In ‘Code + Clay … Data + Dirt’ Shannon Mattern puts forth the argument that cities have always been smart in that they have been shaped by the media they helped to create. Mattern puts forth a ‘high level’ (10000 feet from my perspective) reverse chronology of four different mediums and their impact on the structure and form of urban development. Mattern’s approach is unique in its integration of media archaeology and traditional archaeology. Mattern loosely connects radio, phone, and telegraph (ether) with the radial structure of cities and tall tower like antennas mounted on the tallest buildings. She does a better job connecting the visual iconography of radio’s propaganda with the architectural structuralism of buildings designed with broadcast media in mind. Still this chapter was indicative of the ethereal quality of Mattern’s main argument, namely that there is materiality in media and media’s impact on our environment. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with the argument wholeheartedly, but something about Mattern’s approach left me wanting more. That said, I truly enjoyed the chapter on print and the city as it closely mirrors my research and interests in the dissemination of ‘secret’ knowledge from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment and its impact on modern media. Mattern’s reverse chronology strikes me as the right approach to long extended timelines across multiple mediums, but some of her examples felt like reaching and detracted from the potential connections of other examples. Jumping from culture to culture as in the case of colonial Peru, China, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome in her chapter on writing felt rushed and only vaguely connected. I think all of the media she covers works to further her argument, but her argument for each media as its own chapter leaves the overall case watered down. In the end the book felt like four separate essays loosely connected by a theme, which is fine, but her obvious effort to connect them in reverse chronology and multiple epistemologies requires more ‘solidity’ to justify the ‘messiness’.
My reaction to the book struck me as odd because I’m keenly interested in most of the subject matter she’s discussing. I’ve worked in historical heritage, I’ve worked on projects like the Hudson Yards Project at the beginning of the book. I’ve considered the implications of recreating sounds in ancient environments. This book could have been a bible to me, but it felt like a tour guide. I enjoyed a lot of what it had to say, I just wanted more to connect it all together. I’m left with several questions. Which chapters accomplish the most in defense of her arguments? What could make it all work better together? (less jumping around?) How does her argument fit with the field of Media Archaeology? I felt like it was playing in the dirt, but I left feeling clean with more questions about the method than the subject.