External Memory

Nostalgia for an internet that never was

In 2010, the internet discovered Space Jam, although you could also say it was Space Jam that had earlier discovered the internet. Released in 1996, the film boasted one of the first movie marketing websites, and perhaps the first to actually take advantage of the technology of the web. In 2010, the site was still online and unchanged when it was found by a group of Reddit users who experienced a kind of Proustian memory, rediscovering a childhood and adolescence spent online at a time when that world seemed much smaller, and much friendlier, than it is now.

Our popular culture of the present moment is permeated with nostalgia for earlier iterations of the web, stories of a time when the internet was the milieu of the weird — of “wizards and geeks,” in the words of a 2006 Pew report. Yet these fictional expressions of internet nostalgia are often less concerned with real encounters with the past than with an imagined past that soothes our anxieties about the present a vision of the internet that never really existed. Depictions of the internet from the 1980s — most obviously William Gibson’s matrix, and Tron — imagined an expansive, topological world more visual than textual, a parallel universe or alternate dimension.

Fictional expressions of internet nostalgia are often less concerned with past encounters than with an imagined past that soothes our anxieties about the present

This idea of the internet as an immersive media environment, a created world, still haunts us. Ready Player One, the 2011 novel and soon-to-be Spielberg film, revels in ’80s kitsch, storming through every pop-culture version of cyberspace and imagining the future internet as much closer to Tron than to our present iteration. It suggests the distinction drawn by the Marxist literary critic György Lukács between bad historical fiction, which he characterized as “mere costumery,” and better, which wrestles with the specific “historical peculiarity” of the age represented by a work of fiction. It is increasingly obvious that the internet is less an immersive playground, less a virtual environment, than it is an archive — a Library of Babel that is sometimes incomprehensible, sometimes sinister, but occasionally beautiful. What we encounter in that archive is an experience that is distinctly embodied and stands in stark contrast to the fantasy of virtual space.

If we do think of the internet as an archive, we probably think of it as archiving us. Pieces of our real selves, the detritus of our communications, consumer choices, and other instantly forgettable acts are packaged and sold, the information revealed to us in the form of Facebook ads and sponsored tweets. Otherwise, the internet can seem hyper-ephemeral, with changing web-design aesthetics as distinctive to their eras as fashion trends seemed 30 years ago. (Will someone in 2030, I wonder, discover a Squarespace-style, endlessly scrolling website and find themselves overwhelmed by waves of memory? Will the hip minimalist landing page look as old fashioned as a command-line interface?)

The polymorphous ethos of the web would seem to reject the very idea of preservation. Facebook memories notwithstanding, Wikipedia and similar sites are tormented by “bit rot.” (“I for one can’t wait until academic research just consists of getting 404 errors on defunded websites,” wrote Simon Parsons, a University of London lecturer.) And yet, perhaps through simple neglect, much of this ephemera is preserved in ways that have proven difficult to predict. Archives, internet or otherwise, are full of the mistakes of the past, and those mistakes, the idiosyncrasies attendant in preservation, often tell us much more than do representations of the past that claim authenticity but fall into costumery.

Imagining the internet as an alternate dimension, a space that you could visit that — in the case of Ready Player One — you can shape according to your own or someone else’s childhood memories has perhaps emerged as an antidote to the reality of much of our lives online. This is something like what Sunny Moraine calls the “construction of the unruined past,” a fiction that enables visions of decline and dysfunction in the present. Ready Player One imagines the internet through a fog of nostalgia for a space that retains the consistency of a childhood memory, in contrast with our own experiences of an increasingly hostile web.

The very act of “entering” online space becomes a kind of fantasy of escape in AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, a period drama about the birth of the personal computer and the world wide web. Halt and Catch Fire transforms nostalgia for 1980s and 1990s computer hardware into a kind of internet teleology, proclaiming that these technologies were created with the purpose of connecting us. During a strategy session where the main characters attempt to figure out how to capitalize on the not-yet-public internet, corporate visionary Joe MacMillan insists, in a dramatic set-piece monologue, “all we have to do is build a door, and let them inside.” That “inside” remains the province of memory and fantasy. The scene is nostalgia disguised as teleology — a product of the present projected onto the past. It retains none of the memory of experiencing the internet’s precursors, or the early web, and it reflects more what we’d like the internet to be than what it is.

It is increasingly obvious that the internet is less an immersive playground, less a virtual environment, than it is an archive: distinctly embodied and standing in stark contrast to the fantasy of virtual space

This focus on the space of the internet suggests that perhaps we have been wrong about the emphasis in the portmanteau cyberspace all along. “Cyber” has been synonymous with technology’s bleeding edge for a long time, but popular visions of the internet have been preoccupied with the second part: space. We remain enchanted by the notion of the internet as an environment, an open world whose constant renewal and revision is possible, and whose population is an endlessly reinvented parade of avatars, new selves created to suit each permutation of the internet’s environment: selves that are wholly plastic, wholly constructed, and serve to hide, obscure, or at the very least alter the identity of the user. But the risks of life online — and a few of the rewards — reside not in the malleability, and unreliability, of identity online, but in the fact that the internet is a repository of real information about our selves and our lives. Not as we’d like to imagine them, but as they’ve been inscribed and preserved by forces beyond our control.

This is, of course, mostly terrifying. But sometimes it can be beautiful, allowing us to re-encounter previous versions of ourselves, re-inhabit memories that were built when we used different tools to engage with the world. Encountering the internet as an archive perhaps supervenes nostalgia, taking us into a realm of memory in which we are the recording medium.

We don’t only inscribe information onto media; media also inscribes experiences onto us. Technologies, media theorist Wolfgang Ernst reminds us, record information, but they also record the technical and cultural proficiencies necessary to create and access such media. “The phonograph as media artifact not only carries cultural meanings like words and music but is at the same time an archive of cultural engineering by its very material fabrication.” The same is true of books, films and — if we learn how to see it — the internet.

Encountering the internet as an archive perhaps supervenes nostalgia, taking us into a realm of memory in which we are the recording medium

The user who posted about the Space Jam website on Reddit in 2010 wasn’t only enchanted by memories of the film, and the pleasure those memories inspired, but — with its gifs, Easter eggs, and games, not to mention in-jokes written into the code — the “material fabrication” of the site, which stood as a profound relic of the web technology of the 1990s. This user led a whole online community into a shared memory: By following a link, they collectively re-experienced an adolescence influenced by the film, but more profoundly shaped by the web of the 1990s, the years when many of us first came online; it wasn’t just the contents of that web, but the ways in which the muscle memories of navigating it were inscribed into them. That this was Proustian is not an exaggeration: “MY CHILDHOOD HAS RETURNED” proclaims one poster. “This must be how archaeologists feel,” wrote SBNation; “This is a genuine (and genuinely garish) piece of internet history, and it should be left preserved,” wrote Comics Alliance.

The redditors who followed the link rediscovered an abandoned corner of the web because those Warner Brothers servers were still running, frozen in time. But they didn’t just discover a preserved artifact, they rediscovered the way web technology circa 1996 engineered their own experiences: the experience of waiting five minutes for an image to download, waiting twenty for a video (and the rage if someone else in the house picked up the phone). In this archive, we are the memory device, too. While, to return to Lukács for a moment, fiction certainly has the capacity to transmit the “peculiarity” of history, so far, fictional versions of the internet often remain hung up on the costumery of the past and fail to access the memories formed by actually interfacing with the internet of another era.

Space Jam, the website, is an obscure, absurd relic that also precipitated the construction of a profound history, one that rewards reading. Reddit users tracked down the site’s original designers, and then, in 2015, Rolling Stone published a history of the site, interviewing those designers, who remain as surprised as ever that the site went and stayed online. Redditors’ memories opened the door to perhaps the first truly significant history of a website. And that, it seems to me, is remarkable: After 50 years (give or take) of life online, those of us who live here have started to find stories worth telling.

Madeleine Monson-Rosen writes about the cultural histories of real and fictional technologies. She has a PhD in English, and teaches literature and writing in Baltimore.