Our smartphone-obsessed society will leave behind few digital Mona Lisas

Our smartphone-obsessed society will leave behind few digital Mona Lisas

Summary: A de-emphasis on the permanence of expression as well as a lack of desire to preserve digital content will almost certainly result in the loss of many culturally significant works.

Art: Monalisa Pixelated by Charlize Cape

This week, on Southern California Public Radio, I was invited along with WIRED's Director of Editorial Projects, Rob Capps, to talk about the impact of smartphones on society, from how we express ourselves to behavioral changes in people that use them and how our cultural mores have been altered as a result. 

Capps has written an interesting piece in August's edition of WIRED, under the premise that smartphones have now allowed us to express ourselves more than ever, specifically with social media services such as Twitter, Instagram and Vine.

Or as I like to call them, the trifecta of digital nitwits. If we add Snapchat to the mix we're well on the way to the four social networks of the apocalypse.

I kid, I kid.

I've gone on record ad nauseam on why I feel it is overwhelmingly bad for human development that the smartphone as well as social networking services foster a culture enriched with information snacking.

This is in contrast to a society that values long-form writing, hi-fidelity visual content, as well as face-to-face and verbal communication.

If you want to delve into detail, have a look at the list of articles on the right. 

On NPR's AirTalk I restated these positions, and it is clear that my views and that of Mr. Capps at WIRED differ greatly. Capps believes that digital expression in the short form and the impermanent is critical to the development of society. To use his own words: 

"The equating of fidelity with permanence or success is to me a really outmoded model. We all listen to music in MP3 format now rather than vinyl, even though vinyl is incredibly more high-fidelity than that, and that is because of accessibility.

One of the driving forces of the digital age is accessibility... increased across the board, and that has changed industries and that is how we look at the world. There's no reason to think that this can't happen with our own creative expression as well.

I'm sure we don't want to get into an argument about what is art, but I'm talking about people expressing themselves to other people, and that is a valued act, regardless of its permanence, regardless of whether it makes you famous or whether it earns you money.

Having more people being able to express themselves more often in simple ways... that's part of what makes us human, that's part of what makes us people, and expressive creatures... and you don't need fame, and you don't need fortune and you don't need permanence to get something out of that."

I would like to note that while I disagree that the smartphone itself is an important tool for cultural and personal expression, there are works of cultural significance being created with digital tools all the time, and we have the  technology to create works of permanence as well, such as with 3D printing and with high-resolution tablets and digital content creation software. 

But if as a society we assign more and more value to small forms of expression that have little regard for permanence, or even zero permanence by design, such as things of a purely disposable nature like Snapchat, then overall, even the long form works and those of major cultural significance are more likely to find themselves redirected to the /dev/null of history.

We know this because we've already lost a huge amount of digital works of cultural significance long before there was even a concept of social networking or smart devices, and those that we haven't lost are in danger of being lost forever.

For example, the video data tapes from the Apollo 11 moon landing 45 years ago were recorded using an esoteric format and were presumed lost for decades until their recent discovery and are now being restored with arcane skill sets and specialized hardware.

Forget expression and art for a minute. That's actual history and information of significance to the entire planet that could have easily vanished, forever. 

And of course there are works of cultural significance that were considered disposable decades ago but are now long-sought after, such as the missing Dr. Who Episodes produced in the early 1960's on tapes that were simply erased and re-used, or the film versions that were simply destroyed by the BBC for space-saving reasons.

Only copies in far-flung parts of the world survived. Nigeria, for example, recovered 14 complete episodes.

More modern examples include loss of classic software titles from the 1980s stored on floppy disk. ROM files from the most popular arcade games from that era have been recovered, but only because there was a will and a way to retrieve them, and ROM storage was relatively data resilient compared to other forms of electronic media used during the period.

Numerous photo sharing sites have shut down in the last five years, many with very little warning. The popular travel photography site Fotopedia is being shut down this weekend.

Unless retrieved or stored elsewhere, that data is going to be gone forever.

I'm under no illusion that our Instagram selfies, our Twitter and Facebook feeds, our YouTube videos, our WordPress blogs and our photos living on Flickr and similar hosting sites will be around in 100 years, let alone 50 or even 25 unless we make a strong effort to identify digital works of cultural significance and figure out ways to continue to move them forward to newer storage technologies.

And while not all works being created digitally necessarily merit preservation, ultimately, for those that do, we need a plan to vault them long term, and document methods for retrieving that data far in the future.

And while not all works being created digitally necessarily merit preservation, ultimately, for those that do, we need a plan to vault them long term, and document methods for retrieving that data far in the future.

Leonardo's Mona Lisa and his codices, the paintings of Johannes Vermeer and illuminated manuscripts from the medieval era have survived the ages, because art and books of that time period were so expensive and labor intensive to produce and they were expected to be handed down and appreciated for generations.

Five hundred years later, we are still appreciating them.

The same can be said of sculpture from the Roman empire and ancient Greece, and the great stone edifices of the Egyptian pharaohs and other great ancient cultures that still survive, thousands of years later.

The reason why examples from those cultures still exist is that they were created from tangible matter that could last practically forever.

But can we say that anything of significance that was created today in digital form is going to have the same permanence? Probably not.

Some of the wealthiest companies may be able to store certain things for extremely long periods of time.

I have no doubt that Amazon, for example, will preserve their ebooks and figure out ways to move the content to newer formats over the next 20 to 50 years and perhaps longer.

I think that's one of the few side benefits for companies recently acquired by Amazon like Comixology, that may not have had a long term data retention plan.

The Corbis materials will almost certainly continue to exist, for a very long period of time, as will Getty's.

There are data storage technologies that could be used as an Ark of Culture, of sorts, that theoretically could last thousands of years, as long as the pyramids. The Long Server project from the Long Now Foundation aims to do just that, for as much as 10,000 years.

There are even prototypes for things that could store data for perhaps even millions of years or maybe even hundreds of millions. But there's no guarantee it would work.

And while they are considered more of a publicity stunt than an actual long-range data storage attempt, we don't even have complete confidence that the gold-plated copper records containing representative music and images from our planet attached to each of the Voyager spacecraft could be played back by an alien civilization 40,000 years from now, when the probes are expected to pass by the nearest star system. 

These are extreme examples, obviously, and we're talking about collections of stuff that has great interest in being preserved. But what about anything else that is not incredibly well financed or is considered by their hosting entities to be disposable because they don't generate revenue?

This generation's equivalent to the Mona Lisa from a yet to be discovered or appreciated artist, photographer or author using digital content creation methods could easily fall victim to something like that.

As long as we foster a culture of throwaway expression it will plague our civilization, far into the future. Except for curated pockets of stuff, there will be very little digital material left to indicate that this generation made their mark on this world.

Are works of cultural significance being created in digital formats in danger of permanent loss? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Smartphones, Cloud, Data Management, Mobility, Storage, Disaster Recovery, Social Enterprise


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • Yes

    "Are works of cultural significance being created in digital formats in danger of permanent loss?"


    Funny you should mention video games. In the 80's games were made for short term commercial reasons and yet many ended up being cultural icons. Sure, herculean emulation projects like MAME have rescued many from oblivion, in spite of copyright issues and idiotic laws like the DMCA. But what of today's games? They are still being made for short term commercial reasons, but today they are no longered burdened with unique and fragile hardware. Instead, today's games are weighed down with DRM and network validation. worse than any copy protection mechanism from the past. Cloud based games are the ultimate risk as they present the ultimate barrier to those who would preserve works in the face of corporate stupidity.
  • I'd have to disagree

    What I've noticed of the Instagram generation (I agree on lack of people skills) is that they are actually very creative - all most too much so.

    In their world of competing photos of artistic merit, they stand out by being more creative, less traditionally conformative. Living in the south london art homeland of Peckham, there's so much art being pushed out here that actual quality is often just lost in quality.

    Then there's the photographers and video markers who routinely use old and seriously out dated techniques

    And any non artist is a coder to create the next app.

    The real problem of the Instagram generation isn't a lack of talent, it's a lack of understanding that the world doesn't need 2 billion artists, 2 billion film makers and 2 billion coders.

    Someone's going to have to work in accounting.

    Some of these coders are going to be network admins.
    • Oh it has always been so

      A hundred years ago, a good many of us wrote poems for the local village newspaper or in a notebook. Or painted as a hobby with only family as interested patrons; or began to dabble with box cameras.

      These people all ended as accountants to, and yet that they did art is to be celebrated. Art shouldn't be left to the professionals - it should be left to whoever loves to do it, for whatever reason they want to do it, with whatever outcome is destined for it.
  • The reality of it is

    Most works have always fallen into the dev null of history. Most people who wrote books fifty years ago have seen it go out of print, and the only physical copies that remain rot in the back of a few barns, effectively lost forever.

    People panic too much about the chane in our modes of expression. Things evolve, and they always have. Embrace, don't fear.
  • Agreed Jason!

    Short and sweet, the throwaway culture will pass on and only the more permanent, culturally cemented by context forms will remain.

    I for one will not morn the demise of bookface and its ilk. I do not believe that any of these really do produce works that demand permanence as their 'value' is bound only to the local social stream and it means nothing to the world at large.

    BTW, I did notice a minor typo. A dropped "t" from content in the sixth paragraph.

    A good article pointing out a couple points of view on cultural values and where things are going.
  • I sympathize

    Because I had a .ISO copy of Windows XP Home Edition RTM from 2001 and I can't see to find it, I must have deleted it by accident. Remember, Windows XP Home Edition RTM is 400 MBs in size, compared to Windows XP with SP3 which hovers near 600 MBs. Its a treasure taking into account, in 2001, I could never dream of downloading that on dial up. While now even on my lowly 3G connection, I would have it in less than 15 mins.

    I am also a collector of other vintage software, such as the initial release of Windows 95 which is about 45 MBs in size. Think about that, an OS back then was 45 MBs in size, this is before OSR2 release when they bundled it with apps like AOL and IE. Today, Windows 8 uses nearly 10 GBs of disk space, while its ancestor Windows NT 4 required only 120 MBs of disk space. The historical context here is how much we have progressed technology wise as a society. From performance to ease of use to simplicity yet remaining so overwhelming complex. I am sure software development is more complex than it was 20 years, yet, you wondered how they did get it done anyway. How did Linus go from 386 to what we now have as Chrome OS?

    We need to preserve that type of digital history. Students need to know how Linux started from 0.1 to Kernel version 3.16 today. The fact that farthest in terms of builds for NT is in the 2xx range, I think a lot has been lost. It is also important for students to know where we are coming from. I don't think some children born in the last 10 years, especially in the more developed nations know what dial up is.
    • Why?

      "Students need to know how Linux started from 0.1 to Kernel version 3.16 today. The fact that farthest in terms of builds for NT is in the 2xx range, I think a lot has been lost. "

      Why? I agree that while a small miniscule portion of the population probably wants to do that, I would disagree that 99.999% do not. I build in Visual Studio, and although I started back with Visual Basic 4 or something, all good that does me is to give me an appreciation of how good the latest stuff is. But when I talk to students (I teach), I can't think of one reason why they should know that.

      Remember when grandparents tell kids, "back in the good old days...", how kids want to pass out? It's interesting information, but not *relevant* in most cases.

      Like the pyramids. It's fascinating to know how it was created, and to see it, but if someone doesn't care, they just want to paint it, then why not?

      History is good, but only for certain people. For the collectors and historians. For the rest, let's build on what we have today, and where it leads us.
    • back in my day

      we could put TWO OS's in 1 8Kbytes ROM, mikbug and pipbug in the one place.

      And we have huge 1kb or RAN expandable to 4kb onboard !!! we just need to buy a few 2114 static RAM chips and solder them in.
      I loved my 2650 !!!
  • You are right, but...

    It is more than just storage and preservation in a physical (and a file is a physical thing) sense. People have to care. Even major physical works, like those in Iraq and Afghanistan have been desecrated and destroyed in the name of "religious purity" An here, we are way too eager to "remaster" audio and video to "improve" it (really, to make it more palatable to current ears and eyes) and end up losing the charm of the original in the process (Can you say the overly compressed CDs and the changes Lucas does whenever he touches a Star Wars flick - for starters). Culture is not just physical it is temporal. Some culture is a snapshot of when it was created. So making things politically correct is the same as the Taliban and ISIS - sorry folks, those swastikas and Confederate flags were perfectly acceptable back when the picture was taken or the movie filmed. And people DID smoke back then. Get over it. Destroying a work contextually is just as bad as destroying it physically. Remembering history and all, since a lot of art is as much a reflection of the history at the time.

    Which means not only do we need to find a way to capture and save these ethereal digital creations, we need to preserve their context too. Both have to be there to preserve the culture. If we lose either we los a part of our history.
  • Sometimes Jason U surprise me. Why can't you see the forest from the trees?

    What characteristic does a medieval Gothic Cathedral and "The Humble Talkie" have in common? IMO, both contain examples that are humanistic great works of art that will span the generations.

    Your conjecture that no digital works of cultural significance will be generated by this modern smartphone obsessed culture is rebutted by that one simple example.

    If I might indulge myself in some snarky commentary, I guess modern digital movies or those classics films digitally remastered and preserved won't be produced anymore or preserved by persons using smartphones - or is that inference way out of bounds with your conjecture. Perhaps we should notify the Smithsonian staff in charge of archiving great American classic movies and warn them that their jobs are in danger since great and historic digital movies in the future will never be created by persons growing up with smartphones or created using digital film technology - or at least enough of them to justify their existence. Hope their 401K funds are in order. Their jobs might be eliminated soon.

    And I'm not just referring to Hollywood centric movies. Movies are a universal human cultural art expression produced by citizens of every country on the face of the earth. Surely a "few" digital Mona Lisas will continue to be created from a population of artists that large.

    But getting back to that comparison between Gothic Cathedrals and a modern Movie. What do those two great art forms have in common?

    Their construction, for one thing. It took a village of craftsmen and just plain but dedicated ordinary citizens working together to produce the Great Notre-Dame de Paris. That great art form needed time and medieval "big bucks" to complete it's construction.

    When Peter Jackson created the LOTR trilogy using digital "Red" cameras and edited on computers using digital editing software, his film company employed literally thousands of skilled craftsmen (and ordinary citizens as well) to create his movies that were recently enshrined in the top 100 movies of the century. It also took "big Kiwi Bucks" to bankroll that artistic effort.

    Would anyone doubt that 200 to 500 years from now, those movies will not exist somewhere or be revered by our future selves?

    You understand that not every painting created during the time of Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci ended up in The Louvre. Yet I'm sure that Leonardo's contemporaries had their own version of the smartphone that took up a large portion of their daily time.
    • Read the piece again

      "Your conjecture that no digital works of cultural significance will be generated by this modern smartphone obsessed culture is rebutted by that one simple example."

      I did not say that anywhere in the piece. I said that any works of cultural significance generated by our current culture are in danger of not being preserved due to a societal shift towards impermanence.

      That is the theme of the entire article.
      • With all due respect, Jason, but I read several themes in your blog

        However, your blog summery, "A de-emphasis on the permanence of expression as well as a lack of desire to preserve digital content will almost certainly result in the loss of many culturally significant works." espoused a cause and effect which I commented on.

        Specifically, I understood you to associate a smartphone user's perceived social behavior of marginalizing a digitally created object's intrinsic value and thus cause the effect of reducing it's chances for long term preservation. (One doesn't preserve a "snack".) But just because a person doesn't preserve a "snack", does NOT imply that person's inclination to discard something far more substantial in nature. Peter Jackson uses a smartphone. As I assume those millions that frequent museums do as well.

        Your blog title implies that few "digital Mona Lisas" will survive past this present generation raised upon smartphone use. Again, that is a cause and effect that I comprehended from your article and which I rebutted. To summarize, my rebuttal implied that great artistic film content (digital or otherwise) will continue to be created and preserved in great abundance in the foreseeable future - irregardless of prevalent smartphone use or not.

        BTW, for the sake of argument, you did recognize that Film objects (either digitally created or digitally remastered can be described as culturally significant.

        But, in a Clintonesque way, how did you define "few" as in "few Mona Lisas"? Did you mean that only a few digitally creative art works are worthy of human preservation efforts? Or did you mean that a "digital Mona Lisa" could be but one of many possible digital masterpieces created at the same time and only a few masterpieces or works of cultural and historical significance would be digitally preserved?

        And besides, it's not like great works of art haven't been lost in the past. You, yourself pointed that out. However, implying that increased smartphone use would accelerate the accidental or deliberate destruction of art work (digital or not) is a "logical leap of faith" that I am not ready to endorse.
        • Who says everything digital should be preserved?

          I would argue that yes, only a few digitally creative art works are worthy of human preservation efforts

          Just because someone creates a digital "work of art" does not mean it's worth the effort and money to preserver. There is more to art then just the image on the screen.

          I would agree that LOTR should be something worth investing in saving. Ang Lee's "The Hulk"? Not so much.

          The difference is that one has a compelling and powerful story driving the images, the other has a poorly revamped "retelling" of the origin of the character, so as good as the images are, there is no real substance to back them up. Is that worth the money to preserve?

          Art should invoke some form of emotion, from "that is pleasing to the eye" all the way to "it captures my soul perfectly".

          Not every photo does that, not every movie, nor every song.

          We can preserve every dancing cat video ever made, but is it a smart use of funds, or a waste of money on a mindless 2 minutes that can easily be duplicated to the same effect.
          • Digital vs. analog

            You highlight a problem in the "let's not save everything" thought. See either you save everything you can or you must find a way to select the wheat from the chaff. Now in the old days you had to do this, you simply could not afford to save everything. Paintings and book required space, special environmental conditions, protection from fire and environmental disasters, wars, etc. Written books decayed and had to be copied by hand, much art simply was too fragile to survive. We tend not to think of these efforts (costs) but yes, preserving art and writings of old required many hundreds to thousands of cumulative man-hours to preserve what little survived the test of time. A "natural selection" ensued where only the most prized and protected (and lucky) survived the centuries. The costs of this preservation enormously high and the losses immense.

            Digital has flipped that cost structure on its head. The storage medium is very VERY cheap, relatively speaking (as compared to a museum or physical book library), and getting cheaper exponentially, and the nature of digital information means copies can be produced at perfect fidelity to the digital original. What would really cost the most now is the act of filtering it all. One would need to go through, individually, the billions of web pages and billions of photos and millions of books and say "this one is worth preserving, and this one not". Or, just buy a bunch of servers and save as much as you can, with the hopes that some day in the future smart algorithm programs will be able to filter it out.

            Take your movie examples, yes you could form a panel of folks who would decide what movies are "worth" saving and what are not, the assumption being that each member actually watches the movies in question and agrees on the "worthiness" of each movie (as a guy who works regularly with committees all I can say is good luck getting several people to agree on things like this, getting people to agree on art is IMPOSSIBLE). Or you could just pony up the $10 of hard drive space and save them both (assumes 50GB/movie stored twice on $100/2TB hard drives).
      • I don't think this stuff NEEDS preserved

        OK so if we save ALL the crap people post, like how cute their cat is or yet another sunset, why bother? Billions of pieces of information no one cares about will be lost. So what? If ONE example of each survives 500 years.. due to being printed out, or moved from form to form, that's probably enough. If, in the next 500 years, every bit of data is preserved, we'll have enough information to basically fill the universe with noise.
        ONE Campbells soup label.. quite enough for history. We don't need to save each and every one ever produced, although I hear there are people who never throw the trash out and probably have thousands IN THEIR home.
        Should we become hoarders of garbage, or only preserve a few good examples, as has always been done? I'm sure that more than one painter's work from hundreds of years ago, has only a few examples preserved, making each one more precious, and if every scrap had been saved, it would still be garbage.
        • The problem

          Is knowing what is worth storing vs. what is garbage. For example, much of the art we have from the past we have not because it was obvious at the time it would be worth preserving, but that it was aesthetically pleasing enough that the original owners kept it until it became obvious to some collector or museum that the piece was worth preserving, many years later. Most was lost due to decay or accidents or discarding.

          Likewise what written knowledge we have from the remote past we have because wealthy patrons, universities, or governments had the foresight to see value in preserving written knowledge. We too, should find value in preservation of knowledge even though it may not be obvious in the present what has value and what doesn't.
          • The Smithsonian does that ll the time

            they'll preserve something of cultural significance like Harrison Ford's Indian Jones hat and jacket: the clown outfit from Bobcat Goldthwaite wore in "Shakes the Clown" I doubt would ever be considered, or was even kept after filming.

            Much of what is preserved in reference to culture is done so as society has shown why it is culturally significant. Indiana Jones, 007, Ansell Adams photos.

            Nothing wrong with holding onto everything for a little while, as society will tell you if you should hold onto it forever or discard it to make room for something worth holding onto.
  • I would say no

    Digital works of art, by there very nature, lend themselves to the current benefits of exponentially growing storage medium. We think, "oh how awful if the Mona Lisa had been lost", but in point of fact many great works of art were lost due to the expense of the medium (reuse) or the frailty of the medium (decay). Many of Da Vinci's works are lost to us forever for these reasons: I recently attended a Da Vinci exhibit in Vegas and they discussed many of his works that we're lost. We could simply no calculate the extent of lost art, knowledge lost over the years. Digital medium is the only medium that could overcome these losses.
  • City of Atlantis

    Question: Why don't we know anything about the people of the lost city of Atlantis? Answer: Because they put all their data in "the cloud".
    • Best post of the blog!