Saturday, August 6, 2016

How an Archive of the Internet Could Change History

A few years ago, the Brooklyn Museum put on a Keith Haring exhibition, with a focus on his early career. There were videos of Haring at work, feverishly painting his way across an enormous scroll, and a room filled with drawings he illegally chalked in subway stations. But most stunning, at least to me, were Haring’s notebooks. They were displayed under clear cubes, their well-worn sheets pinned open for visitors to study.

The notebooks were sublimely surreal, filled with dogs crawling beneath bulbous U.F.O.s and penises ejaculating alongside concave cylinders that looked like nuclear cooling towers. By the time I first encountered Haring’s work as a teenager, his artistic legacy had been reduced to catchy imagery of colorful, blocky bodies hugging and dancing on T-shirts. But the notebooks showed what nagged at the artist, what motivated him. I saw someone so suspicious of government surveillance that he often wrote in secret code, someone obsessed with the subversive power of gay sex and someone working to merge his skepticism of capitalism with a deep-­rooted desire for fame and commercial appeal.

I left with an urgent curiosity about what sort of artifacts we would display a few decades from now, for future generations to discover. Our contemporary analogues to the personal notebook now live on the web — communal, crowdsourced and shared online in real time. Some of the most interesting and vital work I come across exists only in pixels. Tumblr, for example, contains endless warrens of critical theory about trans identity politics and expression, one of the few havens on the web where that sort of discourse exists. Many of the short videos on Vine feel as though they belong to an ever-­evolving, completely new genre of modern folk art. Some of the most clever commentary on pop culture and politics is thriving deep in hashtags on Twitter. Social media is as essential to understanding the preoccupations and temperature of our time as Haring’s notebooks were for his. But preserving materials from the internet is much harder than sealing them under glass.

Building an archive has always required asking a couple of simple but thorny questions: What will we save and how? Whose stories are the most important and why? In theory, the internet already functions as a kind of archive: Any document, video or photo can in principle remain there indefinitely, available to be viewed by anyone with a connection. But in reality, things disappear constantly. Search engines like Google continually trawl for pages to organize and index for retrieval, but they can’t catch everything. And as the web evolves, it becomes harder to preserve. It is estimated that 75 percent of all websites are inactive, and domains are abandoned every day. Links can rot when sites disappear, images vanish when servers go offline and fluctuations in economic tides and social trends can wipe out entire ecosystems. (Look up a blog post from a decade ago and see how many of the images, media or links still work.) Tumblr and even Twitter may eventually end up ancient internet history because of their financial instability.

There are scattered efforts to preserve digital history. Rhizome, an arts nonprofit group, built a tool called Webrecorder to save parts of today’s internet for future generations. The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine has archived hundreds of billions of web pages. But there’s still a low-grade urgency to save our social media for posterity — and it’s particularly urgent in cases in which social media itself had a profound influence on historic events. (...)

Social media might one day offer a dazzling, and even overwhelming, array of source material for historians. Such an abundance presents a logistical challenge (the total number of tweets ever written is nearing half a trillion) as well as an ethical one (will people get to opt out of having ephemeral thoughts entered into the historical record?). But this plethora of new media and materials may function as a totally new type of archive: a multidimensional ledger of events that academics, scholars, researchers and the general public can parse to generate a more prismatic recollection of history. (...)

The internet is pushing us ­— in good ways and in bad — to realize that the official version of events shouldn’t always be trusted or accepted without question. And historians are constantly updating the record by looking for primary sources that were overlooked in earlier eras, often from marginalized figures. These days, such omissions will still happen, but we can catch them faster. Oversights that would have taken decades to correct are now resolved in weeks, even hours. We now get a kaleidoscopic view of events as they unfold, often in real time, on our screens and devices. History is not neutral or synonymous with truth, but the internet affords us a newfound vantage on the totality of passing time — the profound implications of which we are just now beginning to grasp.

by Jenna Wortham, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Adam Ferriss

[ed. From the comments section: MMonck:]

We’ve long known that this is how human history works — an unimaginable number of small stories, compressed into one big one. But maybe now we finally have the ability to record and capture them all, and history can become something else entirely: not a handful of voices, but a cacophony."

Great summation. I largely agree. However, I can't disagree more with the point, "...capture them all".

I had my Twitter and Facebook accounts deleted a couple of years ago. Does this make me, and the millions of others that have done the same thing, like the dead trees that never made a sound when they fell because no one heard their falling?

Is the Internet, especially the narcissist infested Twitter, the true sources of history? The cacophony that makes up history is way beyond the personal files, notebooks and photos (electronic and non-) not "shared" and "liked" on the Internet.

As a former technology and Internet use researcher, what makes up the content of the Internet, even today, is a such an incredibly skewed point of view, I fear for anyone a hundred years from now drawing any conclusions about the totality of the human voice and experience based on the Internet.