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Author: Dale A. Stirling
Title: Christine A. Finn's Artifacts: An Archeologist's Year in Silicon Valley
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
April 2003

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Source: Christine A. Finn's Artifacts: An Archeologist's Year in Silicon Valley
Dale A. Stirling

vol. 6, no. 1, April 2003
Article Type: Book Review

Christine A. Finn's Artifacts: An Archeologist's Year in Silicon Valley

Dale A. Stirling

Intertox, INC.

Finn, Christine A. Artifacts: An Archeologist's Year in Silicon Valley. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 2001. $24.95. Cloth. ISBN 0-262-06224-0. 244 pages.

The financial crash of the late 1990s was fodder for journalists worldwide. Its particularly nasty effect on dot.coms and associated businesses was reported with great frequency and often with grim satisfaction at the overindulgences enjoyed by non-university educated computer geeks raking in the dough. A British journalist who is also a research associate in the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Oxford, Christine Finn presents a unique perspective on the entire issue. The book is organized into four parts. It begins with the usual front matter—a preface and acknowledgements. But surprisingly, the front matter also includes a photo essay. Unusual to say the least, but very much appropriate as it sets the tone for the remainder of the book. The photo essay consists of 42 images all revolving around the theme of computers, computing and the growth of Silicon Valley as a center of the computing universe. Images range from historical photographs of valley farming in the 1920s to artifacts of the early computer age to the ubiquitous nature of advertising and media wrangling by the high-tech industry. Indeed, the remainder of the book is liberally sprinkled with photographs that support the conversational style of the author's writing.

The main body of the book is organized into four sections. The author first discusses the place, and then the people, followed by the tech and ending with the upshot. Each section reads more or less like a travelogue. In discussing the place, the author describes her travels to Silicon Valley, the techies and non-techies she met and who became in essence her collaborators in writing this book. She notes that Silicon Valley used to be a prime agricultural region famous for its fruit orchards. Moreover, many, both connected to and outside the high-tech industry, recall the less harried days of the pre 1980s. A nice history of the fifteen cities that make up Silicon Valley is presented. How the valley presents itself is also discussed in the first part of the book. The author discusses the artistic nature of the valley noting that its "hardly surprising that the creative minds that developed machines and software also push the boundaries in graphics, animation, and other techniques that were once hand-drawn and are now keyboarded (pg. 39)." She visits art galleries and talks to a variety of artists who create interesting works, from sculptures to mixed media presentations. Silicon Valley, like most metropolitan areas of the U.S. is marked or labeled by signs and symbols. Accordingly, the author examines how the valley is represented or, more specifically, marketed using billboards, T.V. advertising, magazine, and so on. For example, she writes about the popular magazine Wired and how the written word reflects cultural shifts. Silicon Valley as more than just a high-tech corridor is the subject of the last chapter regarding the place. In this, the author describes how the San Jose Visitors Bureau & Convention Center works to convince outsiders to visit the area for sights and activities not necessarily high-tech based. The driving force behind the character of Silicon Valley is the people. In this part of the book the author takes the reader on a human tour of the valley. She looks at people from both an anthropological view point—how they live—and from an archaeological view point—the detritus of their existence (material remains). The focus here is on how valley inhabitants live in their environment. The high cost of living is examined, as is the plight of the minimum wage workers who find living in the valley financially back breaking. The cultural diversity of Silicon Valley is also discussed. Perhaps the most interesting chapter of this part is "Better to Fail Hopefully" which looks at how crashed companies dealt with their failures. The author refers to this phenomenon as dot.bomb. It is presented in the context of a website that was created to assist such failures. Known as it addressed "the need for a forum and space for those who have plunged to earth like Icarus in the Internet e-business dive" (pg. 88). Despite the gloom and doom, the valley can still bring in techies for expensive dinners and libations and it is clear that money still drives the valley—from software to romance. In closing out the people the author describes the work of others interested in the anthropology of the valley and she waxes poetically as she describes the process of how people move around the valley using a vastly expanded transportation infrastructure.

In the tech the author examines the material culture of Silicon Valley. This culture, of course, consists of the thousands of parts, pieces, and products that are the hardware of the valley. People in the valley appreciate the roots of computing and their efforts to acquire artifacts are discussed in detail. This is evidenced in auctions of historical computing hardware as well as the papers of computer pioneers. Another example of the appreciation of valley history is a vintage computer warehouse located in an old General Motors factory in Oakland. The author also profiles a well-heeled collector who was part of the original Microsoft revolution. The cradle to grave history of computing is reflected in the author's chapter on the industry that recycles computers and related hardware. In a chapter titled "The Newest New Thing" the author reminds the reader that appreciating vintage objects is important, but that the valley is ever moving forward and new ideas and products are constantly being envisioned, designed, and produced. In the last part of the book, the upshot, the author shows how the digital domain has impacted lives—especially in the information sciences. People often forget that the easily navigated world wide web only became a reality in the mid 1990s. We now take for granted how easy it is to find information online.

In this book the author takes the reader on a fascinating trip through the realities of Silicon Valley presented from a ground view level of the people and place that are the valley. The author examines the infrastructures that support the people that create an identity of place. Silicon Valley is like no other and the author's view of the valley is very broad—encompassing its historical roots to its contemporary failings. This is a refreshing book because it provides a unique perspective of Silicon Valley. Rather than focusing solely on the economics of the failures it delves deeper into the psyche of the place and puts a human spin on the events of the last few years. The author puts it best when she states "this book is about rates of change in meanings" (pg. 123). The meanings of Silicon Valley have changed over time and will continue to change—whether or not computing is the focus. Some may argue whether the author really practiced archeology when visiting Silicon Valley. Regardless, this book puts a decidedly different spin on Silicon Valley history and placing her research in the context of archaeology provides yet another interesting approach to understanding how the valley came to be, its recent changes, and its possible future(s).