The Internet As A Time Machine

And why it’s not as terrible as you think it is.

A time capsule — one of those airtight things into which you throw mementos of the present, then bury, or otherwise hide, to be retrieved at a later date — is a kind of archive, and archives in general have always been a little bit like time capsules, in some kind of synecdoche-driven way.

Presumably, when we place our ephemera into a time capsule, whether it’s a ziploc baggie in a shoebox in the backyard, or a municipal vault sealed on the occasion of some locally-relevant anniversary, we hope to impart an accurate snapshot to the future — a selective recreation of life as we know it. We can’t put everything in the capsule, obviously, any more than we can describe in a letter everything that’s happening lately, or tell in a conversation all the nuance of whatever anecdote we relate. We try, but sacrifices gotta be made. Your time capsule has a clipping of a newspaper, not the whole thing; a contemporary appliance, not a whole household; a diary, not our actual lives. When our forebears or our older selves come to dig out the capsules in question, gaps will have to be mentally filled. Guesses will be made — what were the articles that surrounded this one on the page, what was the technology that was apiece with this tool, how went the life briefly jotted down in this journal?

And, of course, other archives are like this. Even the most meticulous record-keeping leaves blanks — an absolutely flawless check register may record every cent spent at every merchant from a lifetime of shopping and banking, but it still doesn’t tell you the specifics of what you bought, or how you used it. A housing permit at city hall may have every field filled in perfectly, but it still can’t tell you the nature of life in the structure that ended up getting built. It’s a gist, not a recreation, or if a recreation, a necessarily and admittedly incomplete one.

The archives of our digital lives are an exception. People have complained for years that Facebook destroys the nuance of interpersonal communication (ditto texting, ditto IM, ditto email, ditto telephones, ditto printing, ditto writing itself, from the early stages of civilization) but by destroying the nuance we make reality tractable, capable of compression within an archive — for that matter, we make it compatible with archiving sans any compression or truncation whatever. When I scroll back through my Facebook conversations from five years ago, I’m not looking at a selective reaction of reality — I’M LOOKING AT REALITY. This is what actually happened. This is the conversation. The photos on my Tweetstream are selective snapshots of real-world events, but this chatlog is whole and entire. While my Youtube channel covers only a smattering of the things that’ve passed in front of my eyes, my Hulu profile is an exact simaculrum of my viewing habits. There is no difference between my experience of viewing webpages for the first time and my repeated viewing of those pages by going through my browsing history. Online archives aren’t time capsules. They’re time machines.

But they’re more than that. Not only can I be instantly transported into my own past, but so can somebody else. When someone checks out my Hulu profile, they aren’t listening to me talk at the water cooler about this great movie I saw last night. They’re watching the actual movie. If someone logs into my Pandora account, they’re not wondering what it was like at a concert I went to once — they’re hearing exactly what I would hear, were I to do the same as them.

Of course, I’m using media examples here, and the argument could be made that this phenomenon has existed since the beginning of recorded media, ever since we started trading live shows and plays for film reels and phonographs. But unlike a CD, which conveys the same basic information through any number of non-proprietary formats, an online radio station conveys basic info (the music recording, in this case) AND format and context (the interface, the artist bios, the recommendations, the ads, for those of us who haven’t yet figured out adblocker). Text and paratext, if you will. Both of us can read the same book, but we may do so in different places, in different ways. But when you add the experiential components of proprietary interfaces and presentation formats, as well as the chronological element of viewing history and streaming records, it’s different. It’s suddenly as if, instead of you deciding to check out War and Peace because I said it was a good read, you go to the exact same bookstore I did, speak to the same clerk, pay the same cashier, and come over to my house, to sit in my easy chair by my lamp, reading it in the same way I did, like some literate stalker who’s very creepy and also maybe a little pretentious, because, really, War and Peace? You’ve shared my context as well as my essence. Of course, the context of a webpage is much less rich than that of my living room. There’s only so much that can be experienced from navigating a series of Flash menus. But you’re still experiencing the same thing I did.

And, of course, to go back to the social side of things, this extends beyond recorded media. When I view my chatlogs, I see as much as I did when I participated in them originally, and when you view these logs, you see as much as I do when I view them. The fidelity of everyday experience has been compressed until it fits on our screens, until it can be shared and “liked” and friended and archived and sorted and filtered.

I’m not going to complain, because I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. Endlessly, lossless reproducible reality is kind of nifty. It’s the loss of nuance that’s sad — but I don’t think we can blame that on technology, or on ourselves for choosing to use that technology. It is not “the nature of the beast” that electronic media should truncate experience to fit the media’s digital parameters, as much as I hear people enjoying themselves as they make that semi-bitter claim.

Remember earlier when I said that the photos on my tweetstream and videos on my Youtube account (and entries on my podcast, DeviantArt, MySpace and so on) are only partial recreations of my experience? They stand in contrast to the perfect experiential simulations of crackle and iTunes and Tumblr — they are partial recreations because they are, first and foremost, creations. You can listen to the album that I streamed, but you can’t taste the sandwich I tweeted. These partial-recreations smack of incompletion and flaws because they are the active creations of an active, flawed, incomplete mind, where my page viewing history on Polyvore is the passive trail of mental sloth and consumption. Digitization is not a problem, not a source of experiential paucity. Consumption is. When you consume, your experience of consumption becomes quantified and commodified. When you create, it means that you have experienced an underlying inspiration, and that will always resist compression to the lowest digital denominator. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

image – Shutterstock

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