The Digital Dark Ages

I have been developing Interactive work for over 15 years, and sadly, my son may never see any of it. That’s because we are living in what future generations will undoubtedly call: The Digital Dark Ages.

This all came to a head with renewed force for me a few weeks ago, when an interactive agency contacted me as part of a vendor pitch. They were very proud of themselves for having “innovated a brand new kind of banner ad”. One that allowed the user to interact with the brand/store/product within the banner itself, all  without leaving page the banner was on.  They went on to imply that it was the first time this had ever been done, and wasn’t it a brilliant solution.

I generally agreed with it being the right direction – well, righter than the static alternative – except that it had been done before, and frankly, many times.  I know because, my old company, Red Sky Interactive, did it, to name one.  A lot.  And as far back as 10 years ago.  And it worked then.

This isn’t the first time I’ve come across such a disconnect from past efforts.  Especially in advertising.  It seems to me that advertisers “discover” the same basic, big ideas, a couple times each decade.  And each time it’s hailed as a “truly innovative solution” all over again, as if it hadn’t happened the first time.  This doesn’t just happen with banner ads either, but all sorts of basic interactive principles, interface techniques, and solutions based on newly observed user-behavior.  I honestly don’t think this is a case of selective memory, to their credit I think they truly believe they invented the idea.  In part because they probably had to.  Redundant though it may have been.

Many years ago I was working on a project and needed to reference what I recalled was some aesthetically innovative interactive work in its time.  I had the CD-ROM on my bookshelf – “The Dark Eye”.  It was an awesome piece of work, created by animator Doug Beswick and featured really ground-breaking components including beautifully designed stop-motion puppets.  The packaging still looked awesome.  Looks innovative even still by today’s standards.  It was created in 1995,  and when I attempted to run it, …”the application that created it could not be found”.  I realized with some degree of concern that I had created a fair number of projects around that time, and before.  I saved those old interactive projects- all manner of files, dutifully copied and transferred and burned, from machine to machine over the years- because they represented the bulk of my own body of work, and contained ideas and experiences that I wanted to keep for posterity.  Many were first of kind innovations that won coveted awards and in some cases set industry bars.  

I held my breath and double-clicked one of the pieces I was most proud of, and discovered that neither could it’s application be found.  I tried every way at my access to open it, and only then fuzzily remembered that I’d created it with a program called “Video Works II” – long before its name was changed to Macromind Director – which was incidentally before the company changed it’s name to Macromedia, before the popular Internet, most certainly before Shockwave plugins, not to mention the arrival of Flash, and it’s subsequent acquisition by Adobe.  Needless to say, I no longer had the tools that I’d created the piece with. 

The implications slowly setting in, I rapidly double-clicked, and watched in breathless horror as project after coveted project sadly faded into digital abstraction- unreadable data- like film trapped on a reel.  That the only way they might see the light of day again is if I went to tremendous effort to, technologically, go back in time and bring them forward with me, version-by-version, adjusting code along the way.  The most recent of the “lost” pieces were roughly 5 years old.  

That’s the day I decided I lived in the Digital Dark Ages.

I believe that future generations will look back at these days, and except for those few who are trying to “archive” portions and thin, top layers of the Internet, will have little idea of what was actually happening in Interactive media today.  There will simply be a hole in our history, and no physical artifacts to remember it by.  Lessons will be lost, only to be relearned.  When you consider the mass of interactive work being created daily, it’s virtually unreasonable to think that all of that innovation will be effectively captured en-masse and stored in a form that can be meaningfully revisited across a changing medium.

Our language, messages and artwork, are only made possible through tools and platforms that will relentlessly evolve out from under our work.  Confronted with this scenario, a surprising number of people have suggested “video taping my work for posterity”.  But to me – an Interactivist, that entirely defeats the purpose.  This is interactive work.  You haven’t experienced it unless you interact with it.  Frankly, at the moment, it’s interactive work that requires a mouse and keyboard.  But even this hardware- the mouse- is on its way out.  If we don’t purposefully pursue a solution, we will need to admit that it’s okay to let our place in History diminish with our work.

When I created it, I had imagined, years from now, finding myself contemplating my waning life, but being able to look back at the great work I’d created. To show my son.  I’d hoped naively, that like the painters, sculptors, writers, film-makers of the past, that perhaps my work would persist for future generations, and maybe even serve as a touch point in instances.  I see now that that isn’t likely for any of us.

There are a few possible solutions to this issue:

  1. Update.  Commit to regularly upgrading work, advancing it into new platforms.  This would require a scheduled effort, and will require re-coding as a frequent measure.  As platforms change, creators will have to rethink interface elements.  Admittedly, this solution becomes exponentially more difficult over time. 
  2. Emulate.  It may yet be possible – and hopefully will be in the future- to load any OS and software configuration from the past into what will undoubtedly be very capable computing environments.  Hardware will have to be emulated as well… which poses some interesting design challenges, but hey – I can run Windows on my Mac, so maybe this isn’t too far fetched. I expect this is still a way off however.
  3. Museum.  A museum of old systems/platforms could potentially display key work to future audiences.  And I’ll admit, that’s how I view some of my work today.  Unfortunately this does not extend well, and is restricted by physical limitations.
  4. Let go.  It now appears to me that, as Interactivists, we may be working much closer to live performance than we had ever imagined.  Technology is merely our stage.  Perhaps we need to cozy up to that idea, and walk in with our eyes wide open.  The illusion of “persistent content” comes with the ability to “Save”, “Duplicate” and “Burn”. But in fact, Interactive work rests on a flowing stream of technology – a stream that ultimately carries it away, even while traditional media persists.
  5. There is a 5th option.  Development of the Human Computer Interface Preservation Society.  This effort is underway, and we will announce details as they become available.

In the mean time, interactive media, and more specifically, the language of interactivity, is still hovering in this awkward adolescent stage, a position it’s been in for over a decade.  The most expedient way that we’ll move beyond this state is if the innovative efforts of our current crop of talent, industry creatives and engineers, more decisively builds off of what was done before – not replicate it.  

My advice to younger Interactive developers: find and interact with a seasoned mentor(s).  They’re out there, and I’m sure you’ll find them willing to recall hidden efforts.  Unlike any other “recorded medium”, the Charlie Chaplins, the Leonardo DaVincis, the relative “masters” of Interactive media are still alive today, and for better or worse, the best, most complete source of information on the subject rests with them, not on the net in circulation.  At least in the short-term it’s the only way we can effectively build off the innovation and invention that came before us.