What will future archaeologists say when they uncover your students’ digital writing and artwork?

Andy Warhol, Andy2, 1985, ©The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visuals Arts, Inc., courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum
Andy Warhol, Andy2, 1985, ©The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visuals Arts, Inc., courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum

This is a very cool story, and I think that there is a connection to be made with edtech.

To be clear, here is the original article:

http://studioforcreativeinquiry.org/events/warhol-discovery

First, the tl;dr: a team of cybersleuths put a great deal of time and effort into recovering some early digital art from Andy Warhol’s old computer equipment.

The narrative of the disk processing and data analysis is worth reading. There was definitely some wild-west stuff going on there. Warhol was using prototype hardware with experimental software which wrote nonstandard file formats, and just the right combination of boot disks, executable programs, and files needed to be fed into an emulator to actually view anything. Even then, until the file format was decoded and analyzed sufficiently well to make a converter, the only way to “save” the art was to take screenshots– hence the “GraphiCraft” header they didn’t bother to crop out.

The article describes these works as “experiments,” and that feels like the right word to use. I picked the most complex work to display with this blog post, but the other ones that have been released are much more crude– things that could be thrown together in five minutes, really.

Still, this feels like a watershed moment to me. Sure, movements have long existed which seek to preserve early software and so on, but this is a case of unknown cultural works being discovered on digital storage media which had sat untouched for about thirty years– cultural works created by someone who died decades ago. We’ve truly entered the era of digital archaeology.

So what does this have to do with edtech?

Thinking back to my own primary and secondary education, digital creations were notoriously ephemeral. I recall being issued a floppy disk in the fifth grade to store all of my work on, but I had to delete old files as the disk hit its capacity limit. Worse than that, everything was lost when some anonymous malefactor stole my disk, opened the shutter, and riddled the magnetic disk with dents and holes using a pencil.

At the time, I had recently written a short story. It was a few pages long, contained loads of word-play, and even included a hint of the sort of bizarre typographical visual play that I would encounter a few years later reading Danielewski’s House of Leaves.

You know what the assignment was? I was supposed to write vocabulary sentences. I appreciate how much leeway my teachers gave me in letting me bake up and pursue my own bizarre projects… Heck, without that sort of early encouragement, maybe I wouldn’t have had the quixotic delusion necessary to begin a blog. 🙂

Anyway– I had turned in a hard copy of the story, but the digital version was destroyed along with the disk. And given my utter lack of organizational skills as a child, the hard copy vanished into the space-time continuum soon afterward.

Maybe the story wasn’t as good as I remember it being. I don’t know. And I can never know.

Fast forward to high school, and I recall using my Geocities account as a proto-Dropbox. I occasionally uploaded my work to that online storage space with an eye toward archiving it for the future.

We all know what happened to Geocities, though, right?

Now that so many schools use Google Apps for Education, though, perhaps the digital dark ages are coming to an end. Perhaps students’ early writing and digital art will be preserved by default instead of melting away as disks get lost, computers crash, and obscure folders squirreled away on hard drives get forgotten in the transfer to a new machine. Of course, GApps could go the way of Geocities– but with cloud computing services, there is at least the potential for truly effortless archival-by-default. After all, I may have lost the majority of my high school schoolwork, but I still have all of my email dating back at least as far as my 2001 Hotmail account. That’s a promising data point for the longevity of data in the cloud.

When the great artists and writers of the next generation come of age, will they be able to look back on an unbroken record of their experiments and achievements? Will historians of the future be able to get an incredibly deep and comprehensive look at the early thoughts and works of their ancestors?

 

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