I find myself more and more fascinated by projects where people take a body of work and analyze it with greater scrutiny than it was ever designed for. It's no so much Big Data as it is Media Archaeology¹.
In a recent episode of NHPR's Word of Mouth, Jeff Thompson explains how he watched 456 episodes of Law and Order and kept track of the number and state of computers throughout the show's 20 year history. From 1990 to 2010, the show evolved technologically from big beige machines to touch screen mobile phones and tablets. He documents it all on his Tumblr blog: Computers on Law and Order. In an article on Rhizome, he reflects upon the wealth of knowledge that the show holds:
I think Law & Order is an even more interesting cultural artifact than I could have ever expected. The show forms a unique database of images and speech, and one that reflects the fascinations, fears, and biases of its time. Law & Order's long run and its "ripped from the headlines" content makes it a useful lens through which to look at a period of great political and economic change in the United States. In particular, the show coincides with a major cultural shift: the rise and eventual ubiquity of computers and networked technologies over a crucial 20-year period in technological history.
Joe Sabia, a digital artist who I recognized from CDZA has done a lot in the area of Media Archaeology, the latest of which is The Office Time Machine. This "machine" allows the user to pick any year (past or present) and see cultural references to that year in the now-retired NBC comedy The Office². He explains on the site that he would pull every reference from the show, search for it on wikipedia, find the appropriate year for that reference and add it to that year's collection. The result was about 1,300 references organized neatly into supercuts³
The type of data-crunching that Thompson, Sabia, and the rest of the supercutters do is both a science and an art that will appreciate in value over time. Media and television in particular is so richly encoded with a society's culture that it will become the primary source for studying everything from manners, behavior, politics, religion, love, and the list goes on.
There's so much to say about Media Archaeology that I've broken it into a series. This is Part 1.
1. If you can think of a more appropriate term than "Media Archaeology", let me know. @stuartcoates
2. The Office is one of my favorite shows of all time. When people ask why, I'll point them to the Time Machine.
3. Supercut is a term coined by Andy Baio to mean "A fast-paced montage of short video clips that obsessively isolates a single element from its source, usually a word, phrase, or cliche from film and TV."