The Internet is a little bit like New York City’s skyline: constantly under construction, always in flux and continuously evolving.
Because of that vacillating nature, attempting to assess and appreciate the full scope of the Web at any given point in its development has always been a difficult task — a noteworthy site that’s popular one day might be wiped from its server the next, with few records of its existence left behind.
Thanks to a recent exhibition entitled “Digital Archaeology” that ran in New York City at the Metropolitan Pavilion and ended June 13, however, it’s finally possible to look back at the history of the Internet and see just how far its come in its brief two decades of existence.
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Conceived and curated by Jim Boulton, the deputy managing director of U.K. advertising agency Story Worldwide, the exhibit consists of 28 bygone, historically significant websites displayed on vintage hardware and software corresponding to the period of each site’s launch.
“The Web has massively influenced modern culture, but large parts its history has not been written,” Boulton told TechNewsDaily. “Much has been said about the infrastructure, the brands and more recently, the social Web, but little has been said about the people who built the early websites, very few of whom were computer scientists.
“Writers, sculptors, illustrators, filmmakers, musicians, gardeners and graphic designers leapt into the unknown and created modern culture,” he said. “The exhibition was largely conceived as a homage to these people.”
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The selected sites include early efforts like the first-ever website, Project (1991), and Word.com (1995), one of the first and most influential e-zines; the innovative websites of MTV2 (1999) and the film "Requiem for a Dream" (released in 2000) from the Web’s burgeoning period of creativity; and more recent pages like UNIQLOCK (2007), a dynamic digital marketing campaign by Japanese retailer UNIQLO, and 2010's "The Wilderness Downtown", an interactive Web film from the popular rock band Arcade Fire.
According to Boulton, preserving these “game-changing” sites is of vital anthropological importance. Websites are revealing cultural markers, much like any of the lost relics you might see on display at a museum.
“Soon we will know less about the blossoming of the Web than we do about the [prehistoric] relief carvings in Mohenjo-Daro or the Yucatán,” he said. “Today, when almost a quarter of the earth's population is online, this most recent artistic, commercial and social history [of the Internet] is being wiped from the face of Earth and a hundred million hard drives lie festering in recycling yards or rusting in landfills.”
After premiering in London at last year’s Internet Week Europe, the exhibit made its U.S. debut last week at Internet Week New York City, the stateside version of the same event. While plans are not yet set in stone, Boulton hopes that visitors will next have the opportunity to experience the exhibit in London at this year’s edition of Internet Week Europe in November.
What will future editions of “Digital Archaeology” have on display? The beautiful thing about the Internet is that nobody knows exactly where it’ll go next. But Boulton believes we’re headed toward an increasingly personalized Web experience.
“Over the coming years, with the rise of the social Web and the relentless charge of the app, we’ll see the convergence of the Web and the desktop and online experiences built around the individual rather than around a brand or organization,” he said.
“As such, destination websites probably won’t exist in a few years' time.”