Digital archeology: Showcasing the web's first artistic offerings

Only two decades or so after the creation of the World Wide Web, the first "digital archaeology" exhibit of the earliest websites and music videos is making its North American debut.

The internet's earliest 'culturally significant' web pages and music videos

It normally takes hundreds or even thousands of years for an object to count as an historic artifact. But in the fleeting age of the internet, people have a tendency to forget past achievements quickly.

That is why, only two decades or so after the creation of the World Wide Web, the first "digital archeology" exhibit of the earliest websites is making its North American debut.

"These are the websites that wrote the rules of the web," says curator Jim Boulton, deputy managing director of the British-based global advertising firm Story Worldwide. It partnered with Google and the American Library of Congress to put on the exhibit, which opens this Monday during Internet Week in New York City.

Curator Jim Boulton, with two vintage iMac G3 personal computers. The machines were first produced in 1998. (Courtesy Jim Boulton)

"Before them, there was no such thing as best practice, there were no benchmarks, there were no rules."

On display is an array of 28 culturally significant websites, displayed on the "vintage" hardware and software of the era in which they were made.

Visitors to the Metropolitan Pavillion in Lower Manhattan will have the opportunity to browse some of the web's most iconic sites such as the world's first webpage, "The Project," made by internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee in 1991.

Other highlights include, a defunct e-zine from 1995 as well as the surreal and disturbing website for the film Requiem for a Dream (2000). In the not-quite-so-archaic category, you can have a second look at Wilderness Downtown, a 2010 interactive creation that customized an Arcade Fire music video based on the viewer's address and using Google's Street View technology.

Many of the exhibits are a reminder that it was not just computer experts who put together the early internet's groundbreaking sites. Many of the initial innovators were artists, designers, filmmakers and writers.

Need to preserve

Boulton's exhibit is only the latest development in the relatively new field of digital archeology, which began to develop in the 1990s when scientists needed to find a way to read and preserve climatic data stored on obsolete magnetic tape.

A screen shot from the e-zine in the mid-1990s. (Digital archeology exhibit)

But now, in an era where people are constantly reminded of all the personal information that is stored online, from compromising photos of a night out with friends on Facebook to off-colour tweets, we often forget that there was a time before "cloud computing."

That is, before the storing of so much of our data online instead of on our individual computers.

As a result, the practice of archiving our digital history has become much more accessible.

In April 2010, for example, the U.S. Library of Congress announced that it was archiving every public tweet since the micro-blogging site Twitter's creation in 2006.

But technology moves quickly and much of the web's quirky, offbeat side can become neglected or disappear altogether. A case in point: Yahoo's 2009 shutdown of web-hosting service GeoCities.

With the proverbial flick of a switch, over 38 million unique personal web-pages vanished forever. Archivists were only able to download and save around a million of them.

Aversion for the past

In the current exhibit, many of those websites were made before social media and the blogosphere took off. They included fan pages, personal rants and tributes to literally every personal obsession imaginable.

For digital archeologists, preserving our online past is about more than nostalgia. Many of the websites on display featured one-of-a-kind graphics and layout.

Experimental design drove much of the early activity on the internet, before e-commerce came along and turned the web into a vehicle for advertising and before social media became a personalized aggregator of whatever online content someone wanted to see.

Even today, according to Boulton, a creatively designed website for a company or organization is often updated without being archived first. It is all part of the web's constant and rapid march into the future.

But it will take something of a culture shift among the people who create websites if digital archeology is to flourish.

Web designers seem averse to celebrating the past, Boulton says. Rather, they are "interested in what's next, not what has been."

As he sees it, it is only through exhibits like this one in New York that more internet users will be inspired to rediscover and preserve our online past.