Web Archaeology

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There's something wonderful and magical about old web design books. Old is a relative term, of course: in this case, old is a mere thirteen years. But these are records of a bygone age, and most of the subjects have disappeared. Some survive, their old bones reshaped and dressed with new flesh to suit the modern age. Some remain untouched, like flies preserved in amber. But mostly, they are gone, and we can only infer their former existence with the help of secondary sources.

I'm drawn to these tomes. Despite their age, they have something of the New Aesthetic about them. Their subject matter is fundamentally ill-suited to being depicted on the printed page. Shorn of their interactivity, their links to each other, websites lose all the things which set them apart from print. Like trying to understand a ballet's choreography through half a dozen photos, you get fascinating flashes of an idea. The essence, though, is gone from them, as surely as the essence is gone from the stuffed animal relics in the museum.

The books they are contained in have become artefacts in their own right. Freed from the screen, they form a fascinating collage, contents apparently selected for aesthetic value rather than how well they convey any sense of information. Haphazardly scattered across the page, they transcend the limitations of their source material. A still from a grainy pre-Youtube video goes from a tiny window on a bulky CRT screen to a full page spread. Dithered and pixelated almost beyond recognition, they burst from the screen on to the page. They have a curious vitality to them — a reminder, perhaps, of the potential for expression this medium holds. These early pioneers, mapping that landscape, getting lost in the in the digital desert and dying of underexposure, so that others might find what's left behind and take up the quest anew, in a land safer for the sacrifices made.

At the collision of old and new media (and was there ever a term less appropriate? Perhaps it should be old media and less old media, in this case) we can dig through these documents, and marvel at the ingenuity of the ancients.