Saturday, May 31, 2008


I've been neglecting this blog lately because of a science fiction project I've started that covers many of the topics I've mentioned here. I figure it's still useful for me to keep my thinking in these directions going, though, in order to stay engaged.

Instead of theorizing I've been pursuing a more artistic approach to abandoned things.

A particular quotation from Hakim Bey's texts about the "haunted" or "gothic" feeling that pervades the Web has been stuck in my mind.

Found it:
In fact, just as Gibson predicted, the Net is already virtually haunted. Web cemeteries for dead cyber-pets---false obituaries---Tim Leary still sending personal messages---ascended masters of Heaven's Gate---not to mention the already vast lost archaeology of the Net, its ARPA levels, old BBSs, forgotten languages, abandoned Webpages. In fact, as someone said at the last NETTIME conference in Ljubljana, the Net has already become a kind of romantic ruin. And here, at the most "spectral" level of our analysis, suddenly, the Net begins to look...interesting again. A bit of gothic horror. Seduction of the Cyber Zombies. Fin-de-millennium, hothouse flowers, laudanum.

from Seduction of the Cyber Zombies

And don't forget The Ghost of William S. Burroughs.

I'll have to find this NETTIME post. He shifts into Stinerian Anarchist gear after that and abandons the image. Not sure how I feel about the article as a whole, but I love the title. The interesting problem with the archeology metaphor that we both adopt is that previous layers - the ARPAnet, ancient BBSes, for example - are most likely completely gone, or at least completely inaccessible. Some of the files might be floating around but our access to old systems diminishes as software and hardware progresses. A prime example is the Firefox / Gopher:// debate, which I'll go into later.

I know very little about Earth archeology, but it seems to me that in most circumstances physical objects stick around for a bit longer than a few decades. I realize that there are probably many barriers to accessing or preserving physical artifacts, but the complete disappearance or inaccessibility of digital information haunts me in a way that seems specific to this technological era.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Phantoms and Images

A glowing tripod, finally, will let you know
that you have reached the deepest depth of all,
and in the light it sheds you'll see the Mothers.
Some will be seated, some will stand or walk--
there is no rule--for all is form in transformation,
Eternal Mind's eternal entertainment.
About them hover images of all that's been created,
but you they will not see, for they see only phantoms.

from Goethe's Faust, line 6283

I'm pretty sure there are mythological roots that Goethe is drawing from in this section, but I'm not sure of them. This underworld eerily resembles the degree of information access we are quickly approaching. Our fascination with "the sum of all human knowledge" goes way back, and I'm interested in tracking it. Interpreted from a contemporary perspective, this brief passage sums up some of the problems with total information awareness.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


I've been reading Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum. It's pretentious, silly, overwrought, and thoroughly entertaining. Thrown in are some nice bits about human / machine interaction and memory:

But Belbo had found in the machine a kind of LSD and ran his fingers over the keyboard as if inventing, variations on 'The Happy Farmer' on the old piano at home, without fear of being judged. Not that he thought he was being creative: terrified as he was by writing, he knew that this was not writing but only the testing of an electronic skill. A gymnastic exercise. But, forgetting the usual ghosts that haunted him, he discovered that playing with the word processor was a way of giving vent to a fifty-year-old's second adolescence. His natural pessimism, his reluctant acceptance of his own past were somehow dissolved in this dialog with a memory that was inorganic, objective, obedient, nonmoral, transistorized, and so humanly inhuman that it enabled him to forget his chronic nervousness about life.
Also, a pertinent article at NYTimes on the growth of a digital preservation movement in the sciences. I still worry about most art (especially work not recognized as "high" art) being lost, though, because the people doing the preserving might not care.

No one is suggesting that we try to hold on to every bit of data lingering in every obsolete corner. Choices must be made about the kind of material that should be kept fresh and accessible for 5 years, or 50, or 1,000. Census data? Put it on the “forever” drive, please. To-do lists? A little less crucial.
People outside the science and engineering crowd need to have some say in the decisions about what will be preserved using expensive long-term storage. Of course, the arts community could always set up some sort of trans-generational, ritualistic cult to ensure the preservation of culture. Maybe I've been reading too many novels.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


A few years ago, I noticed that the state of my desktop correlated pretty well with the state of my mind. Following the model described in the "Dataclypse" post, my thoughts reached a peak level of chaos and then snapped into a new mode, clearing out most of the remaining debris. Occasional screenshots of my desktop seemed to mirror this, but with so little data and the limits of my subjective interpretation, it's hard to tell. Here are a few:

Winter 2006. I think I had just gone through a fit of reorganization. Melancholy.

Spring 2007. Slightly more cluttered, reaching the end of college.

From my notes:

As I reorganize I rearticulate my space, my self. I dump everything out onto the desktop and then send the files to different folders. It's a process of evisceration followed by containment. Many of my creative processes follow this model. I create on a large scale, then rework the raw materials into something that makes sense to other people. When working with a desktop I create a datacloud in which the background image is central, visually and conceptually.
Taken today:

I am currently researching automation of desktop screenshots in Ubuntu/Gnome. I don't know whose leg that is.

Friday, March 14, 2008


As you can probably tell from my previous post, I have very mixed feelings about where technology is going and how fast it is going there. I formed this blog with the intent of putting a restraint on my pessimism by focusing on the past, so I will do my best to refrain from blasting recent developments.

One of my favorite things about SciFi is that no matter what kinds of insane speculative technology take hold, the human narrative continues. I find that very comforting. One aspect of my adventure into the world of book scanning that I failed to mention is that while most of the scanners were wealthy-looking individuals, two were a couple with kids. Two running around, one in utero. I can imagine that the extra cash they get from scanning helps them get by if they live anywhere near this area. The cost of living is ridiculous.

Thinking about them, the ideological frustration and technological pessimism that resulted in my last post begin to lose lose their edges.

Monday, March 10, 2008


Last weekend I got up early to go to a huge book sale held at a local high school cafeteria. I picked up some neat computer books and magazines. What disturbed me, though, was something I had never seen at a book sale before.

I might be out of the loop on this, but I was boggled to find that 5 or 6 people were scanning mass amounts of books using bar code readers hooked up to PDA's. My first thought was that they were associated with the book sale, but then I realized something sleazy was going on. They were playing the middleman by sifting through as many books as possible to find valuable ones they could mark up online. In other words, they were flipping books at a high school book sale.

One guy asked a scanner, "Hey, are you scanning those to mark them up?" The scanner ignored him and quickly moved on. I occasionally took a moment from my browsing to watch the scanners. They looked up at me nervously. The guilt I thought I saw on their faces could have just as easily been the addled state of mind brought on by hours of fast-paced scanning. One guy even had a cell earpiece on for additional connectivity.

This phenomenon disgusts me for a few reasons. First, flipping in any setting is an unnecessary and dismal step in commerce. It's no better than ticket scalping.

Second, the scanners are a leech on the community event of a book sale. They are there solely to rip people off. There is pleasure of searching and finding books with knowledge value in mind, not market value. Scanners destroy the aesthetics and mechanics that allow this search to happen.

Instead of being found by someone at the book sale, the books end up in an online marketplace where discovering a book is about as exciting as executing a Google search. All the scanners are interested in is jacking up the price, so the people actually interested in books get screwed. When all transactions migrate online, the "magical find" of the physical marketplace is replaced by credit cards and flashy Web2.0 interfaces.

There have always been people who have drawn on their knowledge of books to find the ones with high market value. Technology, as it often does, has scaled this situation to the extreme and created WiFi Vultures that skeletize book sales with unprecedented efficiency.

On my way out, I asked one of the cashiers "Do you have a policy on the cyborgs with the scanners?"

"They get here at 6:30AM," he shrugged.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Slowing Down

"I need a Virtual Break" NYTimes Article. Restraint proposed rationally.

I've come up with a few methods for removing myself from the virtual, but they were much too large-scale and complex to be easily implemented. When the year 2000 came around, I fantasized about committing cyber suicide by putting salt on the family computer's motherboard.

Choosing a day of the week to stay away from computers and other electronic devices seems much more reasonable.

Saturday, March 1, 2008


During a phone conversation a few years ago, my friend Alan coined the term "dataclypse" to describe the habit my computers had developed of exploding once a year. This was probably not a matter of poorly chosen equipment or bad luck. It was a symptom of my tendency to overload and subsequently destroy any technology I regularly worked with.

At the time, most of my creative work was done entirely on the computer. On average, I had 5 audio files opened in Audacity, a few files open in Reason for sequencing, some OpenOffice documents for editing, and an instance of Firefox with 40+ tabs open. For a modern computer that probably isn't too heavy a load, but my computer wasn't exactly up-to-date. I remember several instances of critical data loss due to the way I treated computers.

I also performed maintenance and repair in a slapshod manner. On one occasion I lost 30GB of data when I accidentally reformatted the wrong partition. Since I had no organizational method, I threw out as much data as possible in order to keep the dataclypse at bay. I allowed my artistic materials to become a jumbled mess because I focused on a "final product" that would emerge from the chaos. Each project led up to its own micro-dataclypse in which the relevant working materials became lost in a sea of files or deleted completely. Because of this, a lot of things have slipped through the cracks that might have proved useful in the future.

I work in a relaxed and chaotic manner. There is no changing that, which is probably a good thing, because the work I do is dependent upon the chaotic environments in which it is created. But setting up technology to automate backups and keep my working environment somewhat stable in the long run might deter future dataclypses. It will take some effort to set up, but I believe that it is possible to use some basic techniques to immerse myself in creative pursuits while retaining data for personal and historical purposes.

Implementing a fancy organizational system is not something I'm likely to follow through on any time soon. I bought Getting Things Done a few years ago but I never got around to reading it. After listening to a talk by Jason Scott on archiving, I've decided that the best method is to throw everything onto a huge external hard drive with no thought about organization whatsoever. Hopefully whatever storage format the data I collect ends up on will be readable by weirdo historians of the future so that scans of Byte magazine and my incoherent ramblings will be available to generations to come.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

BBS History is an excellent archive of ASCII text distributed during the mid-Eighties. There's a good introduction on the frontpage:

The focus is on mid-1980's textfiles and the world as it was then, but even these files are sometime retooled 1960s and 1970s works, and offshoots of this culture exist to this day.
Archival of networked data has probably become more difficult since the 80's. Organizing and presenting files from back then seems pretty simple in comparison to our present-day predicament because it does not involve the preservation of links or dynamic content. The files are self-contained and the curator can choose how they are arranged. However, without hyperlinks, it is difficult to make the historical and cultural relationship between older content and newer content explicit to the modern user.

Because the ASCII files he curates do not link to other files, Jason Scott keeps them alive by presenting them on the Internet where they can be perused or linked to by modern users. They are not "naturally" a part of the hypertext rhizome - they were written before the popularization of hypertext - but with Jason's careful presentation their historical relevance and accessibility is preserved.

With each technological shift, data format standards change. In addition, how we access and interact with information changes. Taking into consideration both how the computer accesses files and how best to present these files to the user, "porting" old content to a new era of users and computers becomes extremely difficult. When issues of copyright enter the scene, preservation and presentation to a new generation of computer users becomes even messier..

Sunday, February 24, 2008

YouTube is DOWN!

Request timed out.
Request timed out.
Request timed out.
Request timed out.

I'm hoping Facebook is next!

Edit: Okay, it's (partially) back up. You may now resume meme-watching.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Regressive Computing

I am not entirely sure what "Regressive Computing" is.

I came up with the term during an email conversation with a local friend of mine who had posted an ad for free floppy disks on Craigslist. I am obsessed with old, outmoded media and machines. I use them instead of new technology as often as possible. Another of my obsessions is codifying my obsessions. Thus, the term "Regressive Computing" was born.

The main reason for my obsession with abandoned technology is the exponential increase in speed and quantity of computer hardware, which leads to a huge amount of waste. Whether we are approaching a Singularity or not, the garbage dumps are getting bigger. As technology becomes more disposable, I react by seeking something lasting.

There is a tendency as technology advances to throw out the past as often as we throw out computers. For many users, computers arrive as if out of nowhere. The machine comes packaged, pre-assembled and pre-loaded with software. When it reaches the end of its lifespan, it goes to a different kind of "nowhere" - the dump. But there is a rich culture and history to be found that runs counter to the perceived disposability of computer hardware and software.

Computers are incredibly prevalent in American society, but there is hardly any awareness of their cultural, theoretical or scientific past. Without this knowledge, thinking about and guiding future developments is impossible. I aim to address this problem in my personal life and the outside world by disseminating concepts like Regressive Computing.

Recently, after finding a blog on testing Linux distros on old computers I had the idea of downgrading each year to the standard speed of the previous year. I'm already at about average speed for 2003. The only problem is finding the proper hardware for each year (or series of years) because so much of the hardware ends up junked. Another option is to emulate older hardware, but that would take most of the fun out of it.

Regressive Computing is an evolving concept but I will continue to post my ideas here.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Computer History

"When personal computing finally blossomed in Silicon Valley in the mid-seventies, it did so largely without the benefit of any of the history and the research that had gone before it. As a consequence, the personal-computer industry would be deformed for years, creating a world of isolated desktop boxes, in contrast to the communities of shared information that had been pioneered in the sixties and early seventies"

The above quote is from John Markoff's book What the Dormouse Said: How the 60's Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry. Although the book's support of its central argument is weak and jumbled, I found its attempt at establishing computer history within a movement and culture engaging. Computing's speed of innovation and adoption creates the illusion that they exist outside society, culture, and history. But this is not and has never been the case.

As Markoff's observation suggests, in order to use computers towards a human good it is essential that they be considered in terms other than financial gain and heedless progress.

This concept - maintaining a sense of computer context - is what drove me to create Data Archaea. In my notes and thoughts I have considered computer context in terms of history, data preservation, digital archeology and anthropology. These are all components of a larger goal: raising an awareness of the past as well as the future of computers.