Digital Archaeology: Looking to the Past to Inspire Future Innovation

Exhibitions at Internet Weed raise some interesting questions about our collective digital history.

As election fever slowly escalates in the U.S., one of the few things all parties agree on is that innovation is key to American growth. China and South Korea’s status as the fastest growing economies in the world, and the number of patent filings in China exceeding the same number in the U.S. for the first time, all seem to indicate that Americans are indeed experiencing another Sputnik moment. Given this pessimism about America’s future in innovation, the Digital Archaeology exhibit featured at Internet Week New York is somewhat ironic and very refreshing.

Digital Archaeology showcases 28 archived websites that were arguably among the most pivotal websites of their time, including the first website prototype build by World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee. Other gems included the Subservient Chicken website, an oft-referenced tipping point for New York agency, The Barbarian Group, and Burger King’s advertising campaign created in 2001 that earned its very own Wikipedia page and millions of hits on YouTube. Internet Week NYC participants can surf each website on vintage software that corresponds to the period of each website’s launch, on historically accurate computers. Created by Story Worldwide and co-sponsored by Google, the exhibit made its debut at Internet Week Europe, London in 2010 and hopes to go back this year with an expanded selection of vintage websites.

BK-Subservient Chicken’s Creators speak about their success from odracir on Vimeo.

The exhibit is also a bit of an eye-opener for a technologist generation that is very much focused on the future. Digital media and technology have become entrenched in our cultural history, yet have found few homes in museums – institutions that are dedicated to preserving history and celebrating the past. Shockingly, few major organizations have archived their websites and are unable to share prototypes of their grandiose vision. Especially shocking is that iconic companies like Coca Cola that have a rich and celebrated history have only just started archiving their website(s). The International Internet Preservation Consortium is one of the few organizations that is trying to change this.

Digital Archaeology has valuable lessons for this generation. Many of the technologies and websites were built during a decade, 1990-1998,  when non-conformists who had a limited technology background (artists, musicians, writers and graphic designers) and even more limited accessibility to platforms, built truly ground-breaking solutions that form the foundation of Digital today. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned for Corporate America, and yes even technology startups, that give lip service to individuality but reward conformist behavior – after all, how many daily deals sites can consumer behavior truly sustain? There is a lot to be said for a no-rules, let’s-set-new-benchmarks mindset.

Story Worldwide partner Jim Boulton believes that future generations are in danger of knowing more about the early part of the 20th century than the early art of the 21st, due to the transient nature of culturally significant websites and the accelerated pace of technological innovation today. Websites are by their very nature pull vehicles. With the advent of the social web, websites are expected to come to the consumer via third party platforms such as Facebook and apps, and will likely undergo a metamorphosis in the not distant future. Given this, website archiving is more than an exercise for academics and historians, there are real lessons in innovation to be learned from these historic monuments. Are we willing to learn them?

Originally published on Seedwalker

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