Are artifacts objects or processes?

Both the machinery and the social structures we depend on to produce everyday objects have been continuously complexifying over the past few millennia. Consider just how much work goes into making a pencil. But more recently, our artifacts themselves have undergone the same process: they have become hard-to-reproduce processes rather than stable objects.

A sickle or spear-head from thousands of years ago, preserved intact, remains recognizably a sickle or spear-head. Even if age has dulled or rusted it, even if technology's long arc of progress has rendered it obsolete, even if we must fit together its shattered pieces, its purpose is decipherable.

But an iPhone, five hundred years from now? This miracle of modern technology will be just an unrecognizable slab of dead silicon. Never mind its intrinsic complexity (measured in billions of transistors); focus on its symbiotic relationship with its environment. Without the operating system stored on its internal flash drive1, without the servers and GPS satellites it communicates with, without 802.11 and HTTP and TCP and IP and USB, an iPhone might as well be a paperweight.

So the next time you unbox a fancy new gadget, spare a thought for the future of archaeology. Archaeologists aim to decipher the structure of past societies by looking at their artifacts. But archaeologists of the future will need to know the structure of our society in order to decipher the structure of our artifacts!

Footnotes

  1. After ten minutes of searching, I actually couldn't find any source indicating what technology iPhones use internally for storage. I'm assuming it's some sort of flash memory. It's also not clear to me how long flash memory can keep its data if left untouched. Most sources I found simply mentioned that write-cycles usually degrade flash faster than mere aging. But can it last half a millenium? Somehow I doubt it.