September 02, 2003

Impermanence

I've long been interested in the ephemeral nature of online culture: the ease with which bits are erased and transformed. Think of the websites you used to visit in 1994. In 1996. In 1999. How many still exist?

With the imminent demise of MP3.com, a lot of interesting history will be lost. But then, a lot of history was lost when MP3.com was bought by Vivendi Universal and then that company proceeded to redesign the site, not with a paintbrush, but a machete. Then again, a lot of interesting things went away back in the day of the pre-Vivendi MP3, as the original company evolved. And who's to say a lot of those things -- music, genres, articles, message board postings, charts, statistics -- were interesting? Perhaps interesting to me and not to you.

I find I use Mozilla's save-complete-web-page a lot these days. I figure it's the only way to see what it was I was so interested in, years ago, months ago, days ago.

Think of all the online publications, such as Slate and Salon to name but two, which have never existed in print form. Indeed, most blogs, this one included, don't exist in print form. Sure, there may be backups, so if a server crashes all is not lost, but in the end, it sure seems that all is indeed lost when it comes to digital media. My laserdisc collection is dying, and there's nothing I can do. Think the Hollywood studios care? Not at all: buy DVD replacements, they'd argue. And when the DVDs rot? Not our problem, they'd probably say.

But getting back to the online written word: it's not as if you can go to a library and find "back issues" of Salon.com or BoingBoing. And you'll be out of luck if you try to look up Salon, Slate, or similar publications in those trusty old volumes of the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature.

For online publications, people turn to resources like Google, but it's not the same thing. (And whenever Google is threatened with litigation, it seems, it opts to remove items from its search results.)

I noticed Bruce Sterling is shutting down his Infinite Matrix blog, so he can devote time to writing a new blog over at Wired. What I'm wondering is: his Infinite Matrix blog was notable in its prominent begging for donations -- real money to help keep The Infinite Matrix going. The donors who've given money to the site must be thrilled that their star blogger is packing up and moving away. Do they get their money back?

I wonder what the Tibetan monks would have to say about this ephemeral aspect of cyberculture. "Digital impermanence" seems to be right up their alley. I was thinking about their beautiful sand mandalas that they work so carefully to create, only to then ritualistically destroy them when they're finished. I looked up "sand mandala destroy tibetan" on Google, and browsed the topmost result. There's something strangely fitting that a URL at the bottom of that article on the Tibetan Buddhist sand mandalas should itself result in a 404 error when you click on it. The link, promising "extensive photographs of Tibetan Buddhist arts" no longer works. Posted by brian at September 2, 2003 01:31 PM

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