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?

Image Source: http://www.spikesnell.com/index.php?m=10&y=11&d=13&entry=entry111013-225355


  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: https://www.wired.com/2016/06/inventors-internet-trying-build-truly-permanent-web/.

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