Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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American Scene: Rescuing Techno-Trash Volume 54 Number 3, May/June 2001
by Christine Finn

Musings on the artifacts of Silicon Valley

I am with Sellam Ismail, a 30-year-old programmer and collector of defunct electronic gear. I chanced onto Ismail's website,, while doing research for a book on computer museums and collectors. A cybernaif, I soon began seeing computers in a different light; no longer just boxes, they began to take on discrete identities. Friends, however, insisted on asking what a traditionally trained excavator of past cultures like myself was doing digging up old computers?

I was intent, I told them, on examining computers as artifacts, chronicling their changing value and meaning over mere decades. Like an archaeologist studying oil lamps or nail heads, I would examine the changing form of the computer over the past half-century or so, from room-sized machines to efficient little personal computers. To follow a series of objects from status symbol to trash, to museum artifact, to collectable is intriguing in so far as it all happens in a matter of a few years. Imagine such a transformation involving Greek Bronze Age ceramics. But my subject was even richer than I had imagined. I'd underestimated the human side of computer use and the relationships between people and their machines.

Christine Finn's book Artifacts: An Archaeologist's Year in Silicon Valley will be published by MIT Press in the Fall. She is a research associate at the Institute of Archaeology, Oxford University, and a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America