Punk Archaeology and American Consumerism

Popular culture and media depicts archaeology in a way that likens the study to glamorous finds of mysterious cultures in exotic parts of the world. However, Andrew Reinhard and his team of “punk archaeologists” are not looking for mummies or treasure, but rather a deposit of old video games in an Alamogordo, New Mexico landfill. The team was not focused so much on the content of their excavation, but rather what the discarded game had to say about current modes of thought in American culture. Specifically, Reinhard’s archaeologists were looking to analyze “corporate history, the product’s end-of-life cycle and how objects move from desire to discard” (Reinhard, Why We Dug Atari) in a contemporary American society that is dominated by capitalist and consumerist desires.

A key idea of capitalism is consumerism. In order for economic growth, citizens within the United States must continually buy newer and more appealing goods at an ever increasing rate. Reinhard’s dig unearthed, quite literally, a striking example of consumerism. Deep within a landfill, mulched with dollops of dried concrete and other trash, there was a deposit of Atari games, many of which had not even been opened. The consumerist mentality of many drove Atari to discard these supposedly old and outdated products. Even today, when Atari is nothing but a distant memory in the lives of many, the same ideology holds. Technological giants design and release supposedly newer, more powerful and overall better products faster than many can buy them. On one hand, this may instill a desire in the consumer to continuously spend and therefore stimulate our economy; few would argue this to be a bad thing! However, when one steps back and truly analyzes what is going on, they may be disturbed to find that the blistering pace of capitalism and consumerist demand is severely devaluing our personal, material objects.

The Alamogordo dig challenged this way of thinking by resurrecting and revitalizing the value of the forgotten goods. The frantic pace of American consumerist society stripped the games of their value even before most of them hit the shelves. However, the punk archaeologists redefined the value of the overlooked games simply by uncovering them and showing them to the world. The work of the archaeologists can be seen as a reality check. Perhaps, by showing society how quickly objects cycle from ripe to ruin, the archaeologists can slow the blistering pace of waste and consumerism.

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