Shedding light on the digital dark age

Elizabeth Walker
RCA/V&A MA History of Design Graduate 2010

Abstract

Digital technology appears to offer the potential of perfect and infinite memory and, as such, provide a great service to the museum, one of the common custodians of national memory. Yet paradoxically, this capacity is threatened by what some have called the prospect of a ‘digital dark age’, an uncertain era in which many contemporary digital artefacts have been rendered inaccessible by the swift obsolescence of the software. For museums hoping to preserve digital relics, such a ‘digital dark age’ presents major challenges.

Figure 1 - E. Walker, 'Image not found', created in Photoshop, October 2010.

Figure 1 - E. Walker, 'Image not found', created in Photoshop, October 2010.

Digital technology appears to offer the potential of perfect and infinite memory and, as such, provide a great service to the museum, one of the common custodians of national memory. Yet paradoxically, this capacity is threatened by what some have called the prospect of a ‘digital dark age’, an uncertain era in which many contemporary digital artefacts have been rendered inaccessible by the swift obsolescence of the software. For museums hoping to preserve digital relics, such a ‘digital dark age’ presents major challenges.

In the technologically advanced, digitally conversant environment of the developed world, an increasing number of our everyday experiences rely on digital design - such as the user experience relative to the smart phone for example, the satellite navigation system, the games console and most conspicuously the internet. Moreover, the sheer volume of emails, text messages and online video create a major headache for the 21st century archivist. Content is endlessly added, edited, recycled, shaped and repurposed by its creators and consumers in a myriad of ways; design in its digital form never stands still. According to the National Media Museum for example, ‘the average website has a lifespan of around 44 days – about the same as a housefly'. (1) While various rescue attempts have been initiated such as the Way Back Machine on Archive.org and the British Library’s UK Web Archive (est. 2004), these moves are not sufficient to retrieve earlier versions of websites. More often than not all that is salvaged are the ghostly remains of original forms as graphic components and code are moved, changed or deleted. In Wired magazine, Bruce Sterling highlights the issue with a call for ‘innovative tools for documenting, discovering and defending culture born at the turn of the millennium from the ravages of obsolescence and obscurity'. (2)



It is difficult to anticipate what our future perception of the turn of the 21st century will be. The time feels extraordinarily immediate, yet paradoxically it is likely to become far more remote than any other period in history. Imagine fast forwarding fifty years into the future and wanting to experience the first ever iTunes introduced by Apple Inc in 2001 - the software simply no longer exists in its original form. It has evolved to incorporate design updates and functionality upgrades since its conception, the latest version offering a mere trace of its digital ancestor. Similarly, the development of hardware has rendered many digital artefacts unreadable as earlier generations of equipment are updated and replaced. In her article Digital killed the analogue star! Claire Battisson, a Preservation Conservator at the V&A, remarks ‘that many master copies were functioning as "user copies" and some media was inaccessible due to outmoded formats (for example varieties of magnetic tape; video, audio and open reel) and lack of playback equipment (such as vinyl, cassette and video players, and specific projectors)'. Battisson is working with colleagues and other institutions to produce a set of policies addressing the care of this type of work, as well as a migration programme to guarantee access to them. However, both of these processes are costly and time consuming. Significantly, she states, ‘if we don’t have the resources to look after this media in an acceptable way and are not able to make this type of work accessible then maybe we need to consider why we are collecting it in the first place' (figs 2-3). (3)

Figure 2 - IBM 3410 and Magnetic Tape Subsystem, introduced in 1971, courtesy of IBM

Figure 2 - IBM 3410 and Magnetic Tape Subsystem, introduced in 1971, courtesy of IBM

Figure 3 - 8 inch Floppy Disk Drive, announced 1978, Photographed by Michael Holley, courtesy of Wikimedia, July 2007

Figure 3 - 8 inch Floppy Disk Drive, announced 1978, Photographed by Michael Holley, courtesy of Wikimedia, July 2007

In an article in The Observer, David Smith writes that ‘while the Domesday Book, written on sheepskin in 1086, is still easily accessible, the software for many decade-old computer files – including thousands of government records – already renders them unreadable'. (4) Ironically, in 1986, the BBC created a digital Domesday Book on an Acorn computer and videodisc player. By 1999, the digital book was inaccessible and it took a team of researchers three years to develop emulator software to unlock it. (5)

In conversation with Tom Woolley, the curator of New Media at the National Museum of Media, Smith explains that although the museum has ‘acquired fully functioning artefacts, it is time consuming and laborious to run original software, to boot up operating systems each day and so forth so the museum has begun to look into emulation methods’. (6) Researchers at Portsmouth University are doing just that. By building the world's first general purpose emulator as part of the project KEEP, they aim to make a variety of formats future-proof. (7) It takes the form of a piece of software with the ability not only to recognize but ‘play’ or open all previous types of computer files from 1970s Space Invader games to three-inch floppy discs. Other emulators exist which are specific to certain platforms or types of media, but it is hoped that the new version will be able to emulate media in any format. If successful, this initiative may provide some kind of appeasement to the threat of the ‘digital dark age’. However, it does raise interesting questions about emulation and authenticity, issues that can be further scrutinized through an entirely different method of conservation originating as far back as 1873.

Figure 4 - The Cast Court collection, V&A, London. Photographed by M. Chohan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, 31 July 2007

Figure 4 - The Cast Court collection, V&A, London. Photographed by M. Chohan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, 31 July 2007

The Cast Courts (fig 4), which opened in the V&A at this time, offer us a historical equivalent to the challenges posed by digital design. During the mid-to-late 19th century, plaster-cast collections became increasingly popular. As it was so expensive to travel to the continent, museums acquired reproductions for their many visitors otherwise unable to view and experience important monuments and sculptures. With time, imitation collections faded along with the growing public antipathy to copying works of art. It was not until fairly recently that revived interest in the casts arose from a greater appreciation of what they offered. According to Malcolm Baker ‘the [cast] collection is becoming increasingly valuable as a record of originals that have either suffered the over-zealous attentions of later restorers or severely deteriorated through the pollution of more than a century’. (8) Significantly, the V&A exhibit a reproduction of Lubeck’s late 15th-century relief of Christ washing the Apostles' feet; since the original has been destroyed the cast now serves as a unique record of a lost work. Although a different methodology from the preservation of digital relics, the reproduction of monuments and works of art present a model for emulating software.

Victor Mayer-Schönberger, author of Delete: the Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age claims that ‘since the beginning of time, for us humans, forgetting has been the norm and remembering the exception’ but concludes that ‘today, with the help of technological developments, forgetting has become the exception, and remembering the default’. (9) As a society, our collective ability to gather and disseminate information is a large part of what makes us successful, but Mayer-Schönberger argues that as individuals, we would be crippled by the sheer weight of a perfect memory. It is only our ability to forget that enables us to make decisions and move forward. Yet museums have a mnemonic function and, although forgetting is useful to individuals, for nations it can be dangerous. Learning from history requires a societal capacity to remember just as aphorist George Santayana asserted in 1906 that ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. (10)

‘Google [the popular search engine] knows more about us than we remember about ourselves’ Mayer-Schönberger claims. (11) This raises issues about privacy and the ethics of sharing and storing information. The Library of Congress in Washington DC has announced that it will store every single tweet posted on Twitter for posterity. The first tweet was recorded at 3:50pm on 21 March 2006. According to the Library’s blog ‘Twitter processes more than 50 million tweets every day, with the total numbering in the billions'. (12) Twitter’s official blog noted that ‘Over the years, tweets have become part of significant global events around the world—from historic elections to devastating disasters. It is our pleasure to donate access to the entire archive of public tweets to the Library of Congress for preservation and research. It's very exciting that tweets are becoming part of history'. (13)

In a speech delivered on internet freedom at the Newseum in Washington DC, Hilary Clinton stated that the ‘spread of information networks is forming a new nervous system for our planet’. (14) In many respects it could be said that information has never been so free. Twitter and other social-networking platforms have provided a public space for people to express opinions, whose voices perhaps in other circumstances might be suppressed or unheard. An article published in The Telegraph on 15 June 2009 describes how the Tehran street protests against the ‘rigged’ elections were not only publicised, but also orchestrated online. (15) The piece states that ‘Iranians intent on change are using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other blogging sites as a loud speaker to amplify their anger towards the regime'. The digital platform provided a powerful reformist tool as many of the online community assembled to occupy the streets of Tehran. The authorities attempted to ‘block websites, text messages and phone calls implying that it fears the power of communication. […] By giving a new generation of Iranians the right to protest, […] the people of the Islamic Republic are being watched – and can communicate with – a worldwide audience. The government can no longer suppress a population which refuses to be silent'. (16) Of course it is because this is an open, universal platform that commentary can come from a broad spectrum of voices. Clinton notes that ‘amid this unprecedented surge in connectivity, we must also recognise that these technologies are not an unmitigated blessing. […] These tools are also being exploited to undermine human progress and political rights. The same networks that help organise movements for freedom also enable the spread of hatred and incite violence'. (17)

Nevertheless it is worth remembering that there are areas of society not participating in the social interactions enabled by digital media. There has always been a dividing line between those who can access and convey knowledge and those who cannot, or who choose not to. The internet has created a technocratic, technophobic divide; a digital division between the information rich and the information poor.

The power of the digital platform is fundamental to shaping world events and arguably public ‘tweets’ are a part of our history. Even so, billions of ‘tweets’ will not enable a master narrative, but instead present an endless barrage of meaningless ‘twitter’ impossible to keep pace with in the present, let alone decipher from the future. Jean-Noel Jeanneney explains that ‘it’s wonderful to get easily to as much of the culture as possible, but when you get everything you get nothing’. (18) Nevertheless, by documenting a form of history through social networks the traditional top-down power structure is readdressed. Not only are these new narratives informed by a wide spectrum of people but they also have the potential to reach a broader audience, allowing for a greater dissemination of information.

In Building a Universal Digital Memory, Pierre Lévy writes that ‘the future will inevitably bring an increase in network capacity, not only in terms of data storage, but also processing power and bandwidth’. (19) But what is the impact of infinite storage capacity for the museum? Institutionally, museums find it very difficult to withdraw physical objects from collections. How on earth will they decide what data to drop?

Figure 5 - Mark Hansen and Ben Ruben, 'The Listening Post', 2001-2003. The Science Museum, London. Photograph courtesy of David Alison

Figure 5 - Mark Hansen and Ben Ruben, 'The Listening Post', 2001-2003. The Science Museum, London. Photograph courtesy of David Alison

In an article covering the Decoding the Digital Conference at the V&A, Liz Farrelly notes that the Science Museum’s resident art curator Hannah Redler has facilitated more than 70 commissions of computer art projects since 1997. Farrelly specifies that Redler acquired many of those commissions by lobbying for changes to accession politics (fig 5).

Furthermore, the Science Museum now recognizes that computer art projects could be insured against obsolescence when built using bespoke software. This would suggest that the future preservation of artefacts requires a generation of conservators with a solid grasp of code. These restorers need to understand the fluidity, physics and politics of digital systems.

An example of the Tate’s internet art could illustrate why accessioning digital work is problematic. In 2000, Graham Harwood was commissioned to develop a piece of digital work producing another version of the Tate’s website (figs 6-7). Sitting alongside the official version, Harwood’s site critiqued the Tate from within. Upon entering the domain (www.tate.org.uk), an alternative window popped up in front of the home page. The Harwood site looked similar to the official site, but the content was skewed. For example, Tate Britain was described as ‘the home of 500 years of tasty babes, luxury goods, own goals and psychological props of the British social elite’. (20) Regardless of what we think about the counter-cultural position Harwood has taken and the relationship between the internet and art, it is clear that the Tate might appear unable to document this transient art form in any meaningful way. This is in stark contrast to the established conventions of other impermanent disciplines such as performance art. In addition to this inadequacy, Tate has updated its own website design since the creation of the satirized website. Harwood’s creation is no longer a replica of the site and the issue is confused further. This scenario illuminates the preservation issue that museums face; that the digital design domain is in constant flux.

Figure 6 - Graham Harwood's interpretation of Tate's homepage, digital screenshot captured October 2010, courtesy of Tate

Figure 6 - Graham Harwood's interpretation of Tate's homepage, digital screenshot captured October 2010, courtesy of Tate

Figure 7 - Tate's homepage, digital screenshot captured October 2010, courtesy of Tate

Figure 7 - Tate's homepage, digital screenshot captured October 2010, courtesy of Tate

In Remediation: Understanding New Media, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin discuss the idea that nothing is thrown away; that new media is folded into old. Their theory is based around the fact that old and new media can sit side by side, that one informs the other. They claim that ‘innovation rearranges and reconstitutes the meaning of earlier elements. What is new about new media is therefore also old and familiar: that they promise the new by remediating what has gone before'. (21) For example, the internet initially refashioned the letter, the book and the magazine before remediating graphics, advertising, TV, film and radio. Bolter and Grusin state that ‘the web today is eclectic and inclusive and continues to borrow from and remediate almost any visual and verbal medium we can name'. (22)

The past is ever present; it is constantly being re-written. ‘The more memory we store on databanks, the more the past is sucked into the orbit of the present, ready to be called up on the screen'. (23) As various methods for preserving digital design emerge such as the future-proofing emulation project KEEP or migration attempts by museums, some issues are yet to be addressed. If preservation becomes infallible, to what extent should digital design be preserved given its ever-changing nature, and who should choose? Do we want our digital history to be an objective commentary? As a form of preserving our cultural heritage, our early attempts at digital preservation may not adequately map the way in which digital technology has shaped the world. At the same time there is a dichotomy between collective memory (central to the museum and our nation’s memory) and individual narrative. We are witnessing a democratization of knowledge through the volume of multi-authored information on the internet (the use of blogs, Twitter, Wikipedia etc), which better reflect the multi-faceted history museums could be portraying. Aleks Krotoski suggests that 'instead of truth, knowledge and accuracy being agreed on by experts and handed down by an elite from above, it will slowly emerge from the masses and come up from below’. (24) Similarly, in Theatres of Memory, Raphael Samuel describes history as ‘a social form of knowledge; the work in any given instance of a thousand different hands'. (25) Trying to preserve digital history and design may lead to uncertain and untidy ends. To record a particular point in history inevitably requires the inclusion of many different interpretations and memories. Should curators collect everything or should they become more like search engines, filtering information, preserving and presenting only the most relevant searches?

On the one hand emulating software presents us with the possibility of a precise and infinite memory. On the other hand, without it, we will be plunged into digital darkness without access to vast swathes of our past. The perfect, precise memory presents a new type of history, but one in which we are in danger of information overload. In order for us to deal with the past in the present, we need to discard some of that past to make it comprehensible, digestible and useful. A ‘digital dark age’ implies a more traditional historical trajectory, a history that is very flawed. Some pieces are left out by accident and some are left out by design – this is the history that has been plotted up until now.

Such is our dilemma. A symptom of our time is a perceived notion that we have the capabilities to preserve everything through digitization and we are distracted by the fact that we are not doing it. The bigger question is this; even if we can harness these capabilities, would it be correct - or even ethical - to do so?

Endnotes

(1) National Media Museum, 'Archiving the Web', http://www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk/NewMedia/ [accessed 29 November 2009] (para. 8 of 10).

(2) Sterling, Bruce. Wired Magazine. July 2009.

(3) Battisson, Clair. 'Digital killed the analogue star!' Conservation Journal. 56 (2008): 10.

(4) Smith, David 'Websites must be saved for history: The British Library's head says that deleting websites will make job of historians harder'. The Observer. 25 January, 2010.

(5) Grossman, Wendy M. 'A fond farewell to the floppy disk: The 3.5in disk was revolutionary in its day, but it's becoming harder and harder to keep up with the flow of obsolete formats'. The Guardian. 27 April, 2010.

(6) Woolley, Tom. Personal correspondence, National Media Museum, 3 February, 2010.

(7) KEEP – Keeping Emulation Environments Portable.

(8) Baker, Malcolm. ‘The Cast Collections', Masterpiece Series, http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/t/the-cast-courts/ [accessed 24 November 2000] (para. 26 of 26).

(9) Mayer-Schönberger, Viktor. Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.

(10) Santayana, George. Life of Reason. New York, 1906.

(11) Mayer-Schönberger, Viktor. Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age. 7.

(12) Library of Congress Blog, http://blogs.loc.gov/loc/2010/04/how-tweet-it-is-library-acquires-entire-twitter-archive/ [accessed 14 April 2010].

(13) Twitter, http://blog.twitter.com/2010/04/tweet-preservation.html [accessed 14 April 2010].

(14) Clinton, Hillary. 'Defending online freedoms: As global connectivity increases, we must make sure the internet is used to increase, not undermine, human progress'. The Guardian. 22 January, 2010.

(15) Ferani, Leyla. 'Iran can no longer suppress its youth'. The Telegraph. 15 June, 2009.

(16) Ferani, Leyla. 'Iran can no longer suppress its youth'. The Telegraph. 15 June, 2009.

(17) Ferani, Leyla. 'Iran can no longer suppress its youth'. The Telegraph. 15 June, 2009.

(18) Schuller, Gerlinde. Designing Universal Knowledge. Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2008.

(19) Lévy, Pierre. 'Building a Universal Digital Memory', in Museums in a Digital Age, edited by Ross Parry. London: Routledge, 2010: 2.

(20) Fuller, Matthew. 'Art meet Net, Net meet Art', http://www.tate.org.uk/intermediaart/entry15618.shtm [accessed 20 February 2010], (para. 1 of 9).

(21) Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. The MIT Press, 2000: 270.

(22) Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. The MIT Press, 2000: 197.

(23) Huyssen, Andreas. Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia. London: Routledge, 1995: 253.

(24) Krotoski, Dr Aleks. The Virtual Revolution. BBC2 (4 part series), 30 January, 2010.

(25) Samuel, Raphael. Theatres of Memory. London; New York: Verso Books, 1996.