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Digital Media: Here today, gone tomorrow?

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Our cultural production has greatly increased over the past decade because of the growth of technology. Many aspects of this phenomenon have been debated, from the artistic merit of the democratization of the creative process to the value of protecting older forms of expression such as film and analog photography. But there is a curious event occurring. As culture digitizes itself, with such products as the Kindle, or television on the Internet, or digital photography (so easy even my seven-year old cousin can plaster pictures of herself all over the web!), these traces also disappear at a faster rate than ever before.

As of December 2008 there were 186,727,854 websites on the Internet; some 31 million having been added in 2008 alone, with 1,463,632,361 people surfing the Internet worldwide. There is a pervasive understanding that most, if not all, media will become digital in the next ten years. This puts artists in an interesting position: Digital art is obviously the way of the future. Most designers now work almost exclusively digitally, because the information they work with is also digital. There may be small pockets of resistance to it in the film and fine arts communities, but for the most part the digital revolution has provided an alternative method of production that is cheaper, simpler, more universal, and gradually becoming just as aesthetically accomplished as non-digital forms.

Yet there is one aspect of the digital revolution that may cause trouble for artists, and that is its transience. For all its ubiquity and ease of use, digital media is ephemeral. It is created on and for computers and, unless you take the trouble to print it out on archival paper, it will eventually disappear as the format it is saved in becomes obsolete or the website it is hosted on dissolves into the cybernetic void. What this means for digital artists is that they are perpetually threatened with the loss of their work. What this means for culture is that we find ourselves threatened with a plateau.

If the rate of our cultural output is equaled by the rate of its disappearance—and the drastic increase of the speed at which culture is manufactured would lend credence to this argument—then there is no real output at all. In effect, we erase our history as we create more of it. The second part of that dilemma is that the creation of culture is no longer solely in the hands of professionals and institutions, but rather in the hands of any person connected to the internet and lucky enough to possess a scanner, a digital camera, or a keyboard (or even just a cellular phone).

Now, the paradox is, of course, that if media is not on the Internet, then it may as well not exist. Even the most traditional artists must have an outpost on the web if they are to have any chance of disseminating their work. I recently discovered a folk group that is so steeped in the past that they only use antique instruments and sing in colloquial Gaelic. But I found them on MySpace. Therefore, we are faced with a contradiction in terms: in order for our artwork to be aknowledged we are obliged to put it up on a support that is impermanent. Not only that, but it is resistant to inclusion in the traditional forms of artistic display (galleries and museums), because of its format and because it does not translate completely into a physical medium.

Charlie Gere, the Director of Research at the Institute for Cultural Research at Lancaster University and Chair of CHArt (the Computers and the History of Art group), has explored the ramifications of web 2.0 for culture and cultural institutions. He sees the developing trend as a definitive break with the past because scholarly institutions seem ill equipped to deal with it. “Given that the emergence of the mass media can be dated back to the late 19th century, whereas these new forms of art history only really arose in the 1970s and ‘80s,” says Gere, “there is clearly something of a lag in the responsiveness of art historians to shifting conditions of visual and artistic culture, and I think that Art Historians are not really that responsive to the possibilities of new media.”

This means that not only is digital media prone to disappearance by its very existence in formats that do not last, but our scholarly institutions, the tool we use to verbalize and digest culture, to situate it within the continuum of our achievement and build upon its foundation, is not equipped to process it.

Gere, however, does not see this as a problem. In fact, our connection to the past and to “permanent” media is tenuous at best. The great libraries of antiquity have all burned down at one time or another, resulting in the loss of much accumulated knowledge that was never retrieved, and we have emerged as a civilization from ancestors who wrote nothing down, relying on a (now lost) oral history. Every revolution sees the burning of ancient data, be it political or technological. Therefore, the changes in the format of culture to a brave new world of media that functions at a rate and speed that human minds cannot actually comprehend is simply the next step in the macro trend.

That said, I would encourage you all to make hard copies. It is always good to have a portfolio handy; one that cannot pull a disappearing act.

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