Digital Archeology: Digging Deep Into the Archives of Ancient Internet History

John Thomas

In college I took Art History, one of those survey classes that tells you in three months about thousands of years of art across the world. This was made doable by cherry-picking key moments from different parts of the world when there was a creative moment –- a culmination of efforts by many people that resulted in never-before-seen art -– and labeling that moment, like the Renaissance, or Cubism, or Post-Modernism. These labels help us understand, relatively easily, the otherwise complex development of culture and the innovations that push culture forward.

The Internet has been around for barely a blip in human history, but it’s radically altered communication and expression. There is no agreed-upon label for where it fits in the timeline of culture. It certainly plays into post-modernity with its encouragement of remix, its questioning of source, and its proliferation of styles and messages, but maybe it’s the harbinger of something beyond that. So what is the creative history of the Internet and where, in the human continuum, shall we place it?

The exhibit Digital Archeology at Internet Week in New York City, begins to articulate an answer.

Among booths pitching the next new social media programs or streaming content trends, is an old desktop computer. A cathode ray tube bulges out of the back of the screen and the mouse is the size of a Webster’s Dictionary. What, pray tell, is this dinosaur doing here?

It’s hosting the very first website, from 1991.

And next to it, another chunky ’90s-era computer, and another, showing websites in their initial form — on obsolete browsers, in out-of-date languages, on ancient machines. There are 28 computers in all, from the ’90s to today. Websites are shown on Netscape, on rainbow-colored iMacs, and accompanied by accessories like a Wired magazine from that year, a monstrous cellphone (I think they were called “car phones” at that point), or a beat up Game Boy.

A partnership between Google and Story Worldwide, Digital Archaeology attempts to showcase the history of the web by “restoring” seminal websites from the beginning of web-time.

I spoke with John Thomas of Story Worldwide about the efforts that went into creating this exhibit. “We were looking for sites that were doing groundbreaking stuff with the technology available,” he said. The exhibit starts with the first grey site labeled simply The Project, through ’90s key experiments in animation and interactivity, to today when there’s so much happening on the web that sites have to keep pushing the borders of innovation to get attention.

The Digital Archaeology exhibit and site as well is an ode to mobile and social computing. Each exhibit invites visitors to scan a QR code to “like” sites, and on the Digital Archaeology website, the likes are tallied into a leaderboard. Frontrunners at the time of writing include the artist collective site Antirom from 1994 and a 1998 design site K10K, with the first 1991 website The Project running head-to-head with a flirty Agent Provocateur site from 2007.

What’s interesting about this project is that, although websites have been around for two decades, and there is plenty of discussion about how they’ve impacted generations –- 20-somethings being “digital natives”, having known nothing but a world with web, and older generations being “digital immigrants”, learning their way through a quickly evolving new world –- we rarely take the time to look back.

Part of the pleasure in looking back is seeing how far we’ve come. The polish, the motion, and the colors of old websites were limited by access speed (good old dial-up) and limitations in programming language. The layout of from 1995 and Cyberorchids from 1996 feel distinctly ’90s, with outlined tables and bright, web-safe colors. According to Thomas, many visitors were getting nostalgic as they viewed these older sites on familiar old computers.

Another bit of nostalgia fun was in seeing how prescient some sites from the early 2000s were. Antirom, for example, was one of the first groups to exploit the creative and the collaborative opportunities of the web, in 1994. Subservient Chicken and Gift Mixer (2004) were both pioneers in practices that are now common, like controlling video content and generating recommendations for gift purchases from a series of human characteristics.

The exhibit touches upon the evolution of video content in HBO’s 2007 Hotel Voyeur, and the entrance of social media in the humanizing of data in 2006’s We Feel Fine, which aggregates emotions across Twitter.

And the final site in this chronological exhibit? Arcade Fire’s Wilderness Downtown, which combines your location info with a multi-window animated web experience, a feat made possible by the development of HTML5 language.

The inevitable question is, What’s next? Would the next computer in this exhibit be a cell phone? Only time will tell. We need only wait a moment longer to see.