Content type: Essay
Credits: Shanique Roberts (Alumna, MA in Media Technology, Leiden University, 2020)
Year: 2019

Introduction: In this essay, Shanique Roberts asks ‘what is a technofossil?’ and speculates on how future generations might see us through them.

‘Unlike previous generations, our memories are not stored in stone but in hard drives.’
Shanique Roberts

In October 2019, Egypt announced the discovery of 30 extraordinarily well-preserved 3,000-year-old sarcophagi. The revelation marked the biggest archaeological find of the century and caused frenzied reactions. ‘This is an indescribable feeling, I swear to God,’ Mostafa Waziri, the secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, excitedly told journalists. Fast-forward 3,000 years from now and it’s hard to imagine that the same level of excitement would be generated by future generations discovering the relics of our era.

Humans have existed for the relatively short period (in the scale of geological time) of approximately 200,000 years. Yet in this brief time, we've left an enormous imprint on our planet, changing it to such a degree that geologists in the distant future may well classify this layer of the earth’s crust as the Technosphere—a new stratum that sits on top of the lithosphere (the earth’s outer crust). What will think about the junked appliances they will find there, and what will they communicate about our species and its use of the planet?

The term ‘technofossil’ was coined by Professor Jan Zalasiewicz and colleagues at the University of Leicester, to describe the material footprints that humans will leave behind through their material goods. His study suggests that technofossils will be humankind’s equivalent of a dinosaur footprint and take the forms of highways, smartphones, cities, computers etc.

Thanks to human innovation, our waste will last millions of years. Most of our products are made from chemical, heat-based and other manufacturing processes which transform raw materials into long-lasting new materials. For example, every year humans produce a quantity of plastic equivalent to the weight of all humans on earth. Beyond simply materials relics, our future geologists will also discover traces of the products we’ve made with them—TVs, cassette tapes, aeroplanes and telephones.

As dinosaur bones have fossilised over time, so too will lounge chairs, ballpoint pens, safety pins, compressed media drives, cars

Globally, the majority of the objects that we create end up in a landfill. As a result of government legislation about how we should deal with our trash, landfills have become modern-day tombs that extend the time it takes for things to decay. Thus, the vast majority of our stuff will be hardened in another geological layer before having the opportunity to decompose and disappear. Long live the technofossil!

The first examples of technofossils, ‘mineralized traces of the technologies used by early hominids to pound, cut and dig', were left by early primates and date back about two million years. Given how long these traces have survived, imagine how long traces of your synthetic phone will last... Everything that we fabricate or produce has the potential to become a technofossil. Media theorist Jussi Parikka describes technofossils as objects that have fallen out of use and become waste.

However, if we think about technofossils beyond the framework of waste, we can see them as future anthropological and archaeological evidence of humanity. In The Care of the Possible, Verena Conley Andermatt argues that we can examine technofossils from multiple standpoints, including human politics, natural formation and technological cultures. She is not suggesting these frameworks offer a solution to the problem of our excessive waste production but, rather, she posits that despite the environmental damage they cause, technofossils can be valuable in pushing us to think about human behaviours and our legacy for future generations.

Pondering the value of technofossils for the present seems quite abstract and dependent on speculation. However, there are some instances where technofossilisation has already happened. In Technofossils of the Anthropocene (2019), visual artist Miguel Sbastida investigated several industry-originated geological formations in an estuary located in Bilbao, Spain. He discovered that at some point between 1920 and 1970, the major steel company Altos Hornos de Vizcaya dumped more than 120,000,000 tons of modern waste in the estuary, including ore and iron residues and refractory bricks from the factory’s furnaces. Strong tides and waves deposited significant amounts of the metal residue to the nearby shores and, after some time, the sediments formed a six-meter-stratum of brown rock. Today, this formation (now approximately 40-70 years old) is the newest layer to the 30-million-year-old cliffs on the shoreline.

Technofossils are intrinsically linked to abandonment—they offer testimonies to human lives lived thousands or even millions of years in the past and future. As dinosaur bones fossilise over time, so too will lounge chairs, ballpoint pens, safety pins, compressed media drives, cars, and so many other objects become archaeological artefacts. Unlike previous generations, our memories are not stored in stone but in hard drives. What will the data centres and everyday objects of our time show the future? Will we be misinterpreted, dismissed, scorned or inspire wonder? If the world does survive for hundreds or even thousands more years, I am hopeful that future generations will learn from our technofossils.