This is quite remarkable. On the surface, it’s a short article about the Y2K bug, but the hypertextual footnotes go deeper and deeper into memory, loss, grief …I’m very moved by the rawness and honesty nested within.
Tuesday, January 7th, 2020
Wednesday, January 1st, 2020
So that was 2019. Quite a year.
Looking back, there were some real highlights for me…
- Going to CERN in February to be part of the project to recreate the first web browser was like a dream come true. It really was an honour and a privilege to be part of it.
- In July, I returned to Miltown Malbay for the Willie Clancy Summer School after an unreasonably long hiatus of fifteen years. I had a great time immersed in traditional Irish music.
- In August, Jessica and I crossed the Atlantic on board the Queen Mary 2. That was an unforgettable experience.
Then there were the usual benefits that come with speaking at international conferences like An Event Apart and Beyond Tellerrand. I got to visit interesting places, eat excellent food, and meet good people.
Not everything was rosy. There were some sad life events for friends and family. And of course the whole political situation here in the UK has been just awful in 2019.
So onwards to 2020. I need to remind myself that many things are going well in the world but it can be hard to keep that in mind. At a local—nay, parochial—level, there’s a good chance that 2020 will deliver a hard Brexit. I have no faith in the competence or motivations of the current government to do otherwise (I keep reminding myself that I don’t have to stay in this country if it falls apart). And at the global scale, our attempts to mitigate the climate crisis are proceeding too slowly.
That’s something I need to take more personal responsibility for in 2020: fewer plane journeys, more trains, and more carbon offsetting.
Ultimately, it’s a fairly arbitrary moment in time but I do like to pause for a moment and look back at the year that’s just been. For all its faults, I have happy memories. I’m healthy. I played lots of music. I ate well. I spent time with friends and family.
I look forward to more of that in the third decade of the 21st century.
If a human civilization beyond Earth ever comes into being, this will be unprecedented in any historical context we might care to invoke—unprecedented in recorded history, unprecedented in human history, unprecedented in terrestrial history, and so on. There have been many human civilizations, but all of these civilizations have arisen and developed on the surface of Earth, so that a civilization that arises or develops away from the surface of Earth would be unprecedented and in this sense absolutely novel even if the institutional structure of a spacefaring civilization were the same as the institutional structure of every civilization that has existed on Earth. For this civilizational novelty, some human novelty is a prerequisite, and this human novelty will be expressed in the mythology that motivates and sustains a spacefaring civilization.
A deep dive into deep time:
Record-keeping technologies introduce an asymmetry into history. First language, then written language, then printed books, and so and so forth. Should human history extend as far into the deep future as it now extends into the deep past, the documentary evidence of past beliefs will be a daunting archive, but in an archive so vast there would be a superfluity of resources to trace the development of human mythologies in a way that we cannot now trace them in our past. We are today creating that archive by inventing the technologies that allow us to preserve an ever-greater proportion of our activities in a way that can be transmitted to our posterity.
Thursday, December 12th, 2019
When the game developer Blizzard Entertainment decommissioned some of their server blades to be auctioned off, they turned them into commemorative commodities, adding an etching onto the metal frame with the server’s name (e.g., “Proudmoore” or “Darkspear”), its dates of operation, and an inscription: “within the circuits and hard drive, a world of magic, adventure, and friendship thrived… this server was home to thousands of immersive experiences.” While stripped of their ability to store virtual memory or connect people to an online game world, these servers were valuable and meaningful as worlds and homes. They became repositories of social and spatial memory, souvenirs from WoW.
Saturday, July 6th, 2019
The Hiding Place: Inside the World’s First Long-Term Storage Facility for Highly Radioactive Nuclear Waste - Pacific Standard
Robert McFarlane’s new book is an exploration of deep time. In this extract, he visits the Onkalo nuclear waste storage facility in Finland.
Sometimes we bury materials in order that they may be preserved for the future. Sometimes we bury materials in order to preserve the future from them.
Sunday, March 31st, 2019
A Public Record at Risk: The Dire State of News Archiving in the Digital Age - Columbia Journalism Review
This well-researched in-depth piece doesn’t paint a pretty picture for archiving online news:
Of the 21 news organizations in our study, 19 were not taking any protective steps at all to archive their web output. The remaining two lacked formal strategies to ensure that their current practices have the kind of longevity to outlast changes in technology.
Wednesday, January 16th, 2019
I love this idea of comparing human colour choices to those of a computer:
I decided to do two things: the top three most used colours of the photo decided by “a computer” and my hand picked choices. This method ended up revealing a couple of things about me.
I also love that this was the biggest obstacle to finding representative imagery:
I wanted this to be an exciting task but instead I only found repeated photos of my cat.
Monday, January 7th, 2019
A short text file, imbued with meaning and memory.
Monday, December 31st, 2018
I can relate to Ethan’s 16-step process for writing conference talks.
Step 14 is the most important.
Friday, November 23rd, 2018
A time capsule for the long now. Laser-etched ceramic tablets in an Austrian salt mine carry memories of our civilisation in three categories: news editorials, scientific works, and personal stories.
You can contribute a personal story, your favorite poem, or newspaper articles which describe our problems, visions or our daily life.
Tokens that mark the location of the site are also being distributed across the planet.
Wednesday, July 11th, 2018
From smart dust and spimes, through to online journaling and social media, to machine learning, big data and digital preservation…
Is the archive where information goes to live forever, or where data goes to die?
Tuesday, July 10th, 2018
I remember Jason telling me about this weird service worker caching behaviour a little while back. This piece is a great bit of sleuthing in tracking down the root causes of this strange issue, followed up with a sensible solution.
Thursday, January 19th, 2017
Like cuneiform crossed with the Long Now Foundation’s Rosetta Project.
He will laser-print a microscopic font onto 1-mm-thick ceramic sheets, encased in wafer-thin layers of glass. One 20 cm piece of this microfilm can store 5 million characters; whole libraries of information—readable with a 10x-magnifying lens—could be slotted next to each other and hardly take up any space.
Saturday, October 29th, 2016
Digital seems like it’s forever because it’s infinitely reproducible, but someone has to think to make that canonical copy or it’s gone-gone.
In this five-year old eulogy for a BBS, Alexis Madrigal ponders the deaths of social networks. Friendster, MySpace, Vine …plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Friday, April 8th, 2016
I remember when I was trying to make my first website. I was living in Germany and playing in a band. We decided the band should have its own little corner of the World Wide Web. I said I’d give it a go.
I remember finding everything I needed. It was all on the web. Designers, developers, webmasters …whatever you want to call them, they were selflessly sharing everything that they had learned. I lapped it up. I learned the lovely little language of HTML. I learned about using tables for layout and using 1 pixel by 1 pixel blank .gifs for fine-grained control. I even learned some Perl just so that people could fill in a form to contact us. Before long, our band had its own website.
I remember showing the web to the singer in my band. I showed him fan sites dedicated to his favourite musicians, sites filled with discographies and lyrics. I remember how impressed he was, but I also remember him asking “Why? Why are these people sharing all of this?”
I suppose it was a good question but it was one I had never stopped to ask. I had just accepted the open flow of ideas and information as being part and parcel of the World Wide Web. When I decided to make a personal website for myself, I knew that it would be a place for sharing. I use my website to share things that I’ve learned myself, but I also use it to point to wonderful things that other people are sharing. It feels like the hyperlink was invented for just that purpose.
One section of my site is simply called “links”. I add to it every day. The web is a constant source of bounty. There seems to be no end to the people who want to share what they’ve learned. “Here”, they say, “I made something. You can use it if you like.” I try to remember just how remarkable that is.
This spirit of generosity has even spilled over into the world beyond the web. I remember when Web Essentials was the first conference outside the US dedicated to sharing the knowledge and skills of the web’s practitioners. Later it became Web Directions. It served as a template and an inspiration for people all over the world.
It’s hard to imagine now in this age of wall-to-wall conferences, but there was a time when the idea of a web conference was untested. Without the pioneering—and risky—work of the Web Directions crew, who knows where we would be today?
A good event reflects the best qualities of the web itself. Designers, developers, UXers …whatever you want to call them, they conquer their fears to get up in front of their peers and share what they’ve learned. “Here”, they say, “you can use this if you like.” I remember how intimidating that can be.
I remember how honoured I was to be asked to speak at Web Directions in 2006. A decade can feel like a century on the web, but my memories of that event are still fresh in my mind. Not only was it my first trip to the Southern hemisphere, it was the furthest from home I had ever travelled in my life. I remember how warmly I was welcomed. I remember the wonderful spirit of sharing that infused my time in Australia. It reminded me of the web.
And now that same spirit of the web is spilling over into these pages. Designers, developers, baristas …whatever you want to call them, they’ve written down words for you. “Here”, they say, “you can read this if you like.”
I try to remember—but sometimes I forget—to say “thank you.”
I try to remember to say “thank you” to those early pioneers on the web who shared their experience with me: Steve Champeon, Jeffrey Zeldman, Molly Holzschlag, Jeff Veen, Eric Meyer, and of course, John Allsopp. I try to remember to say “thank you” to anyone who has ever put on an event—it’s hard work (just ask John). I try to remember to say “thank you” to the people who are making the web a better place for all of us through their incredible work: Ethan Marcotte, Sara Soueidan, Karen McGrane, and so many more.
And when I’m filling up the “links” section of my website on a daily basis, I try to remember to say “thank you” to everyone who has ever shared anything on the web.
I never did come up with an answer to that question my bandmate asked. “Why? Why are these people sharing all of this?” After all these years, I don’t think the answer matters. What matters is that I don’t forget how remarkable this spirit of the web is.
Sunday, April 12th, 2015
In an article entitled The future of loneliness Olivia Laing writes about the promises and disappointments provided by the internet as a means of sharing and communicating. This isn’t particularly new ground and she readily acknowledges the work of Sherry Turkle in this area. The article is the vanguard of a forthcoming book called The Lonely City. I’m hopeful that the book won’t be just another baseless luddite reactionary moral panic as exemplified by the likes of Andrew Keen and Susan Greenfield.
But there’s one section of the article where Laing stops providing any data (or even anecdotal evidence) and presents a supposition as though it were unquestionably fact:
With this has come the slowly dawning realisation that our digital traces will long outlive us.
I recently wrote a short list of three things that are not true, but are constantly presented as if they were beyond question:
- Personal publishing is dead.
- Privacy is dead.
But I didn’t include the most pernicious and widespread lie of all:
The internet never forgets.
This truism is so pervasive that it can be presented as a fait accompli, without any data to back it up. If you were to seek out the data to back up the claim, you would find that the opposite is true—the internet is in constant state of forgetting.
Faced with the knowledge that nothing we say, no matter how trivial or silly, will ever be completely erased, we find it hard to take the risks that togetherness entails.
You will be able to view your posts, messages, and photos until April 9th. On April 9th, we’ll be shutting down FriendFeed and it will no longer be available.
What if I shared on Posterous? Or Vox (back when that domain name was a social network hosting 6 million URLs)? What about Pownce? Geocities?
These aren’t the exceptions—this is routine. And yet somehow, despite all the evidence to the contrary, we still keep a completely straight face and say “Be careful what you post online; it’ll be there forever!”
The problem here is a mismatch of expectations. We expect everything that we post online, no matter how trivial or silly, to remain forever. When instead it is callously destroyed, our expectation—which was fed by the “knowledge” that the internet never forgets—is turned upside down. That’s where the anger comes from; the mismatch between expected behaviour and the reality of this digital dark age.
Being frightened of an internet that never forgets is like being frightened of zombies or vampires. These things do indeed sound frightening, and there’s something within us that readily responds to them, but they bear no resemblance to reality.
If you want to imagine a truly frightening scenario, imagine an entire world in which people entrust their thoughts, their work, and pictures of their family to online services in the mistaken belief that the internet never forgets. Imagine the devastation when all of those trivial, silly, precious moments are wiped out. For some reason we have a hard time imagining that dystopia even though it has already played out time and time again.
I am far more frightened by an internet that never remembers than I am by an internet that never forgets.
And worst of all, by propagating the myth that the internet never forgets, we are encouraging people to focus in exactly the wrong area. Nobody worries about preserving what they put online. Why should they? They’re constantly being told that it will be there forever. The result is that their history is taken from them:
If we lose the past, we will live in an Orwellian world of the perpetual present, where anybody that controls what’s currently being put out there will be able to say what is true and what is not. This is a dreadful world. We don’t want to live in this world.
Monday, November 3rd, 2014
This fracturing of context is, I suspect, peculiar to these early decades of online writing. It’s possible that, in the future, webmentions and the like may heal that up to some extent. But everything from the 90s to today is going to remain mostly broken in that respect. Most of what we said and did had ephemerality long before apps started selling us ephemeral nature as a positive advertising point. Possibly no other generation threw so many words at such velocity into a deep dark well of ghosts.
Saturday, September 13th, 2014
A documentary on our digital dark age. Remember this the next time someone trots out the tired old lie that “the internet never forgets.”
If we lose the past, we will live in an Orwellian world of the perpetual present, where anybody that controls what’s currently being put out there will be able to say what is true and what is not. This is a dreadful world. We don’t want to live in this world. —Brewster Kahle
It’s a terrible indictment of where our priorities were for the last 20 years that we depend essentially on children and maniacs to save our history of this sort. —Jason Scott
Tuesday, August 19th, 2014
Glenn eloquently gives his reasons for building Transmat:
When I was a child, my brothers and I all had a shoebox each. In these we kept our mementoes. A seashell from a summer holiday where I played for hours in the rock pools, the marble from the schoolyard victory against a bully and a lot of other objects that told a story.
Thursday, December 26th, 2013
That was my jam
Looking back through my jams, I thought that they made for nice little snapshots of the year.
- : Meat Abstract by Therapy? …because apparently I had a dream about Therapy?
- : Jubilee Street by Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds …because I had just been to the gig/rehearsal that Jessica earned us tickets to. That evening was definitely a musical highlight of the year.
- : Atlanta Lie Low by Robert Forster …because I was in Atlanta for An Event Apart.
- : Larsen B by British Sea Power …because I had just seen them play a gig (on their Brighton home turf) and this was the song they left us with.
- : Tramp The Dirt Down by Elvis Costello …because it was either this or Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead! (or maybe Margaret In A Guillotine). I had previously “jammed” it in August 2012, saying “Elvis Costello (Davy Spillane, Donal Lunny, and Steve Wickham) in 1989. Still waiting.”
- : It’s A Shame About Ray by The Lemonheads …because Ray Harryhausen died.
- : Summertime In England by Van Morrison …because it was a glorious Summer’s day and this was playing on the stereo in the coffee shop I popped into for my morning flat white.
- : Spaceteam by 100 Robots …because Jim borrowed my space helmet for the video.
- : Higgs Boson Blues by Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds …because this was stuck in my head the whole time I was at hacking at CERN (most definitely a highlight of 2013).
- : Hey, Manhattan by Prefab Sprout …because I was in New York.
- : Pulsar by Vangelis …because I was writing about Jocelyn Bell Burnell.
- : Romeo Had Juliette by Lou Reed …because Lou Reed died, and also: this song is pure poetry.
I like This Is My Jam. On the one hand, it’s a low-maintenance little snippet of what’s happening right now. On the other hand, it makes for a lovely collage over time.
Or, as Matt put it back in 2010:
We’ve all been so distracted by The Now that we’ve hardly noticed the beautiful comet tails of personal history trailing in our wake.
Without deliberate planning, we have created amazing new tools for remembering. The real-time web might just be the most elaborate and widely-adopted architecture for self-archival ever created.