Saturday, February 14, 2015

Digital Dark Age

Vince Cerf, one of the founders of the internet has warned of a "digital dark age." Not because of an anti-technology bent such as you might find in Andrew Keen but because of the pace of change. Technology - and technology devices are moving at such a pace that increasingly we'll find it harder to access the photographs, films and emails that tell our story. In this context the idea of a "dark age" is where future historians have lost the information about our age. The ultimate irony that our information rich age may lead to an unplanned information drought. Few companies survive more than a couple of generations, hardly any for a  hundred years or more. Those future preparations - rich people cryogenically freezing their brains for future revival - are gambles on more than technology, but a faith in a technological progress that history doesn't always identify.

Shelley's classic poem "Ozymandias" with its idol fallen into the sand that has seen an empire perish is the most brilliant invocation of this. Yet Cerf is not a naysayer, he has a possible solution (technological of course), a cloud-based virtualisation of every "player", every software "viewer", so that we can in thirty years - regardless of where it has been moved or passed on  - replicate the experience of opening a JPG or a PDF of Word file.  Backwards compatibility lasts only so long. Even our word files - surely as ubiquitous as anything in the computer world - might find themselves unreadable in Windows 20, or - more likely - Microsoft as a company may have gone the way of DEC or ICL or Mercury Communications.

Anyone who creates for a living should be aware of this - and the idea of digital curation is a really current one - much debated in art and archive circles. This week the magnificent Whitworth art gallery reopens in Manchester - as lovely as the new space is, the true wonder is the Whitworth collection - hidden in basements and vaults. Yet as we move into an age of a reduced public sector what happens to those archives? Nicholson Baker has written eloquently of what happens when you lose the physical object to digitisation - that you also lose the context. That "save" icon on your computer represents a floppy disc that anyone under, oh, twenty five say, will have never seen in real life. Even now we find that old things are being found, which were thought lost, up in attics of houses when someone dies, or forgotten in archives and libraries. Like the reporter searching for the meaning of "Rosebud" in Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane", the sledge with that name on it, could just as easily be put on the fire as the house gets cleared out. As family lines decline or move out to other parts of the world - what do we carry with us? Photographs...memories....letters.... something - but modern life doesn't do too good a job at collecting those. A person's iPod might be a physical replica of their favourite records long after they've gone, but when the machine stops working....

I have a long history of interest in the subject of obsolescence in media. It fascinates me - as it seems that by putting our work down at all, we are creating an impermanent permanence. I am still scarred by a poem that got lost when I was eight years old, the only copy bundled away as my parents got angry at the mess I'd left things in. Since then I've mostly been careful but have had several purges. I used to overwrite cassette tapes not having the spare £1 for a new one.

At least there used to a physical product. A few years ago I realised I'd stopped printing off most of my work - and it just existed on a series of hard disks - and in fear I realised that I wanted a paper copy - I began archiving work to Lulu which allowed me a physical version. These non-books are a personal safety blanket. The thing about digital is that it only exists when there is a second copy - for the stand alone copy is fragile. Yet if you make music what do  you keep? The original tapes/mixes or the just the finished object.

Cerf's plan seems a good one - a cloud virtualisation engine where different versions of software can exist for ever more. I hope he's got a version of an Apricot programme which I wrote my first novel for instance! Of course the digital object is perhaps no more vulnerable than the physical one. The "lost works" of antiquity are many... we don't know if Beowulf is the only story of its kind and quality or one of many, its survival only coming to light in the early 19th century. I suspect it is safe enough now. We then have those handed-down stories, Socrates known through Plato's dialogues, or the New Testament stories from nearly a century after the events, or Franz Xaver von Schönwert's fairytales lost in an archive for 150 years and only recently rediscovered.

Concern over what we have lost are nothing new and imaginative writers have often played with such thoughts - think notably of so many of Borges' short stories - but then again, read Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Production"  to consider whether we are going backwards or forwards. The specific of digital virtualisation - that it will be the machines or the software that stop us from playing or reading or looking at things we take for granted now - are new, as is the seemingly endless amount of information out there. A few years ago I was at an art group that was clearing out their office as their funding had ended. They had bin bags full of  VHS tapes of short films that had been entered into a festival. I imagine I haven't kept the original letters or original text that was sent in for Lamport Court, the magazine I co-ran ten years or so ago, though some may have survived.

It seems to me there are several layers of archivist. The personal, the public, and the professional. The personal is often the artist (or if we are talking of personal data, the person who stores your family photographs - I bet its your dad). The public is that which exists many times. Surely a record that has been made available in a million copies is unlikely to be forever lost. Then the professional: this blog for instance was being archived by the British Library, though I just checked and they stopped doing so in 2012... did they run out of money? Did my blog stop being important? Who knows? Then there's the Wayback machine which does a phenomenal job of snapshotting the web - will these things survive? And that's before you start talking about the unexpected event - the wars and natural disasters that can take apart even the best laid plans. I read with interest Peggy Guggenheim's autobiography recently where she talked about hiding her collection of art as the war started and then removing it to America as the war ended. This is a mix of the personal and professional. Like the BBC cameramen who kept a tape of David Bowie on Top of the Pops or an old Dr. Who episode - its much harder for things to be lost than you'd think.

Where Cerf is right I think is that a generation now creating and preserving work is not even aware of the limitations of the impermanent. Whereas a writer, painter or musician will have good reason to keep some tabs on their work even if they never look at it again, who now keeps old emails - whether personal or business correspondance. My Gmail goes back nearly ten years now but my Compuserve and Demon and Tiscali accounts before then are long gone. Even this blog - I did attempt to extract it a few times in the past, but if some trick of fate means that Blogger disappears, will I have the energy to find it from some digital archive?

I wrote last year about "the end of memory" - where tasks we used to undertake, such as remembering phone calls and directions, are being replaced by always on immediate technology. Maybe our experiential culture means that we no longer have much time for history. Is this a complacency I wonder? "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." In our late capitalist consumerist world, Apple or whoever don't want us to be nostalgic - whereas in the 80s and 90s they wanted us to re-buy what we had already had, a continuing repetition of nostalgia, now - whether its the Premier League with its Year Zero approach to past history, or Spotify with its all you can eat buffet of songs from every era without any historical context - nostalgia is only valuable as a product. Remake, remodel indeed. When something doesn't work - Windows 8, Apple TV, Google glasses - they get sent to the dustbin of history. There's always a new piece of kit to be sold to us.

And this is at the heart of things I think - that as we live in an experiential culture where every minute should be filled, we no longer have the necessity to be bored like I was so often as a child, and scarcity which saw me spending hours deciding which particular record to buy or devouring every book as if it was my last, is no longer available to us.  On demand TV, YouTube and everything else provides us with no need to look back. It possibly explains the first person of so much contemporary fiction; and also, when we do look back, whether Downton Abbey or Wolf Hall it is to make history also a product. Taken into the political sphere - a right wing government like the current coalition wants to create a narrative that implies a reduced public sector is the only option; whilst the left struggles with narratives that aren't backward looking. Our Conservatives no longer conserves, our socialists no longer have a collective vision for the future.

An absence of history - at school, in the fast rebuilding/regenerating of city centres and fast growing cities in the far east - seems to suit the relentlessness of contemporary capitalism. In this context complaining to Flickr or Google or Microsoft because they have extinguished our online album, removed the service we stored everything on, seems to place the consumer in the role of curmudgeon. The generation that embraces digital and analogue - my own generation - sits uncomfortably between the two: we haven't the photo albums that our dads kept, at least partly because we haven't always got the shelves or sideboards or lofts to keep them in, but neither have we the insouciance to let the "cloud" take over - that somewhere in the future it will be possible to search out that old photograph, that old email, that needle in the digital haystack.

If it is a digital dark age I think it will be in patches - there are patches we've already lost - and I don't think any preservation programme can really counter our personal and technological flaws. More worrying the movement to private collections via Google books, rather than public libraries and archives which are either no longer funded, overwhelmed with content, or have got rid of the trained staff who can interpret these collections, means that we may well look back at these early days of the 21st century and wonder why nobody noticed.

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