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<nettime> Digital Decay
Tilman Baumgaertel on Tue, 2 Mar 1999 00:42:39 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Digital Decay


Hi!

	This is a brief presentation I gave at the Berlin Media Festival
Transmediale (www.transmediale.de) at the beginning of a panel on the
preservation and maintanence of digital culture that I was asked to curate. 

	Unfortunately (or fortunately? ;-)) the presentations by the other
panelists are not available in ASCII...

Yours,
Tilman

--------SCHNAPP!-----------

Digital Decay


Welcome to todays panel on net art. Today we are dealing particulary with
the question, how museums can deal with this new art genre, and expecially
with how to keep and preserve net art, and what a curatorial approach could
be towards net art for people who are involved with museums and other art
institutions. 

We will also adress a very recent phenomenon that I call digital decay: the
desintegration and loss of digital data, that so far has recieved little
attention. (unlike the y2k-Problem for example...) 

On the panel we have some very distiguished people from international
museums: 

Barbara London, video and media art curator of the Museum of Modern Art in
New York

Benjamin Weill, curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, and
founder of the Online-Gallery adaweb, to my knowledge the first net art
site on the Internet

Peter Weibel, head of the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie in Karlsruhe

Andreas Lange from the Berlin Computerspiele-Museum, one of the few, if not
the only museum that is dedicated exclusively to the history and culture of
computer games. 

We are going to introduce all of these institutions today, especially their
internet activities, and we will adress the issue of how these internet
sites and internet art can be preserved by museums. Or if they should be
preserved at all? ;-)

I'd like to start this panel by talking a little bit about how I got the
idea for today's event. It's a rather personal story, that might not sound
like much at first. But it's pretty important for all the things that we
will talk about this afternoon, so here we go: 

A friend of mine was finishing her studies at the berlin art school, and
was looking for a topic for her orals. Since she was a graphic designer who
used the computer a lot for her work, she had the idea to talk about the
graphic user interface (GUI) of the Macintosh, which had intrigued her
since she first encountered it. She asked me for a little help, and I was
taken by the idea, because I felt that the graphic interface was very
important in making the computer what it is today: not only the 'universal
tool', that generations of programmers had promised us, but in fact a
pretty much universally accepted tool - at least in the 'Western World'. 

We talked about the Mac-Interface, and decided that it would be a good idea
to compare the graphical interface of the current Macintosh to older
versions to see what the interface designers had changed - to get a clue
about what they tried to give to the users. (As most of you might know the
Interface of the 'MacClassic' was one of the first full-blown graphic
interfaces, and by far the most succesful. It lured a lot of
computer-illiterates to the computer, and it was also ripped-off by
Microsoft when they designed both Window 95 and Windows 98...)

My friend told me that the Mac was the first computer she ever used. She
also told me a story about what happened after she took her first computer
class, that I thought was stunning: She wanted to use this incredible,
newly-discovered machine after her first computer class. She had never
worked with a computer before. She wanted to use it for her first class
assignment. But there was one problem: She didn't know how to switch it on.
The instructor of the class had told his students how to use the paint
programm in great detail. But he had forgotten - nerd that he was - to
mention the most crucial thing: were the ON-button was!!!

The reason why I am telling you this kind of story is this: it made me
realize all of a sudden that the encounter with a relatively easy-to-use
computer like the old Mac had an important impact on a lot of people's
life, an impact that I had never realized before. That's why I found the
idea so intriguing to look at the old Mac and it's interface again. All of
a sudden the old Mac looked like a piece of history - a piece of technical
history, but also of a lof of people's personal history.

So my friend and I started to look for an old Mac - the lovely, beige box,
that graced so many desktops in the 80ies. We went on a odyssee through the
Berlin Art School. And like with any other odyssee we ended up just where
we had started: with ourselves and the memory of the 'machine that changed
the world', as Time Magazine called the Mac in a birthday article in 1994.
We went to a lot of dark, dusty basement rooms and equipment storages that
nobody ever looks at. There was always some system administrator or some
caretaker who convinced us that there were 'some of those old Macs' just in
this room on the other side of the hallway. We never found one. 

Older students kept telling us that there were 'only MacClassics' in the
school 'just a couple of years ago', but nobody remembered when exactly
that was, or where they had disappeared to. After stumbling through a lot
of dark back-rooms, it turned out that there simply wasn't any MacClassic
left in the whole place.

When we could find any Mac Classic in Meatspace, I started to look on the
internet. here is what I found on the Apple website about the Mac Interface: 

http://search03.apple.com/search97cgi/s97_cgi?Action=FilterSearch&ResultTemp
late=webx2.hts&ServerKey=Primary&collname=web&filter=nullflt.hts&searchpage=
http%3A%2F%2Fsearch03.apple.com%2Findex.html&queryText=History+AND+Macintosh
+AND+Interface&SEARCH=Search

Nothing. Just nothing. 

I wonder what this will do for our understanding of ourselfs and our own
history. I guess that by now we are so hooked to computers, that they have
become an object of everybody's history - at least in Europa and North
America. I think that computers have become artifacts that should be
studied and preserved the same way we keep objects from the industrial
revolution: the steam engine, the locomotive, the loom. You can look at any
of these machines at the Berlin Museum of Technology in Kreuzberg. 

In fact: You can also see the machines that powered the post-industrial
revolution at the very same museum. They have a MacClassic. They even have
a LIZA. You can look at them - at their boxes, that is. If they still work,
you wouldn't know. They are behind glass, and nobody is interested if they
actually function.

When I prepared this panel I called the computer curator of the Berlin
Technology museum. She told me that keeping these machines in good
operation condition or to preserve old programming languages was just a
waste of time. 'Only programmers are interested in this kind of thing', I
learned.  

I don't think so. And I don't think that any of these 'thinking machines'
should be left behind, because I think that they shape our life. If we
don't pay attention, a lot of the things we thought and put into writing
will disappear. Simply because we wrote them on computers that will be gone
very soon, like the MacClassics are gone from my friend's art school.

When the 'digital revolution' was in full swing, 'computer experts' kept
telling us, that information was forever - once it was put into digital
format. But now I have a computer that cannot even read the old 5 inch
disks anymore, that I 'saved' my master thesis on. 'Saved' - that's
actually quite a concept, when it comes to computers, now that I think
about it! Almost no computer reads the old disks anymore, not to mention
the magnetic tape that programms were stored on before there were disks.
Now the new Imac Apple Computer doesn't even have a slot for disk anymore
at all! 

As far as the hardware is concerned, we now know that magnetic storage
media such as ordinary disks won't last longer than ten years in most
cases. Optical media such as CDs or CD-Roms might last up to 30 years. As
far as computer hard disks are concerned: they were fabricated by your
friendly computer manifactures so that they won't last longer than ten
years - but only if you don't catch a really bad virus, that is. But with
or without virus - they will eventually crash. Be sure about that. 

BUT: Even if all the digital data on personal disk drives was safe (which
is isn't) - what will happen to the content that now is being put on the
web? In this case you don't only have the problem of disintegrating hard-
und software - you have the problem of of disppearing content. And so far
nobody has started to systematically save and preserve that material.

Do you recall how the first version of the search engine
Yahoo was designed? Or the orginal homepage of the Vatican? The Whitehouse
website in 1995? The CNN business section last week? And: Do you have a
copy of your first homepage saved somewhere? I don't think that anybody can
answer any of these questions with YES. To my knowledge almost nobody has
really done anything about this problem so far, with the exception of the
american software entrepeneur Brewster Kahle. (I get to him in a minute.) 

These questions are particulary important when it comes to art. There is a
understanding that art is worth of particular attention and preservation,
and every museum has it's own preservation department. But with net art, it
is almost impossible to make any attempt to save anything so far. 

The internet we know now is completely different from what it was like five
years ago, and is most likely to be again very different in five years time
from now. Software, hardware, protocols change constantly, and it is very
difficult to think of any way to preserve all this, especially since a lot
of net art deals with specific properties of particular software types. We
have seen with video art how a lot of pieces have simply desinterated, and
are not available anymore. It might be that the same thing wil happen to a
lot of net art. 

To finish this presentation I'd like to give a couple of examples of
Websites, that in one way or another adress this problem. First of all,
there's Brewster Kahle's Internet Archive. 

http://www.alexa.com/company/inthenews/loc.html

So far, they have saved the websites of the presential election in 1996.
Aparently they downloaded the whole internet last year, and gave this file
as a present to the Smithasonian, but I don't know more about it. It
involves a lot of difficult legal and copyright questions, anyway.

The other example of 'digital preservation' that I won't to hint at is
'Ghostsites of the Web'. It has a rather humerous approach. 

http://www.disobey.com/ghostsites/index.shtml

It is run by the american journalist Steve Baldwin and his thesis is that
'the Web is being eaten by invisible termites with incomprehensible error
messages on their tiny backs.' He indulges in the technical problems that
plague older websites, and rates them according to their 'bit rot' by
giving them 'Ghosties' as awards depending on how disfunctional the sites
are. 

Finally I would like to show two internet art projects on the internet that
have been destroyed by technologial circumstances already. The first is
'Computer- {AT} ided Curating' by Eva Grubinger, that is located on the server
of 'Internationale Stadt' (International City), a Internet Art Server that
was started in 1995 here in Berlin. In late 1997 the group, that had
started this project and this server, gave up.

But before that they gathered a more or less complete collection of most of
the early net art projects from Germany. They also provided the Webspace
for 'Computer-Aided Curating', which to my knowledge was one of the very
first Web Art projects in Germany. Here is what happens when you go to the
site:  

http://www.icf.de/CAC/

You don't even get the idea of the project anymore, because most of it is
missing now. There has been a lot of writing about this project by now, but
the art work itself is more or less gone. 

The other piece I would like to show is by Olia Lialina, and was made of
the political group 'Across the Border': 

http://www.contrast.org/borders/abstract.html

You can't see it now with Netscape 4.0 (the browser software I am using)
anymore, but with Netscape 3.0 the words would flicker back and forth over
the lines of this tablet. Since the purpose of this group 'Across the
border' is to get illegal immigrants over the german border, this was kind
of an visual metaphor for what they were doing. But since the piece took
advantage of a bug in a early version of Netscape 3.0, that is gone now, we
cannot see it anymore, and it just looks like a messed-up web page. As Olia
Lialinawrote in an Email to me: 'All my art is a bug in Netscape 3.0.'

I have been writing about net art for the last three years. They used to
say that life is short, but art is long, but I am not so sure if this is
true for art on the internet. I start to think that my watch will last
longer than most of the things I have been writing about in the last couple
of years. If we wait for some more time, these problems will take care of
themselves when the digital content disappears. The first net art projects
are starting to 'bit rot' and 'link rot' right now, and if we want to start
to protect computer culture, we need to start soon. 

For the time being there is little you can do as an individual. But you
should print out every file that you really want to keep and preserve. And
if you still have an old Mac Classic - why don't you go ahead and sell it
to me? 

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