Messages to the Future

Innovation and preservation are inherently in tension. But if we can innovate on the way we preserve, we’ll make our work accessible to future generations.

As a young artist, I was driven and aching to communicate my perceptions of the vast and intricate world around me. I was known to thievishly appropriate any and all materials that held some promise of articulating my vision. If it spoke my language, I used it.

My art knew no bounds of material “appropriateness” and it certainly didn’t exist anywhere but the present. I created art to satisfy the very immediate need to communicate in my own language. I gave very little thought as to whom I was communicating or even to how far in time my message could ripple.

In art school, however, things were different. I sat in art history lectures where I learned about art that was created hundreds and thousands of years ago. I was taught how to select materials that would survive through the ages and would serve to extend my message to future generations.

Being the contrarian that I was, I rejected what seemed to me an egotistical extension and instead became fascinated with the concept of ephemeral art. I designed a number of performances that were intended to not be recorded or documented, or to speak to the future in any way other than through human memory itself. I designed edible sculptures that were to be literally consumed and physically digested. I was very much enamored with the idea of speaking to the present, and only the present.

During this time I also started my career as a print and web designer. I was thrilled by the connection between abstract code and the immediacy of communicating directly to thousands of people I didn’t know. In 1998 I was hired by a university agricultural department, where I transferred print journal material on topics like best cotton strains and beef bull breeding to the department’s new website. Doing so moved the material from its archival form to one that facilitated access. In comparison, the web was very much about sharing and finding information now; but even back then, our notion of “now” on the web was much longer than it is today.

To Capture a River

I can’t even begin to wrap my head around how quickly a moment goes by on the web today. Back in the early days of the web, there was an actual sense that one could read just about everything on it over a long weekend. Then, websites were more static. They consisted mostly of linked pages that were sporadically, if ever, updated. Even the old bulletin board forums seem slow and steady compared to the raging flow of thoughts and facts rushing by on the web today.

Captured moments of our history used to be monolithic: monumental and made of stone. Our archived history has traditionally been built around pivotal moments, leaders, or grand representations of an age. We go back to our archives to learn about wars, inventions, kings, and cathedrals. These recorded “moments” we look back on span years, decades, and sometimes centuries. The shorter, lived moments of day-to-day thoughts and experiences were rarely recorded.

Today connected society is so able to record each lived moment, and at such a granular level, that the record is beginning to supercede the experience itself. Not only are we able to record the moments of moments, but we are able to instantly broadcast these moments for other connected people to consume across the globe.

We are also living in an age when we are constantly connected, and where it takes only a few seconds to open up a portal to look into the constant flow of these broadcasted moments. This ever present, ever flowing river of recorded events is changing not only the way we live, but also the way we collect and preserve these moments as history.

History, as the future will know it, is happening today on the web. And so it is the web that we must capture, package, and preserve for future generations to see who we are today. But how do we do this? The web is made up of billions of molecular-sized moments that are constantly rushing past and being superseded by newer and smaller units of recorded time. How does one capture such a thing?

Archiving the Ephemeral Web

The web is the grand realization of my youthful infatuation with ephemeral art and the enigmatic now. Since then I have moved into a career that revolves around preserving access to captured moments of history, and I am coming face-to-face with some of the impracticalities of my early idealism. Looking at the web as a phenomenon or thing in itself, it’s a beautiful wonder; but capturing it and documenting it can sometimes feel like a nightmare. On most days, though, I find it to be a juicy and delicious challenge. Luckily for us, so do quite a few other people.

One of the first visionaries in this area was Brewster Kahle, who founded the Internet Archive in 1996. The Internet Archive is home to the Wayback Machine, a digital archive of website snapshots from 1996 to now. If you haven’t yet visited the Wayback Machine, I invite you to take a minute to look at some late 90s websites. and are good ones to start with.

Less than twenty years after these early websites were created, there is a palpable sense of history in them. For me there is a sense of nostalgia, since I was creating my own sites at the time. For those who were very young or not yet born, these sites tell stories of a time unknown to them, when the internet was new and vastly uncharted. It truly was like the Wild West in those days.

If you dig a little deeper into the Wayback Machine, you will notice that not every day is covered for even the most prolific websites. In the early years of the web, this probably didn’t matter so much, because sites weren’t typically updated as often as they are now. If you look at some sites in 2015, you will see that many more days are covered; some sites are captured several times a day.

Clicking links in archived web pages, especially older ones, often leads to a page that informs us that there is no archived copy of the site or page we are looking for. Many web pages have holes in them, where images are now missing. Charmingly, however, a number of the old animated gifs are still blinking back and forth through their cycles. They are still moving, still alive in some sense, but at the same time, eerily abandoned.

It’s easy to see how difficult it is to capture the whole of the web; every day and every moment that it’s changing. What Brewster Kahle and his colleagues are doing is at the very least herculean. There is no way to capture the web from above, like you could take a picture of an ocean from a plane. You have to take snapshot after snapshot from within as it goes by, and piece it back together like a stop-motion film.

Archivists want to preserve history as it is wherever possible, but in the case of archiving the web, it’s not as simple as taking periodic snapshots and re-hosting them. Even collecting as much as they do, the Internet Archive is not able to collect everything or to preserve all of the functionality built into all of the sites on the web. Unsurprisingly, there are a number of legal complications with archiving websites and a number of website owners who prefer that their sites are not preserved in perpetuity. Adding to this is the challenge of keeping up with all of the technological changes and innovations that are happening on the web every day. Over time, these challenges are only going to punch more holes into the already patchy record we have.

To Innovate or to Preservate

Innovation is one of the most celebrated concepts in United States culture. As a child I was inundated with stories about famous inventors, and I listened rapturously as my teachers diefied them. I don’t know if these stories made me want to be an inventor, so to speak, but they definitely fueled me in my constant search for the best and most innovative solution to every activity in my life.

I found these stories rattling in the background as I mapped out the most direct route across campus, or the most efficient method to make a sandwich. I would maximize efficiency in everything I did and would often imagine devices and contraptions that could make it even more efficient. As an artist, I pushed myself to never follow the status quo. It was my goal to always do things different and better. I wanted to break out of the boundaries of the expected and everyday. I wanted to change the world.

This same type of thinking is the driving force behind the endless stream of technological innovation we celebrate and grapple with every day. As a society, we are living through an exponential growth of technological advances. It is a brilliant and dazzling time.

Unfortunately, the charging rhino of innovation is at the very heart of what is making it so difficult to preserve the web and our other digital creations. As new technological innovations rise up, the old ones fall further and further away. Each new iteration of hardware and software takes us steps away from the older ones. Each step we take away from our older technologies and their familial operating systems, connecting cables, file formats, and browsers, the more difficult it becomes to return to them.

One of my favorite teaching props is an old eight-inch floppy disk. Just last week, I held it up during a lecture and people in the room actually gasped. I asked them if they could tell me where I might go to read what’s on the disk. The only person who knew was a fellow digital preservation researcher whose job it was to find a disk reader for some eight-inch floppies that were donated to his university’s digital archives.

My three-year-old laptop has a CD/DVD drive, but newer models don’t. When is the last time you bought a CD? How long until the crowd gasps in awe when I hold one up during a lecture?

Technological innovation is a strong driving force in our culture, and one that I don’t expect to slow down. I hope it doesn’t. It is a beautiful and thrilling experience to innovate. But innovation creates real tension with our ability to access our recorded history. And the more complex a technology (or website), the more difficult it is to access over time.

Ultimately, it’s up to the librarians and archivists to keep up and become innovators themselves, which believe me, I find to be a wonderful challenge. But, just as my professors taught me in art school, wise creators are ones who imagine their creations in the future and create them in such a way that they may make it there.

Bridging the Interstitials

As digital archivists we have been tasked with reaching beyond the moment of gathering already created content and into the moment of creation itself. We sometimes find ourselves at loose ends, primarily because there has been an historic disconnect between the archivist’s place on the digital content life cycle and the creator’s. If we consider the life cycle as a truly cyclical thing, creation and archiving are friendly neighbors, but in reality we are facing different directions: the creator pitching into the future and the archivist receiving from the past.

The challenge now is figuring out how to turn around once in a while and face each other. The questions we need to ask now are: 1. How can websites be designed to be stewarded into the future as remnants of the past; and 2. In what ways can archivists adjust their practice to accommodate the rapidly changing landscape of information sharing on the web?

Until recently, it seems that the historical aspects of the web haven’t entered much into the process of web design, policy, and innovation. But did you know that a large majority of web users think that when sharing their thoughts, images, and videos online they are going to be preserved in perpetuity? No matter how many licenses the general population clicks “Agree” to, or however many governing policies are developed that state the contrary, the millions of people sharing their content on websites still believe that there is an implicit accountability that should be upheld by the site owners.

In well-run corporations and government agencies, there is an acknowledged relationship between records creators, records managers, and archivists. When things are running properly, all three work together to ensure that the handoffs between them are as smooth and efficient as possible.

Along with the web as we know it, there has also emerged a new model for information creation, sharing, management, and archiving. Unfortunately, however, each of these things happens more or less independently, with ad hoc processes for transferring from one stakeholder to the next. Everything in this space changes so quickly that information management and archiving has developed into a reactionary practice. The Internet Archive is a reaction, just as the Archive Team and the International Internet Preservation Consortium are reactions.

Relatively speaking, the web as information infrastructure and commons for global human interaction is very new. When new things jump into existence, the processes to bridge the interstitials tend to take a while to catch up. Clearly, website creators are stirring to the fact that their creations are historically important and that there are organizations of professionals scrambling in the trenches to steward their creations into the far future.

Right now, just as website creators are coming to this awareness and web archivists are finding some footing, is the perfect time to pause and turn to face each other. We can start asking each other the important questions about who we are and how we operate. Most importantly, we can join our innovative powers to design a stronger, sleeker bridge between our spaces.

Heather ryan

Heather Ryan is an Assistant Professor at the University of Denver’s Library and Information Science program. Her PhD is from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in Information and Library Science, and she focuses her teaching and research on archives and digital preservation. She has been a Long Now Foundation Research Associate since 2007.

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Illustration by Roman Muradov · Portrait by Roman Muradov