Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Digital art and the challenge of technological change 1

Posted in business and convergent technologies, social networking and the arts by Timothy Platt on August 6, 2013

Civilization can be parsed and defined in a wide variety of ways, and what constitutes civilization. One such vision and understanding would hold that:

• Civilization is an ongoing process of seeking to collect, store and preserve information, and raw information as processed into knowledge, and of progressively more and more types and in progressively greater detail and fidelity.

Technology creates new ways to gather and record, store, organize and present information and knowledge, and at the same time that same technology limits capacity to see and connect to information and knowledge past, as new information technologies arise, mature and are supplanted by next and still newer.

• I could easily start this discussion at a point much earlier than our current and still rapidly evolving digital information age. How many, for example can still read cuneiform tablets? But we are currently engaged in a period of incredibly and even unprecedentedly rapid change. So I begin this and couch it in terms of our here and now and rapidly emerging.
• This can be thought of as specifically a phenomenon of the electronic and computer age, where stored data and information are not directly human accessible and usable, and where access has to be made through the specific types and even the same versions of technology implementation that processed and stored it in the first place.

I write here of digital art, and of how information technology has made it possible, and for how technology and the pace of technology development and of technology obsolescence have made the old, and even the all but recent old – unavailable, inaccessible and unmaintainable.

As at least a crude first step in parsing this out as a phenomenon I would divide digital art as falling into three loosely defined spheres:

• Art that as the product of software such as Photoshop or computer drawing programs that could be considered primarily if not entirely software in nature,
• Art that is developed explicitly as the hardware level, and
• Mixed software plus hardware art where both are essential for any given work to be meaningfully complete.

I would argue that essentially all digital art would fit within that third group even if the balance and proportion of defining and enabling hardware and software might shift a lot from one work to another, with some primarily hardware-oriented and some primarily software as extremes.

• Whether more software-oriented digital art exists as standard file format documents produced by a commercial or other more general programs, or
• Whether that work of art is itself an executable program and one developed for that purpose,
• Any given piece of software is designed and built to work on specific hardware and in the presence of specific operating systems code.
• I will address the possible exception to this of online and related software digital art later in this posting. But with that as a possible area of exception, even ostensibly pure software digital art requires the type of hardware context that it was built for if it is to be opened, run and viewed or listened to or otherwise perceived and connected to. Absent that it ceases to experientially exist as an ongoing presence.
• Hardware becomes obsolete, and ceases to be made and replacement parts cease to be available to the extent that this particular device was ever repairable at all, and not simply a product of intentional technology obsolescence.
• As hardware fails in obsolescence it takes the software developed to run on it with it.

Art conservationists and restorers can virtually work miracles in recovering a piece of more conventional art: a painting or drawing, or a piece of sculpture for example, to closer to its original form. I have even read of restoration of Renaissance and other, older period oil paintings where the canvas they were painted on was rotting, and that old canvas backing was literally removed fiber by fiber to be replaced with new canvases. Given that level of commitment to restore and preserve, it is essentially always possible to set up in software, a virtual machine replica of an obsolete and unavailable original hardware platform, and in effect “replace the old canvas with new” for a work of digital art, and certainly for more software-oriented works. It is also possible to replace older hardware with newer analogous components and with newer underlying technology, once again, replacing the “canvas.” But does this in fact restore the older work of art, maintaining it as such or does it replace it with a new work of art that might be based closely on an older original, but that is still a distinctly separate piece?

When I was a graduate student I had a friend who was translating a lengthy work of Medieval Italian poetry and writing a commentary on it, as her doctoral dissertation. From her reading of the literature on poetry translation and from her own hands-on experience she was convinced that ultimately, a translation into a different language cannot simply reformat a poem from one language to another. Different languages parse concepts and meanings and even underlying thought differently. So a translation of a poem and certainly of a complex and nuanced one can at best only serve to create a new poem that hews with fidelity to the older, but that is still ultimately a separate and distinct work. When you translate a work of digital art into a new platform and a new technology context and even into one radically divergent from that of the original, can you say that you are only restoring that same original work of art and maintaining its identity as such, but with restored capability to perceive and connect with it? Or are you making a new work that happens to be closely based on an older work that is now effectively gone? How much technology drift and how many such iterative updates would qualify as forcing recognition that the work visible now, is not and cannot still be the original as it was initially conceived and created?

I have been writing this in terms of the fine arts. But the basic issues that I address here would, with time apply to information and to knowledge developed out of it in a much wider range of content types and contexts. And if that flow of change is not developing from the way and the pace that technology per se changes, it changes in the way that we change and the way our understanding of technology and its uses change. Our technology changes; we do too, and new and novel becomes standard and simply assumed, becomes quaint and archaic, becomes foreign from its obsolescence-based disconnects with our here and now lives. We change too.

And with that, I turn to consider the online and cloud-based digital art platform, as cited towards the start of this posting. More specifically I cite open source and open communications standards such as we have as our backbone software technology for the internet and for the tools we use to access it. The internet is still very young. Many people remember its birth and remember to well before the internet or its primordial ARPANET precursor existed. If you stroll through essentially any large and well-endowed museum, you will see works of art and artifacts that go back centuries and even millennia. Moore’s law sets a generation at some 18 months at least in the here and now and for recent decades – a few recent decades. The pace of change and of technology obsolescence is as fast now as it ever has been throughout human history and human existence and in many respects it is still speeding up – at least for now. Open standards and open connectivity languages and protocols, and the need to maintain their relevance for overall internet and online continuity and connectivity can only slow the gradual, cumulative impact of change and certainly as apps, for example, that are popular now disappear from effective existence with time.

I am going to continue this discussion in a part 2 follow-up posting. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Social Networking and the Arts, and also at Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time 2 and its first directory page.

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