You may not have heard it in over a decade, but it’s a sound you’ll never forget: the high-pitched, screeching tone of a dial-up modem that was an internet user’s punishment before the reward of connectivity. And you may listen to it again, emitted by an early modem from 1982, as part of 64 bits, an interactive exhibition at Here East in London that showcases 64 artifacts of the internet’s early history, from the first website to early ASCII art to one of the first visuals to go viral. Remember that “Dancing Baby” GIF of a 3D-rendered, animated infant from the 1990s? That’s the one.
Much of this digital flotsam is no longer accessible in its original form, and if if is, it is not easily viewed, preserved in museums and research centers around the world. 64 bits showcases them all on computers that each date to its content’s respective era, allowing visitors to experience and learn about stories from the web’s formative years that we may have forgotten. It’s curated by Jim Boulton as part of his ongoing project, Digital Archaeology, which seeks to preserve key moments of internet culture and raise awareness of the need to do so, through various exhibitions.
“The first website appeared on the internet in 1991,” Boulton told Hyperallergic. “Archive.org started archiving websites in late 1996. The first five years of the web — its formative years — have not been archived. The exhibition seeks to raise the profile of preserving the early web while there’s still a chance. Time’s running out!”
On thick, clunky monitors, viewers may browse PizzaNet — the first transactional website, launched in 1994 by Pizza Hut with a software company to enable pizza delivery (the very first: pepperoni and mushroom, with extra cheese); The Blue Dot — one of the first online art galleries that showcased work by artists including Ryan McGinness, Spencer Tunick, and Jill Greenberg; and Archie — the first search engine, launched by the Barbadian coder Alan Emtage in 1989 and whose name is short for “archive.” Archie indexed FTP sites across the internet, and users had to send in search requests via email. The version of the search engine on display is now maintained by the University of Warsaw’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Mathematical and Computational Modeling.
Emtage is among the creatives not widely known but who take responsibility for tools we still use today. 64 Bits also highlights the work of graphic designer Susan Kare, who conceived of visuals such as the original Mac icons, the MacPaint interface, and the artwork for the playing cards of Windows Solitaire. As for our webcams, credit is due to caffeine-starved students at Cambridge University’s Computer Laboratory. In 1993, Daniel Gordan and Martyn Johnson set up a web browser where they live-streamed the feed from a camera centered on a coffee pot to avoid wasting time on disappointing journeys to an empty pot.
Unlike dirt-filled dig sites, excavating the archaeology of the internet unearths things many people have actually experienced firsthand. 64 Bits reminds us of the relationship between the fast-developing web and memory — how, increasingly, the internet breeds short attention spans, even when it comes to phenomena that captivate us. (Remember the craze over Subservient Chicken?) Notably, the exhibition invites visitors to mine their own pasts for digital objects that hold personal meaning. Any visitor can bring in obsolete media and receive assistance from experts at the British Library who will migrate the inaccessible historical works to modern formats. Some of these will also be added to 64 Bits. The exhibition thus presents not only an opportunity to look back at the web’s greatest hits, but also one to consider some of our own forgotten stories.
64 Bits continues at the Press Center at Here East (Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London, UK) through April 21.