Remixing the Archives


Humans create stuff… a lot of stuff. The widespread availability of the Internet has ushured in a world of unprecidented creative output (and consumption). Let’s look at some statistics from the very popular site YouTube.

    At the time of this article’s writing:

  • 100 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute
  • More than 1 billion unique users visit YouTube each month (13.7% of the world’s population)
  • Over 6 billion hours of video are watched each month (almost an hour for every person on Earth)

Those numbers are staggering… and they only represent a portion of the overall usage (see The Internet map for a fascinating visualization of this—make sure to zoom in). This isn’t counting all of the other sites where creative content is being posted like Vimeo, Flickr, and yes, even Facebook.

No human alive will ever be able to view all that YouTube has to offer. If it all survives digital decay, I can’t image what future researchers are going to have to deal with in order to understand our time. If it doesn’t… well… there’s going to be this great big black hole in history.

Fighting Digital Decay

At the rate we are creating content, there isn’t any way for any one entity to gather, sort and keep it all. Curation is really the only option (and that’s fine by me, as I’m pretty sure most of those 100 hours of video per minute being uploaded to YouTube are absolute rubbish—we don’t need to embarrass ourselves to future generations). By creating digital archives of (semi-)curated content, we can preserve culturally important items for future generations.

By far, one of my favorite digital archives is called, oddly enough, the Internet Archive.

It archives videos (including full-length, public domain motion pictures), live music, audio and texts. As of this post’s writing:

Video: 1,864,105 movies
Live Music: 136,521 concerts
Audio: 2,249,849 recordings
Texts: 7,368,465 texts

The entire archive is divided up into collections, carefully curated and managed.

WARNING: It is really cool and can be an enormous time-sink, if you aren’t careful.

It’s a lot of fun.

Looking Back

Another great part of the Internet Archive is the Wayback Machine. Named after Mr. Peabody’s WABAC Machine in the “Peabody’s Imrobable History’ segments of the 1960’s classic cartoon series The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, the Wayback Machine provides access to 435 billion web page snapshots the system has taken over nearly two decades.

Want to see what CNN was reporting on a certain day? Punch in the address, and then choose from any one of the 30,000+ snapshots taken over the last 15 years (each site has a different history set in the machine). Or, perhaps you want to see the vintage look of your favorite website.

It’s another great time-waster “research’ tool.

Remix Culture

I remember when I first heard Lawrence Lessig talk live. It was at a conference on Engineering Education held in Portland, Oregon in 2005. He was talking about remix culture and the importance of the Creative Commons movement.

Remixing is an act I think many of us do naturally. Indeed, we take our life experiences and learned knowledge and remix them into the life we lead. As a child, I’d take magazines, cut them up and create a collage. Many a National Geographic fell to the bite of my scissors. They always had the best pictures.

So, what does that have to do with the Internet Archive.

Much, though not all, of the materials available are either in the public domain or licensed under Creative Commons. So, without all of the legal hassles seen in the world of copyright today, they are available for remix.

Aside: Oddly enough, my childhood collages, if put to the same legal interpretations as today’s today’s digital copyrights, would probably be deemed an illegal derivative work of National Geographic’s intellectual property.

One of the great Internet Archive collections for remix is the Prelinger Archive.

Prelinger Archives was founded in 1983 by Rick Prelinger in New York City. Over the next twenty years, it grew into a collection of over 60,000 “ephemeral’ (advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur) films. In 2002, the film collection was acquired by the Library of Congress, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division. Prelinger Archives remains in existence, holding approximately 5,000 digitized and videotape titles (all originally derived from film) and a large collection of home movies, amateur and industrial films acquired since 2002. Its goal remains to collect, preserve, and facilitate access to films of historic significance that haven’t been collected elsewhere. Included are films produced by and for many hundreds of important US corporations, nonprofit organizations, trade associations, community and interest groups, and educational institutions. Getty Images represents the collection for stock footage sale, and over 2,800 key titles (now in the process of increasing to over 5,000) are available here.

I want to show one fantastic example of this remixing, Bonobo Cirrus Official Video (2013). Today, I’m not going to get into the social commentary it has on the American hyper-consumerism machine. Instead, I’d just like you to enjoy the surreal beauty of the thing. Here it is.

So, explore our culture, remix and employ your creative craft.