Simulcra FTW How the "Link Economy" Reminds me of Postmodern Theory I (Tried to) Read in College.

Is there an inverse relationship between the ease of with which we create digital content and the permanence of the cultural artifacts that we are creating?

More than 10 years ago, when I was in college, a friend and I created a web art project that we (pretentiously) called art(i)facts.  Mostly, it was our excuse to hack around with Photoshop, perl and html and explore this crazy Internet thing that was suddenly all the rage.

So we made a small site based on the premise that some apocalyptic rapture event had occurred, and you (the viewer) had discovered an archeological site (a bunch of photoshoped pictures like the above), and were in charge of interpreting the objects you'd discovered, with a simple web form to add your ideas. For example, one viewer said the that”item 361” (a CD) was a projectile toy, most likely used by children for simple amusement. (The site kinda still works, but this was 1997, so be nice)

A year later, for my senior thesis, I developed an interactive virtual space that was a 3-d rendering of a bedroom fill with objects that would all change based on how the viewer engaged.  For example, when the viewer spoke into the phone, it captured the audio and played the track back as a station on the radio.  (Another score in the pretentious-college-student column.)  I authored it in Macromedia Director 6.5, and was a downright ninja in Lingo (the Director programming language), if I do say so myself.

Fast forward to 2011 and in a moment of nostalgia while organizing files on machine, I decided to pull up my thesis. Or try..

dir is an unknown file-type on my machine since I don’t have Director –> Go to download Director (trial, of course, since the real deal costs $500) –> Macromedia doesn't exist anymore, having been bought by Adobe –> Director is 5 versions ahead (11.5) and can't open 6.5 formats out of the box –> Need to upgrade all 45 files from the original project, which requires re-encoding the character sets –> files open, but a massive list of warnings that a bunch of features have been deprecated including the 3rd party audio/video capture plug-ins that I used.  Comment out some code, give it a shot: Run. Crash.

After about 5 hours, I still can't run the project that I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours building, was featured in the Williams museum, and that earned me highest honors in my major.  And this is me, the author, trying to run it, just 10 years later. Imagine someone else in 25 years.  Or 50.

Another relevant anecdote: in 2006, I was featured in the Los Angeles Times magazine, in an article written about futureme by JR Moehringer (Pulitzer Prize winner who also ghost-wrote Andre Agassi’s incredible life story ). In the print version of the Sunday magazine, the article was a feature story  featuring a full page spread (pdf) of yours truly.

What does it look like on the web now? A lot different than the print version. Just 3 years later, now that it's "old news", has no picture, and is laden with remnant ads, as the struggling Los Angeles Times tries to squeeze as much revenue as it can out of its random long-tail content.  As news moves more and more to digital distribution, “archive” becomes a more fragile notion. I am lucky enough to have the print version to store for years to come.  But will we always have that option? I think that answer is pretty clear.

And of course we have the examples of proprietary formats being used across all type of media. I recently bought a Windows Phone, and moved a bunch of my music to it. I can't play the few DRM'ed iTunes songs that I purchased. I've purchased some books on the Kindle content, that can only be read on the Kindle. Sure Amazon and Apple are massive companies now and we can’t imagine them going away and rendering all of this content unusable.  But companies die.

My point here is that my friend and I were quite possibly onto something more important than we realized as undergraduates enamored with faux-postmodernism.  (My friend Jason has since moved on to become a real academic.)

While we continue to obsess over real-time, are we ignoring the semi-distant future? Might there be an inverse relationship between the ease of with which we create digital content...and the permanence of the cultural artifacts that we are creating?   What's the real prognosis for posterity?

With technology, we create a level of interpretation between the bits themselves, the intentions of the author, and the interpretations of the viewer. Over time, this interpretation layer shifts.  I wouldn’'t necessary say that the medium is the message, but the medium creates a layer of encoding that we may lose the ability to decipher.  And sooner than we think.