Digital Media

The Ephemerality of Digital Media

In prophesying the future of digital media, many have questioned — without finding an answer — its ability to maintain the promise of permanent storage vowed since the early days of television.

Through its storage (memory) power, digital media was once considered the solution, if not the antithesis, to volatile media like television. It was to make things perennial and available at any moment. It was also to overcome the drawbacks of degradation and unreliability connected to analog formats. However, it has been demonstrated that the digital is cause of numerous archival problems of its own — memory being the most troublesome one.

The Enduring Ephemeral or the Future Is a Memory” by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun is a centerpiece in the field of new media criticism. Kyong Chun argues that “the slipperiness of digital media” is mainly caused by two components: the speed of the digital evolution (and digital technologies themselves), and the concept of digital memory which “blurs the boundary between machine and human”(as insinuated by Von Neumann in 1958).¹

The injection of digital media into our lives has shifted the way we experience events and access information to such an extent that it originated a nonlinear temporal line that “races simultaneously towards the future and the past”¹.

Engaging with the present is becoming so difficult already for folks at my age (early 20s) that it worries me to imagine how the younger generations will be able to cope with it. Traditional scholarship, as writer and scholar McKenzie Wark suggested, has become incompatible with the types of images and events, produced and distributed at lightninglike speed by the internet, that interrupt the homogeneous formal time of learning.²

Digital media has always had an hard time engaging with the present because of its instinctive desire to “program the future”¹ rather than the present. A large majority of engineers and scientists alike are currently creating for future generations, trying to shape the next rather than integrating with the present. And they have been doing this for decades— see Vannevar Bush’s Memex machine theorised in 1945 for example.

“Digital media is not always there. We suffer daily frustrations with digital sources that just disappear. Digital media is degenerative, forgetful, erasable. This degeneration makes it both possible and impossible for it to imitate analog media.” (Wendy Hui Kyong Chun)¹

The fight against ephemerality brought us to devising machines with a memory which is, at least, more permanent the the human’s one. If we exclude early forms of regenerative memory, such as the mercury delay line or the Williams tube, and today’s storage technologies like RAM, and flash memory, all that is left is the internet — the professedly enduring machine.

Yet, even a seemingly perpetual technology such as the internet won’t, most probably, last forever. Projects such as The Wayback Machine and the Interplanetary File System are currently acting as Internet backups archives and eliminating the need for websites to have a central origin server.

Internet is data stored in real-life servers somewhere, some of which can hold terabytes of information. Servers are hardware machines, and like any hardware technology, they deteriorate.

Even if the web winds up in a new, better of digital archive, plenty of problems still remain. Today’s web isn’t just a collection of static HTML files; it’s dynamic apps like Facebook, Twitter, and Slack. The operating systems and hardware of the future might not be able to read or run any of those. The same holds true for videos, photos, maybe even text. (Klint Finley, 2016)³

But even if a way to solve this issues could be found, after an insane amount of work, why even bothering? Should data really last forever?

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  1. Chun, W. (2008). The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future Is a Memory. Critical Inquiry, 35(1), pp.148–171.
  2. McKenzie Wark (2006) “The Weird Global Media Event and the Tactical Intellectual [Version 3.0],” in New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader, pp. 265–76.
  3. Finley, K. (2018). The Inventors of the Internet Are Trying to Build a Truly Permanent Web. [online] WIRED. Available at:

Francesco Imola is a London-based musician, photographer, and Sound Design student at the University of Greenwich.

The genealogy of computer as an expressive medium

Readings on new media

The new digital medium of the 21th century, like the medium of film 100 years earlier, is so myriad in its forms that only trying to trace its history would generate confusion.

The appearance of the New Media Reader was a landmark in the history of a somewhat ghettoised field which is now flourishing into the mainstream domain. For the first time, a single reader managed to trace the path that led to the development of the cyberspace as we know it today.

The book also reflects on several topics associated with the difficult history of new media. One being the issue of cultural institutions privileging traditional art over new media art. “It is their responsibility to select what makes it into our cultural memory and what is left behind. They should start treating those who have expressed fundamental ideas of human-computer interaction as much as major artists as the people who revolutionised, for example, art in the Nineteenth century.”¹

If we define the domain of new media as the study of new cultural objects, we should also seek to examine what are these new cultural objects. In The Language of New Media (Cambridge, Mass. — The MIT Press, 2001), Lev Manovich describes these objects as “all the objects that are distributed and exhibited solely using digital technology (Websites, computer games, Virtual Reality, etc.). TV programs, movies, magazines, and books do not fall into this category because they make use of computer technology for production but not for actual distribution. Yet this definition needs to be revised every few years, because as technology progresses more and more objects will start relying on new media for distribution.”²

Will we ever se a complete transition of all old-media into interactive digital data?

To some extent, this process has been happening for years without us being able to stop it and analyse it in detail. Take, for example, representational images. These used to be something one would only stare at. If we scroll though Flickr today, we can do a lot more than just looking at pictures. They can be downloaded in different formats, liked, shared, commented, emailed, screen-grabbed, you get the idea.

“While visually an image still appears as a single continuous field, in fact it is broken into a number of regions with hyperlinks connected to these regions.”³

The New Media Reader also provides its opinion on new media thought of as computerisation of what was possible to be executed by human draftsmen years ago. Algorithms, in a way, could be just speeding up what a person could have done, although much more slowly. But in some cases, speeding up algorithms also impacts on the qualitative characteristics of the final product. Such as in the case of computer games. These are constituted by complex interactions between AI, visual, and sound algorithms – a collaboration that would never be possible in real-time if a human were to execute those steps.

3D Open-world games such as Forza Horizon (Playground Games) marked a milestone for computer videogames and the development of large-scale interactive algorithms.

Historical parallelism is proven by the New Media Reader by confronting key texts by modern artists and computer scientists articulating similar ideas about technological development. Two readings in particular can give us a sense of what was seen as the coming “new medium” in the decade following the end of the two world wars. The story of Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges (1941) and the article by American engineer and science administrator Vannevar Bush (1945) both develop the idea of a “massive branching structure as a better way to represent human experience”⁴

In Bush’ imagined Garden of Forking Paths this complex structure resembles a labyrinth that “folds back upon itself in infinite regression”⁵. For Bush, instead, the world is more like a challenging maze than an unsolvable labyrinth. Here the scientist’s responsibility is to lay down new trails to solve the enigma. However, the linear medium at the time of Bush and Borges had failed to capture the intricacy of human thoughts. Scientists and intellectuals were, therefore, driven to investigate and fantasise about informative structures, making up for a lack of an adequate map of knowledge.

Representation of Borges’ Garden of Forking Paths

The theories of humanists and engineers also described creativity as the only tactic to solve the world’s problems. On one side the humanist strand, while still engaging in decrypting our cultural confusion, tended to dramatise such problems. On the other, engineers were “putting their faith in the invention of the proper instruments”⁶.

The stories and essays of both storytellers and humanists later became blueprints for actual systems that employed technology to reconfigure our cultures. And it is when these two traditions come together and collaborate that we see the rise of new “emergent forms of human expression.”⁷


1–4–5–6–7: Nick Montfort and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (2003). The New Media Reader [Paperback, Online] Available at

2–3: Lev Manovich (2001). The Language of New Media [Online, Hardcover, paperback] Available at

Francesco Imola is a London-based musician, weekend photographer, and current Sound Design student at the University of Greenwich.