Digital laissez-faire

Posted: October 18th, 2011 | Author: Manuel Lima | Filed under: Uncategorized |

In the Preface of Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of information, I exposed my astonishment with the amount of dead links and error messages encountered while reviewing projects to feature in the book. It’s therefore not surprising that preserving many of these projects for posterity became a central drive for the book’s completion. This took an even more serious tone when I started digging deeper into an unsettling prospect commonly referred to as the Digital Dark Age. This expression essentially contemplates a future scenario where it will be difficult or impossible to read historical documents or artifacts, because they have been stored in an obsolete digital format. Even though this is a widespread dilemma of modern technology, affecting a variety of knowledge domains, when it comes to information visualization, the possibility of many present-day digital projects vanishing within a few decades is a considerable worrying prospect.

As I researched many of the projects to showcase in the book, I was surprised to find that it was easier to retrieve an illustration from Joachim of Fiore, produced 800 years ago, than to attain an image of a visualization of web routers, developed in 2001. As I expressed in the Preface:

The reasons for the disappearance are never the same. In most instances, pieces are simply neglected over time, with authors not bothering to update the code, rendering it obsolete. In other cases, the plug-in version might become incapable of reading older formats or the API from an early dataset source might change, making it extremely difficult to reuse the code that generated the original visualization. Lastly, projects are occasionally moved into different folders or domains or just taken down from the servers, simply because they highlight an outdated model that does not fit the current ambitions of their respective author or company.

Just yesterday while researching for meaningful tree visualizations, the project Ecotonoha came to mind, as it always does, so many times I lost count. Sponsored by NEC and developed by Yugo Nakamura in 2003, Ecotonoha was a project to nurture a virtual tree collaboratively, and at the same time contribute to the actual environment to cope with global warming. More important, Ecotonoha has been a major inspiration for several artists/designers over the last decade and influenced numerous new media projects. If you try to access its website today, there’s a simple message that reads:

The Ecotonoha campaign launched in 2003 has come to an end. We thank you very much for participating in this initiative. During the campaign, 7,423 trees were planted based on messages generated. We believe that your messages in shape of these trees will contribute greatly to sustaining the earth. We hope to have your continued support in our activities and to the conservation of the earth.

But Ecotonoha is a success story in the current landscape. Most online visualization projects have a much shorter lifespan, and very few will reach Ecotonoha’s milestone of 8 years. Overall, this digital laissez-faire contributes to the ephemeral nature of most online artifacts, and consequently the whole field suffers from memory loss.

New York Times  - Timelapse

A few months back I saw a canny post by Philip Vieira, which made me rethink about the dangers of our current digital laissez-faire. Due to an errant cron task that ran twice an hour from September 2010 to July 2011, Philip Vieira, a developer based in Toronto, Canada, accidentally collected 12,000 screenshots of the front page of the With this rich content at hand, Philip created a time-lapse video showing the dinamic, ever-changing nature of the New York Times online frontpage over months. The result was utterly fascinating and absorbing, but it also led Philip to equate how how much is being lost, every minute of the day, across numeral digital artifacts.

As Philip Vieira expresses on his post:

Having worked with and developed on a number of content management systems I can tell you that as a rule of thumb no one is storing their frontpage layout data. It’s all gone, and once newspapers shutter their physical distribution operations I get this feeling that we’re no longer going to have a comprehensive archive of how our news-sources of note looked on a daily basis.

His concern is valid and entirely in line with mine:

This, in my humble opinion, is a tragedy because in many ways our frontpages are summaries of our perspectives and our preconceptions. They store what we thought was important, in a way that is easy and quick to parse and extremely valuable for any future generations wishing to study our time period.

Digital Archeology

Of course many others are also concerned with the prospect of a Digital Dark Age. In October 2010 the exhibit Digital Archeology opened in London as part of Internet Week Europe, with the primary purpose of harvesting and uncovering dozens of websites created in the last 20 years. As the organizers state on their website:

Over this short time, technological and communications developments have been so fast that the groundbreaking work of the early creative pioneers, produced on now defunct hardware and software, have disappeared almost as soon as they appeared, like Mayflies in spring doomed to die as the daylight fades.

Concerned that “the evidence of this explosion of creativity may be consigned to digital oblivion”, this exhibit is timely and extremely relevant:

Soon we will know less about these HTML blossomings than we do about the relief carvings in Mohenjo-Daro or the Yucatán. While they helped define our new culture, almost none of the websites of less than two decades ago can be seen at all. Today, when almost a quarter of the earth’s population is online, this most recent artistic, commercial and social history is being wiped from the face of earth and a hundred million hard drives lie festering in recycling yards or rusting in landfills.

The Deleted City

Another recent, and even more evocative project on this topic is The Deleted City. The installation is an interactive visualization of a 650 gigabyte backup of Geocities made by the Archive Team on October 27, 2009. It depicts the file system as a city map, spatially arranging the different neighborhoods and individual lots based on the number of files they contain. As the authors explain:

Around the turn of the century, Geocities had tens of millions of “homesteaders” as the digital tennants were called and was bought by Yahoo! for three and a half billion dollars. Ten years later in 2009, as other metaphors of the internet (such as the social network) had taken over, and the homesteaders had left their properties vacant after migrating toFacebook, Geocities was shutdown and deleted.

In an heroic effort to preserve 10 years of collaborative work by 35 million people, the Archive Team made a backup of the site just before it shut down. The resulting 650 Gigabyte bittorrent file is the digital Pompeii that is the subject of an interactive excavation that allows you to wander through an episode of recent online history.

The need to preserve

Today there are numerous cuneiform records - one of the earliest known forms of written expression, some 6,000 years old - which communicate a great number of insights about Sumerian, Assyrian, and Babylonian cultures and societies. Can we safely guarantee that some, if any, modern-day digital artifacts will last this long?

I’m not surprised by the news of Amazon’s e-book sales surpassing printed ones, or by any recent story on the conversion of atoms into bits. As Benny Landa once said in respect to this inevitable progress: “Everything that can be digital, will be”. I’m not concerned with mass digitization, I’m simply fearful we are not making enough effort to preserve it. After all, what good is all this information if we cannot safely guard it for future generations?

One Comment on “Digital laissez-faire”

  1. 1 Scott Murray said at 4:25 pm on October 18th, 2011:

    Digital media are inherently biased against longevity because the software that drives them is essentially intangible. To answer your closing question, the “good” of all this information is only for now, today. The majority of it was never intended to reach future generations; the technology used is not designed with such long-term use in mind.

    Printed books, by contrast, are a technology designed to last decades. Longevity is fundamental to their physical structure and materials. Entire buildings are filled with these objects (i.e., libraries), aging gracefully together.

    Digital media, however, is fundamentally non-physical, hence its ephemerality. A bit is a logical construct, an idea, not a tangible thing. We are good at archiving tangible things, but not good at archiving pure ideas (unless they are captured and documented on tangible things). It is especially difficult to archive an idea that is always expressed in a unique form, due to its dynamic interaction with other ideas (external data sources, user input) which then must also be preserved in their original states. In essence, when we are talking about archiving digital media, we are trying to archive an experience. But experiences are fluid, dynamic, experienced differently by different people, and wholly intangible.

    One reason the question you raise is so important, yet so distressing, is that it seems the more that our lives are lived online, the more immersed we are in digital media, the more difficult it is to capture and document the essence of our experience. Set future historians aside for a moment — this is hard enough even for us, and we’re the ones living in it.

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