Friday Surprise: Recent history is surprisingly hard to find.

Posted by:

You’d think, in the modern world, that our history is covered from every angle and therefore hard to lose. You might be surprised where you have to look to unearth some of it.

Recent history, say from the last 30 or 40 years, isn’t as well preserved as you might think. We are a forward-moving culture; we jettison what is old and eagerly adopt what is new. This behavior has given us phenomenal technological advancement (from which the rest of the world has benefitted), but the pace of our advancement has made it very difficult to preserve what has come before.This means that the job of being a historian is both difficult and unappreciated. Our hell-bent-for-leather progress leaves a lot of stuff behind, and there are relatively few people actually collecting and cataloging that stuff. A large volume of castoff stuff coupled with scarce manpower to curate it equals lots of things getting lost in the shuffle.

Ironically, the very technology which makes it easier to preserve the past and easier to access that past has, itself, been poorly preserved. The world wide web, which we generically call “the internet”, has only existed since 1990 — yet we have very little record of what it looked like before about 1996. (Even after that date, which is when the Internet Archive came online, our information is still incomplete. Before that? Virtually non-existent.)

But, as it happens, there is a source of that lost history and it comes in a form you might not expect (and which itself is fading into history): VHS tape.

In the early days of the internet people were very unsure of how it all worked. It was something the likes of which had never existed in human history and folks had trouble wrapping their heads around what it was and what it could do. To teach people what they needed to know, advertisements and tutorials were made and those were distributed on the popular media format of the day — the VHS tape cartridge.

Being a physical entity means that a lot of VHS tapes are still running around in attics and thrift stores and libraries, and they contain live action records of early web design and function. One guy, Andy Baio, has been collecting and making these tapes available for the historically curious.

There’s a great story about Baio’s project at FastCoDesign, along with links to his site and other resources. It’s really a fascinating subject, and it’s a blast from the past watching these almost comically naive introductions to what was then a brand-new technology!

-=[ Grant Cunningham ]=-