Digital Art Has a Huge Future Problem

Image by Patricio González from Pixabay

If you use any form of social media, there’s a good chance that in your feed have been some interesting, funny, awkward and strange images from DALL-E, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) app that creates images from a simple phrase. It’s very clever and can be quite fun. Then of course, there’s the bored ape NFTs and multiple spin-offs. AI creating art is nothing new. It’s been around for well over a decade.

For some artists, especially during the pandemic, they were able to make some very good coin. NFTs offer artists an opportunity to monetize unlike before and it’s an important part of our cultures that art gets into the world. And that artists can make a living. But all of this digital art, while being great, has a big problem. It’s in the future and humans generally aren’t 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 ability to access what is stored there. Both the format and the longevity. A printed book will outlast a CD, DVD or USB thumb drive. Today. Still. Very few hard drives from old PCs can still be plugged into a newer PC over a decade later and the data be retrieved. There are some devices that will do this. For Windows 98 and OSX on Mac, well, that can get expensive. This negates the value of digital.

The oldest known painting on canvas is estimated to be 45,500 years old and was created in Indonesia. Paintings on cave walls go back even further. Some cave wall paintings were made in such a way that with firelight, they’d flicker and seem 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 in about 1450 AD. If you have a device with a solid state drive, that too, will only last about 10 years.

We generate as much data in a two days now as we did between the dawn of civilization and 2002. And we continue to create more, faster. We don’t really think about that when we make a post on a social media channel, either text, image, audio or video. We fire it off and assume it will just be there on our timeline and many others. It is unlikely that Twitter, Meta or even Apple or Google will be around in fifty years, let alone a century or more from now. And they use a lot of hard drives and those get swapped out as they fail.

Currently, the longest lasting available storage technology is the M-Disc, which is forecast to last up to 1,000 years. We’re sort of getting somewhere. But it’s an expensive medium to write on as it uses advanced metals. But it’s a new technology, so we can’t know for sure. There’s a lot of work being done to create longer lasting storage mechanisms, such as this one that uses glass being developed in Europe.

Every storage medium, from cave walls, to papyrus, paper and CDs suffer from some degree of data loss, environmental damage through time and read/write obsolescence. And of course, that family member who accidentally over writes your novel for their poem they wanted to save from the internet.

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

Digital art has 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 okay. The debate over disruption of the art world by AI will be hot for a while. NFTs may or may not last. There is hope, as storage technologies advance and scientists work on ensuring files can be transferred.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

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Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious