Digital art has a huge future problem | by Giles Crouch | Digital anthropologist | Jul 2022

Image by Patricio González from Pixabay

If you use any form of social media, chances are your feed contains some interesting, funny, goofy, and weird images from DALL-E, an artificial intelligence (AI) application that creates images to from a single sentence. It’s very clever and can be a lot of fun. Then, of course, there are the bored monkey NFTs and the multiple spinoffs. AI creating art is nothing new. It has been around for over a decade.

For some artists, especially during the pandemic, they have been able to do very good pieces. NFTs provide an opportunity for artists to monetize unlike before and it is an important part of our cultures that art enters the world. And that artists can earn a living. But all of this digital art, while awesome, has a big problem. It’s in the future and humans are generally not good at considering long-term consequences, especially beyond our lifespan. I give you climate change.

The problem is storage. Or rather, the type of storage and the possibility of accessing what is stored there. Both the format and the longevity. A printed book will last longer than a CD, DVD or USB stick. Today. Still. Very few hard drives from older PCs can still be plugged into a newer PC more than a decade later and the data can be recovered. Some devices allow you to do this. For Windows 98 and OSX on Mac, this can be expensive. This negates the value of the digital.

The oldest known canvas painting is estimated to be 45,500 years old and was created in Indonesia. The paintings on the walls of the caves go back even further. Some cave murals were made in such a way that with the light of the fire they shimmered and seemed to move. A CD will last 5-10 years, maybe a bit longer. If we define a book as printed, then the Gutenburg Bible would be the oldest, printed around 1450 AD. If you have a device with an SSD, that too will only last about 10 years.

We generate as much data in two days now as between the dawn of civilization and 2002. And we continue to generate more, faster. We don’t really think about it when we post a message on a social network, whether it’s text, image, audio or video. We trigger it and assume it will be right there on our timeline and many others. It is unlikely that Twitter, Meta or even Apple or Google will exist in fifty years, let alone a century or more. And they use a lot of hard drives and these are swapped out when they fail.

Currently, the most durable storage technology available is the M-Disc, which is expected to last up to 1,000 years. We are going somewhere. But it is an expensive medium to write on because it uses advanced metals. But it’s new technology, so we can’t know for sure. There is a lot of work going on to create more durable storage mechanisms, like this one that uses glass being developed in Europe.

All storage media, from cave walls to papyri, papers, and CDs, suffer from some degree of data loss, environmental damage over time, and read/write obsolescence. And of course, that family member who accidentally wrote your novel for his poem that he wanted to save from the internet.

Digital art will suffer from the same problems as any other digital content. The other fight is that it can be mass reproduced. Yes, you can hold the original 0s and 1s that made the first bored monkey, but there’s no guarantee that the blockchain number assigned to it will exist even a decade from now. Blockchain technologies are very new to the computing world, just over a decade old. They will evolve. You have no right under the constitutions to guaranteed protection of your NFT. Yes, there’s copyright and other laws, but that doesn’t stop companies from going bankrupt, and it doesn’t stop storage entropy either.

Digital art presents the same challenge as any content we create digitally today. The physical life cycle of the storage medium, read/write obsolescence and the vagaries of time and people. In the meantime, however, some talented artists are able to eat and that’s normal. The debate about AI disrupting the art world will be hot for some time. NFTs may or may not last. There is hope as storage technologies advance and scientists work to ensure files can be transferred.

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