Notes on Media


Just another weblog. Lasse Bo Timmermann.

Digital Archives

If one looks at the Internet and its increasing use as an environment of communication, social interaction and writing an often heard claim is that whatever is put on the Internet will be there forever. The Internet does not forget. The usual assumption is that with storing all our e-mails, having facebook profiles, twitter and weblogs the history of persons or institutions will soon be available in machine readable formats, ready to be recalled at any moment and in a detail never seen before. Stefan Heidenreich describes this in a recent episode of the medienradio podcast as a point in time where we will ascend from a ‘dark era’. Heidenreich’s argument is that 20 Years from now we will be able to look back in time on the basis of our digital biographies to a certain point between 2000 and 2005 at which our history is obscured or dark simply because there is no data. I got a similar idea from a recent lecture of my digital methods seminar. The digital methods intiative is researching, among other things, the history ob websites with the Internet archive. While this kind of research has its own limitations (e.g. with websites extensivle using JavaScript or Flash) the research posibilities seem to increase with growing archives. The above approaches and common ideas about the Internet as an archive thus generally expect an increasing availability of data. The issues of studying history with the Internet rather lies in privacy issues than somewhere else. A recent post by Manuel Lima on the visual complexity blog, however, provides a striking viewpoint on this topic. He refers to an article by Robert Lee Hotz in which he argues that

“Scientists who collaborate via email, Google, YouTube, Flickr and Facebook are leaving fewer paper trails, while the information technologies that do document their accomplishments can be incomprehensible to other researchers and historians trying to read them.”

Lima writes that the more channels we are using to communicate the smaller the trails we are leaving behind get. New platforms, networks and formats come along daily. The important question is to what extend we will be able to access the data we collect in lets say 20 or 200 years from now. Paper trails have been a pretty save form of archiving even for thousands of years – although time consuming. Opposed to that, the data stored on floppy disks requires a significant effort to be restored only 15 years from the time in which it was the dominant storage media for data. So, will we still use e-mail in 50 years? Will facebook be around in 10 years? The larger question is whether the predictions of a future in which all our memories a available with the click on a button are right. Are we at the verge of entering a time of almost infinite recollection, as Stefan Heidenreich puts it, or rather facing a memoryless generation of what Manuel Lima calls the dark digital age?


Filed under: Digital Methods, Future, Internet, Memory, University

Urban Screens – Visualizing the Rhythms of the City

Visiting the urbancreens conference in Amsterdam provided some interesting insights into the connections between urban culture, architecture and media spaces. Most interesting in view was Martijn de Waals’s talk on Improving Cultural Public Spaces. In his talk he was concerned with urban screens, mobile media and urban culture. In his terms the city is a space full of strangers in which we only know a small fraction personally. He asks how we shape and express our own identity in these spaces and how we relate ourselve to others?
real-time rome visualization taken from
De Waal then turned to the analysis of different urban practices that are fundamentally reshaped by the use of mobile communication devices. The space of the city can hence serve as a space for political debate and the encounter of different people and perspectives. The cultural public space offers a bodily experience of collective rhythms, performances and habits. Wearing particular clothes and visiting shared places leads of the creation of patterns. Just by being in space a person creates a specific urban space. Over time the same persons encounter each other frequently which can build a sense of trust, similarly to social networks and recommendation systems. The sense of belonging to a collective can therefore be argued to be based on a shared space. This sense of belonging can further lead to what de Waal terms dwelling and that describes the process of making oneself at home in a city. In his talk de Waal provides a comeplling way of describing urban life in the time of the increasing use of mobile communication devices (and their screens). I really enjoyed his descriptions of actively formed and constantly re-formed spaces in an urban environment.
The examples introduced show current projects that support the creation of the spaces described by de Waal. In a project called citysense one can download a cell phone application in order to find people and places with similar interests based on one’s own habits. The inhabitants of the city are placed into different tribes, hence pointing towards a future possibility to form and bring together dynamic groups of people. A second example introduced was MIT’s SENSEable City Lab which includes several different projects. In one of the featured projects the cell phone data is combined with public transportation data to provide a real-time visualization of the collective rhythms and flows of the city of Rome (see visualization above).
Plastic Container of Liquid Soap in New York
Obviously most of the current projects are more aesthetic experiments pointing towards a certain direction. If, however, the concepts described by de Waal and realized in many different projects can be lifted to the next level the will most likely have a tremendous impact. Imagine local political discussion based on these technologies. New forms of collaborative action and new ways of living together might become available. Projects like Trash|Track (see visualization above) can help to create an awareness of spatial relations. If we can manage to solve issues of privacy that are arising from the collection of large amounts of data, which is certainly not an easy task, the metaphors introduced by de Waal point to an interesting future.

Filed under: Amsterdam, Architecture, Conference, Mobile, Visualization