The Atari video game burial is a central urban legend of video gaming culture. Popular belief has it that in September 1983, faced with the resounding failure of their adaptation of the blockbuster film E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, the Atari corporation drove somewhere between 10 and 20 truckloads of merchandise, including but not limited to a massive collection of unsold and returned E.T. cartridges, to a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico, buried this material, and paved over it with concrete.
The burial strikes me as a useful ground zero, both literally and figuratively, for a media archaeology of digital culture. Jussi Parikka and Erkki Huhtamo describe media archaeology as concerned with recovering “alternate histories of suppressed, neglected, and forgotten media that do not point teleologically to the present media-cultural condition as their ‘perfection.’” In the case of the burial, the usually metaphorical valence of media archaeology as a critical rubric is tantalizingly literal: what remains to be unearthed here is not merely a lost history of digital things, but indeed the lost things themselves—not only the economic and cultural failure of the E.T. game, but also its material detritus.
What might this sedimentary burial in the desert have to tell us about materiality, capital, circulation, labor, play, and waste within digital culture? How might we recover the history of a media object that seems to refuse physical recovery? What might it mean to construct history, memory, and/or nostalgia around an object that may not even exist to begin with? In their video for “When I Wake Up,” the band Wintergreen addresses these questions, yet their narrative of retrieval and recovery domesticates the uneasy materiality of the Atari burial, playing upon hipster nostalgia for the 8-bit culture of early video gaming. Bored with playing E.T. in their living room, the band drives out to the middle of the desert and uncovers a trove of E.T. cartridges, claiming the past on behalf of the present in a directly material fashion. Yet in remaining out of sight, the Atari landfill poses a relation between technological materiality and temporality that complicates the retro chic of Wintergreen’s archaeological expedition. Present through its absence—nothing more and nothing less—the burial’s Borgesian lost library of trash is an archive that is itself a gap in the archive, a phantom memory produced through secrecy, sedimentation, and the fluctuations of the technological market.