History is arbitrary (if we let it)
[A guest post from Jim Boulton (@jim_boulton), reflecting on digital archaeology and why we preserve the history of the web. His exhibition Error 404 is on at Digital Shoreditch at Shoreditch Town Hall. Free entry from 25th to 31st May, 10am – 7pm.]
The Web was born in 1991. In its short life, it has transformed our lives. Yet, due to the transient nature of websites, evidence of the pioneering years of this new medium is virtually non-existent.
The story of the first webpage is typical. It was continually overwritten until March ’92. A record of that monumental point in history has been lost forever. This is not an isolated case. Most sites from the 90s and early 2000s, that shaped how we now work and play, can no longer be seen. Hardware has become obsolete. Media has become redundant. Files have been lost. 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.
Archiving websites is not the only challenge. A book displays itself, a website cannot be displayed without a browser. These too need preserving. Throw in the hardware and this makes web preservation a three-part puzzle.
But why archive websites at all?
My motivation is to tell the untold story of the Web. The story of the engineers that built the Web has been told, as has the story of the entrepreneurs that exploited it. Little is known about the designers and creatives that shaped it.
Take the work of Deepend. Founded in 1994, while their contemporaries were pushing the technical possibilities of the Web, Deepend explored its aesthetic potential. Deepend’s sites for clients including Volkswagen Beetle, Hoover and the Design Museum set the standard that the rest of the industry aspired to. In 2001, Deepend fell victim to the dot-com crash. Its groundbreaking work disappeared with it.
Archiving ensures the historical record is accurate and accessible. Without broad evidence, history is arbitrary, something I was surprised to discover first-hand. It’s frequently stated that the Shoreditch creative tech scene started with fifteen companies in 2008. This is just not true. My digital agency, Large, moved to Shoreditch in 2001 and there were plenty of creative tech companies already there. The convenient assertion is based on a playful Tweet made five years ago. To his credit, the author of the Tweet has done his best to clarify the situation but the myth remains.
My latest project, an exhibition called Error 404, does its bit to set the record straight. Currently showing at Digital Shoreditch, Error 404 showcases the work of influential Shoreditch-based agencies, including De-construct, Deepend, Digit, Hi-ReS!, Lateral and Less Rain, on the hardware and software of the day. Alongside this culturally important work is an early version of the first webpage, reunited with the first browser and shown on a NeXTCube. The show also includes artwork by pioneering iconographer Susan Kare.
Over the last 20 years we have been privileged to witness the birth of the Information Age. We have a responsibility to accurately record this artistic, commercial and social history for future generations. Long live the archive.