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Showdown at Alamogordo: E.T. vs. E-waste

American media archeology digs popular culture, but ignores our ecological past.

This week, a bunch of eager technophiles converged at a dusty landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico to watch a backhoe unearth artifacts from the fallen videogame empire of Atari. Like a Lost City of Atlantis for gamers, the Atari dumpsite had become the inspiration for tall tales about ancestral joystick jockeys playing Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Pele's Soccer, Yar's Revenge, Baseball, Centipede, Warlords, and other games from a more innocent time. Buried under decades of garbage, these “media archeologists” were all atwitter as rotting newspapers were dragged atop the fetid heap, revealing a sacred dateline: 1983, the year bulldozers sent millions of Atari’s E.T. games into this hole in the Chihuahuan desert.1

Naysayers and cynics have called Atari’s E.T. the worst game ever created; so bad that it pushed Atari out of business and forced it to cover up the evidence, literally. But even the kvetching is part of the mythos surrounding the site, which has all the trappings of a UFO sighting—questions about its authenticity, about conspiracy, about mutations (40 miles away the first atom bomb was detonated), and even questions hinting at madness (the creator of the game, now a psychotherapist, specializes in treating high-tech industry employees).2

Readers of this blog can probably guess that we don’t buy any of this nonsense (or rubbish, if you like). For us, it’s more important to look at what was not said: that the Atari junk is part of a massive, and still growing, stream of electronic and electric waste, or e-waste, one of the greatest environmental scourges of our time.

Instead, the junk was depicted variously as the stuff of geek nostalgia, as reminders of business cycles, further proof of innovation’s “creative destruction,” as a stunt promoting a documentary about the dig, and as just plain proof of just plain American folksiness. In this context, it’s not surprising that it was widely deemed a newsworthy story by a feckless American press, picked up in the likes of USA Today, Forbes, Seattle Times, and the New Yorker, in addition to local papers, entertainment news, network television, and the usual digerati press.

Such media spectacles work as entertainment, but they also deepen public ignorance about environmental problems. So what could be done to green this media story?

The Atari dig had a news peg made for American media consumers—a popular entertainment hook for the attention of audiences accustomed to commercially friendly news. A little rhetorical pivot and any journalist worth their education in objectivity could have placed the story in the big picture of the ecological crisis. For example, by citing the latest report from the Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP) Initiative, they could have told audiences how Americans produce about 29.8 kilos of e-waste per person per year, putting the US way ahead of other leading economies. The E.T. game dump example could have been used to illustrate research showing global e-waste rising 33 percent to about 72 million tons per year by 2017. And while Atari’s garbage was not exported in this instance, the report might have contrasted that fact with the export data that shows all the different kinds of e-waste and where they end up.3

Even a light green media report could have fused the popular news peg to business news to make this appear like a market-based problem worth exploring. After all, if the global e-waste grows to 93.5 million tons by 2016 as predicted (from 41.5 million tons in 2011) e-waste management businesses could expect to reap in revenues of $20.25 billion in 2016. That’s a 17.22 percent rate of growth in revenues. Opportunities abound for capital wanting into e-waste markets where the lion’s share of exported e-waste gets dumped: China, India, and African countries.4

Finally, there’s an academic angle in need of further greening. One of the main characters at the Alamogordo landfill story is an archeologist who writes about how archeological sites are depicted in video game narratives.5 His work will no doubt be taken up by the emerging subfield of media archeology, comprised mostly of scholars who are archeologists in name only. The good news about media archeology is that it’s finding novel ways to rethink familiar forms of innovation, experimentation, pleasure, politics, journalism, and civic life.6 The bad news is that their methods don’t involve actually excavating and analyzing the biophysical risks and chemical leftovers that settle into the Earth with old, discarded technologies.

As in the popular presentation of Alamogordo Atari story, the ecological context is missing from this metaphorical archeology. That’s unfortunate, because a media-archeological approach could be greened in order to foreground the physical environment and tell a richer story of our technological past that improves our chances for a healthy ecological future. And since the Atari dig was animated by a desire to make a movie, we can’t resist asking if its makers plan to offer an audit of the film’s environmental impact. And what if it, too, is trashed, critically and physically, like Atari’s games?







6. Jussi Parikka, What is Media Archaeology? (Polity: Cambridge, 2012); Scott Anthony, review of What is Media Archaeology? (review no. 1343), no date. URL: Date accessed: 16 April, 2014.

7. See Jennifer Gabrys’ Digital Rubbish: A Natural History of Electronics. (University of Michigan, 2011); Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller, “The Material Cellphone.” The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of the Contemporary World, edited by Paul Graves-Brown, Rodney Harrison, and Angela Piccini. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 697-710.