“atari dig cartridges”: Object Life History via eBay

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Atari’s ewaste is on the move. SInce being excavated/processed/documented in April 2014 the retrieved materials have been stored by the City of Alamogordo and branded for public auction. Branding and the return to a market re-values Atari Inc.’s former ewaste into collectibles sold to highest bidders. The City has packaged each item with a certificate of authentication and City property numbered I.D. tag to confirm that each item is the “real-deal” from the disposal that occurred in September 1983.  The promise of a “narrative with photos of the 1983 burial and the 2014 excavation proving the legend to be true” will also be included with the winning bid. From the picture on eBay the winner will also receive a card-backing complete with the City’s logo: the New Mexico Museum of Space History pictured with the sun-setting over the Sacramento Mountains…and a Stealth Bomber. Will E.T.’s glowing finger become incorporated into the City’s letterhead?

Andrew Reinhardt (http://archaeogaming.wordpress.com/2014/11/04/the-capitalism-of-late-archaeology-alamogordos-atari-games-on-ebay/) has recently blogged about this dissemination of excavated materials and the challenges that it presents to research.  Such “scattering” blows-up the assemblage collected in April 2014 and means that the archaeology team as well as any researchers interested in the excavation in the future will neither have a site to visit, nor materials to work with…unless the City of Alamogordo makes good on its word to gift museums. I agree with Andrew, researchers have lost a valuable context. But we’ve also gained a very unusual one: eBay as a site for researching contemporary history–a last vestige to document the artifacts before they move on. Although transitory the “auction phase” is formative to the life history of these artifacts. Researchers can treat the presentation of the artifacts on eBay as generative of new meanings and values. We may even ask: what are these objects within this space? ewaste “recycled” into profits for the City? What does the City plan to do with its profits—I just asked that question via eBay’s “ask a question” option.  Are these objects “archaeological curiosities” like Civil War artillery projectiles excavated from the nation’s battlefields displayed in a museum (or, its gift shop)? Taxidermy alligator heads that serve as “Welcome Center” souvenirs for Florida tourists speeding down the highways refueling at the State’s various Stuckey’s gas stations? Or the “holy grail” for a private collector of everything Atari to flaunt at next year’s Classic Gaming Expo?  Are they in-transit items on their way to becoming “museum objects”?   One thing that’s for sure: they are on eBay: a market space where archaeology collides with commerce and collectors. I plan to reach out to the “winners” to see if they would be willing to share their reasons for bidding on Atari’s ewaste. Stay tuned…

Here’s its life history at the moment:

Game Development to Disposal

  • concept development
  • game development/game design
  • package design/production (including in-house or commissioned cover artwork)
  • mass production
  • distribution/transport
  • retail processing/store display/warehouse storage
  • consumer sales
  • consumer purchase
  • consumer usage
  • user storage/discard/return (in the case of the specific materials in the Alamogordo landfill let us focus on ‘returns’)
  • retailer return to Atari Inc
  • national transportation to Atari Inc.’s El Paso processing warehouse
  • warehouse storage
  • warehouse dispatch/transport to Alamogordo City Landfill (Sept 1983)
  • Disposal (commencing 9/22/1983)
  • Alamogordo citizens retrieval (scavenging)
  • Destruction to prevent further scavenging (9/24/1983)
  • Atari’s materials crushed, mixed with cement (no layer) and other landfill, additional layers of domestic trashed dumped on top of the “Atari vein”. Atari’s ewaste is buried.
  • Press coverage of disposal (Alamogordo Daily News/other regional outlets/New York Times)
  • Pit eventually sealed (no idea when)
  • legend status (no idea how or when this began but fair to say that the “urban legend” gained momentum in the era of social media)
  • Alamogordo City Landfill  closed in 1993

Documentation of Legend/Landfill Site (leading to excavation)

  • References to the “Atari Burial” appears in books devoted to video game history.
  • D.B. Weiss’s Lucky Wander Boy (2003) writes about the disposal in his novel.
  • Game enthusiasts begin to document the legend and landfill site (Bruce “Spud” Synder begins Atari Age thread on March 20, 2005 and “The Atari Landfill Revealed” website is launched…no idea of specific dates of research leading to the site)
  • Personal engagement with the legend/site: first wrote on the dumping in 2006 by way of a piece for Vectors (“Ms. PacMan: An Elegy to Undead Media”), followed by a research trip to Alamogordo to meet with former Mayor Donald Carroll July 12, 2008, another research trip to meet with Ricky Jones (who scavenged Atari’s items in September 1983) on July 21, 2009, published “Concrete and Clay: The Afterlife and Times of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari Video Computer System” in Design and Culture 2009, published Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife, Jan 2014).
  • News of the City of Alamogordo considering a permit to excavate the site released in May 2013
  • Fuel Entertainment – LightBox Interactive – Xbox Entertainment begin pre-production/production of Atari: Game Over Fall 2013

Excavation (April 24 – 27, 2014): from waste to artifact

  • auger hits Atari’s ewaste Thursday 24, 2014
  • pit dug Friday 25, 2014
  • assorted materials extracted/showcased to audience and press/collected and stored on Saturday 26, 2014
  • materials processed/documented by archaeology team and stored by the City of Alamogordo, Sunday 27, 2014
  • materials separated for public auction and museum donation
  • materials stored and branded for public auction by the City of Alamogordo
  • massive media coverage

Public Auction

  • City of Alamogordo auctions 96 ewaste items now re-valued and branded as “a piece of history”/souvenir/collectible on Monday, November 3, 2014 at 16:00 PST
  • Bidding ends Thursday, November 13, 19:00 PST
  • Items are dispatched to highest bidders
  • Museum donation?
  • Life in the hands of private collectors.

3 thoughts on ““atari dig cartridges”: Object Life History via eBay

  1. Pingback: Atari Auction Update | The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

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