Recent Feed Items
By Jonathan Good
Digital cameras are now ubiquitous - it is estimated that 2.5 billion people in the world today have a digital camera. If the average person snaps 150 photos this year that would be a staggering 375 billion photos. That might sound implausible but this year people will upload over 70 billion photos to Facebook, suggesting around 20% of all photos this year will end up there. Already Facebook’s photo collection has a staggering 140 billion photos, that’s over 10,000 times larger than the Library of Congress.
Even accounting for population growth the exponential growth of photos is incredible (we take 4 times as many photos as 10 year ago). Today every party, birthday, sports game and concert is documented in rich detail. The combination of all these photos is a rich portrait of today, the possibilities of which are illustrated by a tool like “The Moment”. As photos keep growing we take a clearer and clearer snapshot of our lives and world today - in total we have now taken over 3.5 trillion photos. The kind of photos we are taking has changed drastically - analog photos have almost disappeared - but the growth of photos continues.
Someday millions of years from now, if not sooner, someone visiting Earth might wonder: who left these machines orbiting a cold dead planet?
And if they were to locate the EchoStar XVI communication satellite among the cloud of debris, they would find a message left by 21st century artist Trevor Paglen. THE LAST PICTURES is an archive of 100 images depicting this moment in history, launched into geosynchronous orbit from Kazakhstan on a payload destined to become space junk. It is a troubling monument, an epitaph, a question mark, speeding across the skies to the end of time.
This is not the first time-capsule humans have launched into space, nor will it be the last. Though in contrast to its precursors, this one anticipates an eerily silent future for humanity, when no one is around to tell our story.
The first Golden Record, curated by Carl Sagan and Anne Druyan, launched in 1977, offers hypothetical alien recipients a peace-loving image of Earthlings joining hands in multicultural harmony, disclosing little evidence of trouble in paradise. Voyager was a message of interstellar love, an olive branch reaching to the stars.
The Last Pictures can be seen as the reverse side of that coin, an articulation of profound uncertainty. Paglen’s archive represents a sobering amendment to the sweetly optimistic message developed by Sagan’s team. If the images on the Golden Record now look somewhat naive, with glimmers of Norman Rockwell’s America, Trevor Paglen’s tormented monochrome portraits of the 20th century are beautifully disfigured, more akin to the work of Diane Arbus and Edward Burtynksy.
As archives aspiring to convey meaning across millennia, both Last Pictures and Voyager ultimately reflect the biases of their respective cultural milieux and the personal visions of their creators; no single time capsule can speak for Earth, for all of humanity, for all time.
It’s worth pointing out another major distinction between these projects. Voyager wants to be received, or else it wouldn’t have been set on a trajectory racing past Pluto to the nearest star. Its encoded meanings imply a non-human audience, as it puts forth an idealized image of Earth’s inhabitants as if to say “Please visit us, we’re friendly and intelligent”. Last Pictures is a message in a bottle tossed from a sinking ship. It presumes that thousands of years from now, there won’t be a soul to see them. And even if there were, Trevor Paglen seems to prefer that the images remain locked away forever. An early prototype of the plaque bore the inscription:
Please do not disturb me. Let me stay here so that I may witness the end of time.
The Last Pictures serves as an epilogue to armageddon, providing indirect explanation for how we annihilated ourselves; but who is the audience for such a message?What is the meaning of a monument without visitors, or images without viewers? How does one construct a time capsule for a completely unknown, and unknowable, audience? What is the point of making art, taking pictures, or writing books if one day all will be forgotten, cast into oblivion? As an artwork, the Last Pictures embodies this unfathomable mystery and will undoubtedly have a place in our dialogues about time and responsibility as long as we are around to wrestle with the meaning of the objects we leave behind.
In conversation with Werner Herzog hosted by the New York Public Library on September 19, 2012, Paglen remarked that the future has always been uncertain, at every point in history. Our time is hardly exceptional in that respect.
It’s 2012, but let’s not forget that the future is a process; the world has ended many times before; beyond the present apocalypse, a succession of doomsday scenarios await. As any great work of art, or prophesy, the Last Pictures should provoke reflection and remain open to interpretation. For Paglen, however, there is no question that our last words will be, “we committed suicide”
2400 years ago, an illiterate philosopher condemned writing. It will not make the people wiser, he argued, rather—
“It will implant forgetfulness in their souls: they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remember no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.” — The Phaedrus
Socrates had a point. Before the advent of tablets and scrolls, humans exercised a greater capacity to internalize huge volumes of information (for example, imagine reciting ~1,800 pages of scripture from memory, like these priests in Kerala, India)
As writing overtook oral tradition, and type accelerated distribution, people soon forgot what the world was like before books and newspapers.
Today, we forget what the world was like before the Internet. As we find ourselves beyond the event horizon of another information revolution, writer Nicholas Carr laments that the Web has rewired our brains:
“Our growing dependence on the Web’s information stores may in fact be the product of a self-perpetuating, self-amplifying loop. As our use of the Web makes it harder for us to lock information into our biological memory, we’re forced to rely more and more on the Net’s capacious and easily searchable artificial memory, even if it makes us shallower thinkers.” -The Shallows
It is this very reliance on outsourced memory which makes our relationship to data increasingly intimate and vital. By keeping the most critical bits of information that we need to remember and hope not to forget on hard drives or remote servers —and not in our heads— have we set ourselves up for a persistent condition of cultural amnesia, or worse, a Digital Dark Age when those systems fail?
At one time, all recorded knowledge in the western world—all history, science and literature— was stored in a single building. Our situation might seem less precarious. Distributed information networks were originally conceived by DARPA as disaster proof. A cultural cataclysm as total as the burning of Alexandria would seem unlikely, and yet the frightening fact is that much of our data is centralized, in physical storage systems, not securely backed up. Most web sites last for an average of 18 months. Our documents exist in proprietary formats that go obsolete, stored on disposable media designed for short-term use. In the long term, for individuals and societies alike, the steady erosion information through digital obsolescence could amount to incalculably greater losses.
Internet Archive announces plans to publish all TV news since 2009 on its servers: 350,00 broadcasts from 20 channels.
“You have to see this service to believe it – and even then, you may not. The Internet Archive has harnessed today’s extraordinary advances in computing power and storage capacity to capture virtually every national U.S. television news program and allow users to find and view short streamed clips on any subject. This easily searchable and sortable database will be a fantastic resource for journalists, researchers, librarians and news junkies alike.”
– Andrew Heyward, former president, CBS News
A former Christian Science Church in San Francisco houses the Internet Archive. The sturdy classical architecture—appropriate for an edifice that is at once a temple of knowledge, a library, and data vault— contains a greater volume of information than the Library of Congress, all of it kept on a modest array of drives.
Robert Miller, Director of Books, stands next to a petabyte of data (1 million gigabytes), storing a fraction of Archive.org, Wayback Machine, Prelinger Film Archive and Open Library, with mirrors of the collection at Bibliotheca Alexandria, Egypt and nearby in Mountain View, California. This collection represents the foundation of Brewster Kahle’s vision to build the Library of Alexandria version 2.0, providing everyone everywhere access to all the world’s knowledge, including books, movies, music and websites.
An activity monitor displays a real time tapestry of URLs as web crawlers-also known as spiders-continuously index snapshots on an endless traverse of the World Wide Web.
Borges’ Library of Babel comes to mind.