restricted access Artifacts: An Archaeologist's Year in Silicon Valley (review)
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Technology and Culture 44.1 (2003) 196-197



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Artifacts: An Archaeologist's Year in Silicon Valley. By Christine A. Finn. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001. Pp. xlix+244. $24.95.

Silicon Valley—known as a site that produces all things and ideas technological—has increasingly come under academic scrutiny as a region with its own unique cultural currents. Adding to this cultural history, Christine Finn's Artifacts presents an engaging "series of snapshots" with special attention to diverse material objects—billboards, orchards, computers, newspaper ads—as a means of reflecting on the people and places of Silicon Valley. Through an impressive collection of stories, Finn uncovers the region's agricultural past, reveals the passion and creativity of its computer geeks, and highlights its cultural diversity.

Analysis is kept to a bare minimum, sporadically woven into the short narratives that compose the book's four sections: The Place, The People, The Tech, and The Upshot. Despite the absence of a theoretical framework, Finn consistently revisits two central themes, change and value. Silicon Valley is a "slippery" region that defies straightforward description. This is amplified by its newness as a technological mecca. Beyond technology, it is characterized by a high rate of change, from the quick physical transformation (fruit orchards into corporate parks) to the devilish pace of technological innovation and the unnerving peaks and valleys of economic cycles. Not everyone in Silicon Valley uses a computer or is involved with technology. Most of these stories reveal how individuals respond to rapid change in unusual ways, and one gets the sense that part of the reason for an "excavation" of Silicon Valley is to document responses that might otherwise be lost in such strong winds of change. [End Page 196]

The most captivating parts of Finn's analysis are those that explore the changing nature of value over time by examining the transformation of computers from objects of everyday use to artifacts of adoration. Though older computers no longer have mainstream economic value, a new form of cultural value has taken their place. Silicon Valley not only produces much of the world's computer technology but is becoming home to a number of technology and computer museums and impressive private collections. Artifacts gives special consideration to the personal stories behind these collections, stories that would not be evident if only the material objects were excavated far in the future. Though Finn addresses material objects, she gives careful attention to social context in order to preserve various layers of embedded meaning.

These personal histories lead into other facets of American computer culture, such as the legendary "Homebrew" computer club, cult hacker movies like War Games, and the fanaticism surrounding Apple computers. Additionally, they are a window into the creative drive that leads so many software engineers to spend countless hours interacting with computers, whether it be for hobbyist pleasure, or to ensure the success of an internet startup, or merely as "cubicle work" for some corporation.

Artifacts is concerned with what archaeology misses when it only has silent objects to decipher and decode. As an archaeologist of the present, Finn traces a narrative that highlights the personal relationship between people and objects. She spends only minimal time with the working class and its experiences with the material world of Silicon Valley. Regrettably, too, she does not offer more concrete arguments for what characterizes or unifies the region known as Silicon Valley, or what the emergence of the computer as an artifact says about the changing nature of computers in society. The stories are delightful, but readers are left to muse over their larger significance on their own.

 



Gabriella Coleman

Ms. Coleman, a Ph.D. candidate in cultural anthropology at the University of Chicago, is undertaking a dissertation on the free-software computer-hacker movement in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Permission to reprint a review published here may be obtained only from the reviewer.

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