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Time Capsules, WayBack Machines, and TimeHop Technologies: Material-Semiotic Histories of the Archive

Sat, May 27, 8:00 to 9:15, Hilton San Diego Bayfront, Floor: 4, Sapphire 410A


The Internet Archive, home of the largest collection of born-digital materials available online, offers access to its database of historical web snapshots through a portal called The Wayback Machine, a search interface that runs by the click of a button labeled “Take Me Back.” Google StreetView, which recently updated its mapping service with access to historical imagery, debuted the new feature as a “digital time capsule of the world,” a way to “time travel” to streets of the past. Meanwhile, digital nostalgia apps like TimeHop comb users’ social media history for buried memories, pictures, and posts that might be regenerated with an invitation: “Let’s time travel!” Even Apple’s automated backup software, Time Machine, and its connected external storage drive, Time Capsule, participate in the semiotic frenzy that constructs digital memory and personal archiving alongside the mythology of time travel. What should we make of this enduring metaphor for conceptualizing digital temporalities and the logics of computational memory? This paper historically situates the material-semiotic associations that link digital memory, archiving, and time travel by comparing contemporary digital imaginaries with earlier moments related to the history of photography and cinema. In the 19th century, photography played a crucial role in the first public time capsule projects not just for their visual content but for the ways the medium was associated with fantasies of time travel and notions of posterity (Yablon, 2014). In the 20th century, cinematic time inscribed duration into the archive and reveled in the fantasy of temporal manipulation. As Doane (2002) argues, the archival desire of cinema is linked to technical assurances of indexicality, the imprint of time itself on the material that preserves it. Although discourses of “time travel” extend across photographic, cinematic, and digital media imaginaries, the role of storage and access embodies distinct promises. While photographic time capsules represent fantasies of frozen time, and cinematic time machines promise rewinding, replaying, and reversing time, digital time machines emphasize the ongoing process of generation/degeneration/regeneration that perhaps best characterizes the logic of the digital archive (Chun, 2008).


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