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

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.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer
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.

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