.e., media archaeology—that such critical insights become available and meaningful. Chapters 2 through 4 address such equally eccentric pairings as Steel and Ink; Mud and Writing; and Stones and the Voice. Each chapter unfolds in the structure similar to the one outlined above, consistently playing with historical and contemporary instantiations of media persisting through the past in the present. While reading the book for this review, I found numerous connections to the material I was teaching in a course at Ryerson University in Toronto titled “Image, Sound, Text.” Mattern’s language is accessible, allowing me to implement excerpts for course readings and integrate examples into lectures. Code and Clay is strongly recommended for those who write and teach in media studies and wish to endow students and readers with critical and historical insight.

Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, introduction by Vincent Scully (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1967).