Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Internet Week Highlights: Digital Archaeology

Digital Archaeology, sponsored by Google, during IWNY2011.

The World Wide Web is only twenty years old. Hard to believe, isn't it? Considering how seemlessly it integrated into our lives on a daily basis. This is the history that the Google-sponsored Digital Archaeology exhibit hoped to revisit. Things we may take for granted today—GPS, texting, intuitive interfaces, sheer portability and speed—owe their existence to the experiments that preceded them.

The exhibit highlights 28 influential websites calling attention to the need to archive these sorts of records. Creator Jim Boulton points out that as influential as the web has been, there is no trace of the first web page to be found—"not even a screen shot."

But the exhibit is as much a nostalgic review of hardware as well. Part of the exhibit are the items of the day: An early Powerbook, a Gameboy, a modem—the archaic equivalents of today's tablets and smartphones. These are artifacts that entire generations will only know of by hearsay because they have passed from public memory. What's more, these artifacts trace the ways in which our society has changed by following the technological timeine: the rise of portability, the changing design aesthetics, our literary inclinations.(A Wired accompanied each station, and it grew progressively thinner as the years passed. Wired was once a tome-like production.)

We don't often think too much about the lifespan of digital elements. Perhaps we take their impermanence for granted, accepting that they can disappear overnight. This acceptance manifests as indifference, but perhaps it's time to reconsider what constitutes our history. The few cuneiform tablets that have survived are integral to the documentation of our social development. The web—and these artifacts—have much to add.

To see some of the artifacts on display, please visit the album. If you'd prefer a more animated review, thedroidguy has a nice walkthrough here:


  1. I had something different in mind with respect to "digital archaeology".
    You see, going over old data and figuring out what should be kept and what can be deleted takes a considerable amount of effort - it takes *judgement*. And data storage is cheap and getting cheaper.
    When a company goes out of business, it doesn't just disappear. Usually the company's assets are sold off. In order to keep the user base, servers are left running. The net result is that sometimes existing corporate infrastructure gets migrated to newer and newer servers without ever being culled.

    I wonder how long that cycle will last? Will there, in a millennium, be people who sift through corporate servers to find centuries-old documents? Will the discovery of the cafepress website on a server based in a lunar colony be the biggest archaeological find of 3324CE?

  2. Hasufin, I don't think your projection is too far off. While the concern that formed the basis of this exhibit was the loss of potentially important websites, you are right about the accumulation of data. Over the weekend, I moved several folders of pictures from my laptop to an external drive, and as usual, I was shocked at the number of digital photos S and I have accumulated over the years. They need to be sorted as we have lots of duplicates and pictures that just don't need to be saved, and we've started, but the process always peters off because (1) we have the space to store them and (2) it's an overwhelming task.

    At what point do we need to start sifting thru data? And who will be the people to do so?

  3. To a large extent, I don't imagine we'll *ever* sift through the data. Many large companies now have a policy of basically never deleting. There's too much risk of losing important, or even legally necessary information, and the cost of keeping the data is so trivial, they simply migrate whole databases to new servers, not unlike a hermit crab. Actually sifting through data takes a great deal of time, effort, and informed judgment - in other words, it's expensive.

    HOWEVER there are major risks all the same. Document formats change. Storage methods change. And, perhaps worst of all, a great deal of data can only be accessed in a worthwhile fashion with a separate tool: ostensibly, a file may contain all the marketing figures for IBM from 1987-2006, but without the labels found in the display tool, they're just random numbers; archaeologists will likely spend a great deal of time putting such parts together - the pottery sherds of the future.