The excellent Viewpoint magazine explores the way we will live. In the latest issue, No 32: The Art Issue, I rant on about the urgency of preserving the early Web (again). Here’s the article in full:
The web is a little over two-decades old but has transformed our lives utterly. Because of it, we do almost everything differently. Yet, due to the transient nature of websites, future generations are in danger of knowing more about the early 20th century than the recent history of the 21st.
The early years of the web were a period of experimentation. Nothing came before, there was no best practice – and there were no rules. This rich period of creative expression was dominated by nonconformists, very few of whom were computer scientists. Writers, designers, artists, illustrators, filmmakers and musicians dived into the unknown and altered the world. Technological change was so quick that the groundbreaking work of these early creative pioneers, produced on now defunct hardware and software, disappeared almost as soon as it appeared. Evidence of this culturally significant period is largely lost.
It all began at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) in March 1989. Tim Berners-Lee observed that although CERN was nominally organised in a hierarchical structure, it was in fact an interconnected web and needed an information system to match. His radical proposal, which seems so humdrum now, was to use hyperlinks to connect and share documents over the Internet. He called it The Project.
The first webpage, describing The Project, was published in August 1991. Its story is typical, being continually overwritten until March ’92. No copy of the original webpage, not even a screenshot exists. A record of that monumental point in history has been lost forever. As the Gutenberg bible signifies the birth of the Industrial Age, the first web page signifies the emergence of the Information Age. And just as Gutenberg’s printing press allowed the accumulated knowledge of the human race to reach every person who could read, the web extends this knowledge to everyone with access to a computer. Printed in 1455, forty-eight copies of the Gutenberg bible exist, yet not one copy of a website made twenty three years ago survives.
This is not an isolated case. Many of the formative sites from the 90’s and early 2000’s can no longer be seen. Files have been lost or stored on redundant media. Agencies have been acquired or gone out of business, people have moved on and records are poor. The creatives, technologists and entrepreneurs that formed this culture are forward looking people, interested in what’s next, not what’s been. Documentation and archiving are not their strong points. This is clearly illustrated by an exchange I had with Ajaz Ahmed, founder of pioneering digital agency AKQA. When I asked him to put forward some work for an exhibition, he declined, saying AKQA had a policy of not celebrating the past – they were inspired by the future.
The fact that digital content is so easy to duplicate means that copies are not valued. Worse, the original version is also often considered disposable. Combined with a future-focused industry and the rapid obsolescence of digital formats, many experts predict the last half of the 20th Century will become a digital dark age. Until we discover the digital equivalent of acid-free paper, bits and bytes remain extremely fragile.
Preventing the digital dark age is one of the goals of Archive.org, which is a hugely valuable resource but an imperfect one. It doesn’t archive any site pre-October 1996 and suffers from missing media and broken links. Crucially, as it’s a web-based archive, sites are seen within today’s browsers, on today’s monitors and at today’s processing speeds. They don’t reflect the experience of visiting the sites at the time. To appreciate them properly, websites have to seen in their original environment, on the hardware and software they were designed on and for. This is where we can make a distinction between archaeology and archiving, archaeology also examines the viewing problem. A book displays itself, the contents of a website are invisible without a browser and a PC.
An early version of the first webpage can be seen on the CERN website but this is only half the equation. When Tim Berners-Lee invented the webpage, he also had to invent the web browser. The crucial point about his browser, the Nexus browser, is that it was a browser-editor – not only did it allow visitors to view the page, it allowed them to edit it too. This was a key part of Berners-Lee’s vision. Only by seeing the first webpage and the first web browser in combination can we appreciate that the web was envisaged as a multi-author environment from the outset.
What is true of the first website is true of all sites. An 800×600 designed site built for Netscape 1.0 seen on a 1920×1080 screen running Explorer 9.0 is a false representation. Only when websites are displayed in the environment they were designed for do we see the designer’s intent.
Digital archaeology is not just a nostalgic trip into our recent digital past. Like all archeological projects it helps us to plug gaps in the historical record. Only with hindsight do we know what’s valuable. When the Sumerians carved the tale of a great flood onto a stone tablet in the 18th century BC, little did they know it would challenge the authority of the Church almost four thousand years later. When Muybridge first captured the moving image, he was not to know his work would inspire animators and film-makers for years to come. Equally, we do not fully understand the significance of the work of the digital pioneers.
Take 1994’s Blue Dot, an online gallery created “for our souls” by Craig Kanarick and Jeff Dachis of Razorfish. Not only was it the first animated website, it is the only record of the early work of now established artists like Ryan McGinness, Spencer Tunick and Jill Greenberg. The same is true of many of today’s artists whose work was born digital.
Equally important is the work of the Antirom art collective, formed in London in 1994 as a protest against multi-mediocrity. Led by interactive pioneer, Andy Cameron, they had the radical vision to explore interaction as a media in its own right, rather than simply an interface to existing content. As Brendan Dawes, granddaddy of interaction design, says of Antirom “nothing was the same in the world of so called multimedia ever again”. Their work largely exists on a redundant format, the CD-ROM.
Another significant early website was 1995’s Word Magazine, one of the first ezines. Unlike many web publications of the time, which simply re-created the print magazine format online, Word.com was a true multimedia experience, incorporating games, audio and chat. Although never a commercial success, its DIY-ethos and icon-driven design influenced thousands of other sites.
Digital archaeology explores these forgotten roots and offers alternate histories. The story of the engineers who invented the web has been told, as has the story of the entrepreneurs that exploited it but the story of the artists and designers that shaped the web remains largely unknown. Aptly described by Marisa Bowe of Word.com as ‘underachieving sub-geniuses’, agencies like Antirom, Deepend, Digit, Firstborn, Obsolete and Razorfish defined the way we work, play, shop, interact and otherwise participate in society, yet their work is largely undocumented. Just because it’s recent history, doesn’t make the early web experiments any less important than Muybridge’s first experiments with the moving image or the first works of literature, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh.
The last 20 years has seen the birth and rise of the web at an astronomical pace. We have witnessed the birth of the Information Age, equal in magnitude to the transition to the modern world from the Middle Ages. We have a responsibility to expose this artistic, commercial and social digital history, the building blocks of modern culture, to future generations – an audience who will be unable to imagine a world without the web.
Thanks to Viewpoint for allowing me to reproduce this article.