I became a historian because I was obsessed with forgetting. What social and cultural forces cause things—mentalities, people, and even landscapes—to slowly dislodge themselves from our shared memories? And, against the claims of those distinguished historians who argue that such disappearances occur slowly, over the longue durée, has this process accelerated in the 21st century? Weighty questions, to be sure, and ones that weren't exactly at the forefront of my mind when procrastination from important late-night research brought me to the official website for the movie Space Jam, which hasn't been updated since 1996.
The landing page is a visual disasterpiece, with seven unhelpfully named graphical buttons forming a corona around the film's logo. As I clicked through the curious headings on these buttons, trying to discern how the category "jump station" differed from "planet b-ball," it occurred to me that I could no longer read the page. Where, for example, was the HD trailer? Where were links to all of the social media on which I could "follow" the film or the characters and actors who appeared in it? Where were the product tie-ins I could purchase to enhance my experience, such as an iPhone game or a 50/50 cotton-poly t-shirt with an ironic picture of Bugs Bunny hanging out with Bill Murray on it?
Alas, the Web 1.0 literacy that I possessed in 1996, when I was but a callow Warcraft 2 -obsessed youth, had been lost. My browsing tendencies were rooted so firmly in the now that I no longer had any way of processing the contents of this outdated site. A panicked thought occurred to me: my social life from 1994 to at least 2004 had been mediated through the internet, and I could remember the particulars of almost none of it.
In spite of the fact that ours has been an age of comprehensive electronic surveillance, my past had disappeared. And, worse still, I had no easy way to recover it. How on earth did this happen?
It happened because the internet is the eternal present, the fast-rushing stream you can step in once and only once. Granted, all life occurs in this eternal present in some extremely general sense, but it's an eternal present surrounded by innumerable traces of the past: eroded escarpments, abandoned strip malls, and even the scars on our own bodies all tell stories that, though forgettable, aren't easily forgotten. But the internet, a vast desert waste where server-stashed bits of data shift like sands while leaving the dunes undisturbed, consists exclusively of the present. It is immediate and overpowering, immersing you in a welter of 24/7 images that are as unavoidable as they are fleeting. In other words, the story of Kim Kardashian's baby bump is so completely and totally here until the precise moment it becomes her, nude, on the cover of Paper Magazine.
Each generation claims that it's in the throes of a communications revolution, whether it's cheap pamphlet printing in the 17th century, telegraphy in the 19th, radio and television connectivity in the 20th. In reality, the effects of all these revolutions are overstated: not everybody was publishing anti-Catholic tracts in the 1600s, most people went to their graves in the 1800s without ever receiving a telegraph, and television ownership was far from universal even by 1999. But each subsequent technological advance has undoubtedly increased the speed at which cultural history is made, with 15 minutes of fame during Andy Warhol's lifetime collapsing into five during Kim Kardashian's.
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Though not quite two decades old, the Space Jam website was harder for me to parse than medieval blackletter script. The intentions of its creators, who undoubtedly received ample compensation for their (at the time) cutting-edge work, today strike us as incomprehensible. The page was meant to sit on the World Wide Web, a term people actually typed out/actually used back then, and serve as a speed bump for those intrepid souls who "surfed" cyberspace with the aid of 33.6k modems and those CompuServ and AOL clients that arrived on CDs later repurposed as coasters. It had all the bells and whistles we "netizens" then demanded: an interactive "trivia quiz," .wav audio files that would load easily on our slow connections, downloaded pictures we could set as our Windows 95 wallpaper, a description of the R. Kelly-fronted soundtrack, and a listing of the various NBA stars and aliens that appear in the film (Mugsy Bogues! Shawn Kemp!).
Today, of course, the page seems sad and amateurish—a quaint, GeoCities-looking remnant of a benighted time. Such a knee-jerk response, which admittedly was my response as well, is troubling. It suggests that, unlike more timeless examples of human ingenuity such as Murnau's silent films or William Blake's poetry, this work is nothing but forgettable trash. And here I don't just mean Space Jam, because although campy and nostalgia-inducing it's mostly garbage, but rather every single thing that appeared on the internet during this period. Because today's technology is "better," and always in the process of improving and updating itself, everything that preceded it must have sucked. The same goes for other fields overwhelmed by technological efflorescence: try explaining the merits of Eric B. and Rakim's debut album Paid in Full, which featured clever lyrics rapped matter-of-factly over samples and turntable distortion, to teenagers reared on the otherworldly, auto-tuned vocal contortions of Young Thug over the complicated sonic mollywhop of a Metro Boomin beat.
What all this means, then, is that the considerable portion of my adolescence that transpired on the Web 1.0 amounted to a lot of sucky garbage: the AOL and mIRC chatrooms, in which I shared intimate secrets with best friends I'd never met or swapped "a/s/l" greetings with random lurkers; the message boards where I argued passionately in favor of Bret "the Hitman" Hart over all other contenders to the WWE title; the websites where I produced elaborate wrestling fan fiction alongside middle-aged men and other pimply-faced teens; and even the ICQ chats in which I told a string of long-distance partners that I "loved" them, whatever that might have meant at the time. The great online figures of this time, idols of mine like the long-retired rock critic Mark Prindle, have not so much passed into history as oblivion, their outdated, still-standing websites existing today not as vehicles for introducing their work to new readers but as sepulchers housing it until those servers crash.
Other weeds remain, abandoned in distant corners of a vast and insubstantial field. You can still support the Dole/Kemp '96 campaign, keep up with CNN's coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial, and tour what remains of the Klingon Language Institute. Yet there is no systematic way to appreciate it all, much less any serious accounts of how everyday people's lives were shaped through their navigation of this older infrastructure. The need for such research, even DIY work by aging "netizens" eager to reconstruct their lived-and-loved-and-lost pasts, is a compelling one. Those thousands of hours devoted to WarCraft 2, rec.sports.pro-wrestling.fantasy, and Yahoo! Personals couldn't have been for nothing, could they? At a certain point, those trivial activities that consumed the best years of our lives have to matter. By rediscovering and reevaluating them, we can learn something about the world in which we lived, about how who we were has led us to become who we are. Something more than we would learn, at any rate, merely by sharing a handful of nostalgic fragments more or less at random on our tumblrs, hoping that these contributions evoke a fleeting feeling or two, the origins for which have been obscured by the mists of history.
However, the internet's design—it's better described as an enormous billboard than as a postmodern Library of Alexandria—makes this difficult. Even dumpster dives into the distant past via the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine https://archive.org/ may fail to return serviceable images of lost blogs and LiveJournals. Millions of old Hotmail and Yahoo! accounts, which likely contained spam and childish profundity in equal measure, are hidden behind unrecoverable passwords. The philosopher Walter Benjamin's angel of history, who perceives the past as "one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet," would clearly grasp the significance of a world in which public opinion flares briefly over the death of guitar pioneer Les Paul, careens from there into a discussion of racism on HBO's Girls, and now appears to be focused on taking Alec Baldwin down a peg or two. But while Benjamin's angel is propelled involuntarily into the future and thus cannot pause to unearth these sedimentary strata of past-ness, we have the option of slowing down and attempting to make sense of it all. To do otherwise is to leave us in thrall to a Panglossian future that, thanks to the heroic work of our top software designers, always has better load times and refresh rates than the forgettable present in which we now find ourselves. Such an act of remembrance is the least we can do, because we must.
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