How do we experience abandoned digital spaces that don't decay, preserved forever in exactly the state we left them?
The problem is not just that all the humans have moved to Real Space. The Origami and Faberge digients have gone to Real Space too, and Ana can hardly blame their owners; she’d have done the same, given the opportunity. … There are vast expanses of minutely-detailed terrain to wander around in, but no one to talk to except for the tutors who come in to give lessons. There are dungeons without quests, malls without businesses, stadiums without sporting events; it’s the digital equivalent of a post-apocalyptic landscape.
– Ted Chiang, “The Lifecycle of Software Objects”
A few months back, I wrote a piece on the atemporal nature of abandoned/ruined physical spaces and the equally atemporal nature of our digital representations of those spaces. As it goes with a lot of posts on this blog, one of the central points of that piece — though it was essentially grounded in a consideration of physical space — was the enmeshed nature of the digital and the physical and how they have to be considered together if sense is going to be made of either.
As much as that piece considered the digital coupled with the physical, it didn’t do much to address the much trickier issue of abandoned digital space and what it can reveal about how we imagine time and history. That’s where I want to place my focus now.
A quick refresher: atemporality most simply refers to the idea that our experience of time is not necessarily as linear as we like to present it; that we don’t just move in a straight line from A to B in time but that we often experience aspects of the past, the present, and the future simultaneously, simply by virtue of our nature as remembering, imagining creatures — as I wrote in my last piece on this topic, we remember the future, imagine the present, and experience the past. Moreover, this phenomenon is intensified by technology and especially by technologies of documentation and sharing. Abandoned physical space, because of the way it encourages us to imagine our own ruined futures at the same time as we imagine an unruined past, is uniquely atemporal.
One of my central arguments from that previous piece was that it wasn’t just the abandoned nature of these physical spaces that rendered them particularly atemporal; it’s the ruined nature of the space that allows us to imagine a future in which we’re dead or otherwise no longer present. We associate death and endings with corpses and ruins; we actually tend to have a very difficult time conceiving of one without the other. Some of this comes down to practical experience (religious mythology and tradition is full of people being bodily assumed into various other states without technically dying, but I’m assuming that no one reading this has experienced that personally) but I think a lot of it is also that we feel somehow that our taking leave of the world should make some kind of mark on it, whether in the form of our decaying bodies or our decaying buildings. Many of our post-apocalyptic visions feature devastated landscapes and a damaged world; it’s a rare vision that showcases a world that’s proceeding perfectly well without us. Some of this, again, is both practical and realistic, but I’d argue that not all of it is.
What does this have to do with digital space? Simply: digital spaces can be abandoned, but they don’t become ruined, at least not in the way that physical spaces do. When we enter an abandoned physical space, its ruined nature causes it to be especially time-laden; we feel the passage of time in what time has done to that space. Abandoned digital space is simply frozen at the last point at which something was done to it; nothing more will happen to it unless a hard drive is wiped clean or a server goes offline. It just stops.
We can therefore draw an important distinction between abandoned and ruined in the case of digital space; one doesn’t necessarily assume the other. I would argue that this has implications for how we experience time in these spaces. In the latter case, we experience the passage of time in the physical evidence of what time has done; time leaves a very evident mark. In the former, we experience the passage of time by virtue of how nothing has changed at all; an abandoned digital space is marked by emptiness and staticity.
I should note at this point that I’m not claiming that digital spaces are not atemporal, just that they’re atemporal differently than physical space.
A couple of examples might be helpful at this point, not least because I should draw a further distinction between spaces that were constructed for specifically social reasons, such as Second Life or the older digital social space Worlds, and spaces that were created simply to be repositories of content, often for commercial reasons. The former were created to be inhabited by users and to be built and altered by those users; when the users abandon the space and stop customising it, it’s both the emptiness and the lack of new content that marks the space as abandoned. In the case of the latter, it’s the lack of new content — or the existence of content that hasn’t aged especially well, in the case of the official Space Jam website — that marks the space as abandoned. The Space Jam website also looks incredibly dated, as does Worlds; it’s not just the lack of new content, then, but also that these digital spaces generally no longer resemble the digital spaces we inhabit as a matter of course.
I would argue that it’s actually the “frozen” nature of these digital spaces that marks the passage of time; we can see — very clearly in many cases — the point at which they stopped changing and were marked by what is now our past. If a ruined physical space is a memento mori, abandoned digital space is more like a time capsule: a place in which the future has simply never happened. These spaces are atemporal, then, in that they give us a vivid glimpse of our own past that we can experience in the present and perhaps extrapolate forward into an imagined future — but because they aren’t ruined, we don’t imagine that future in the same way. To reuse a quote from Will Viney’s essay “Ruins of the Future”:
The politically, theologically and philosophically rich gesture of projecting ruins, of prophesying the demise of a building, as well as the people and activities associated with it, depends upon an end that can be experienced, a sense of dénouement that is not absolutely terminal. This is not the apocalypse as such, but an end to be seen, to be retold and represented – it is a telling end.
Without ruins, the space can’t tell in quite the same way, though they do tell, and just as strongly. If ruined physical space is atemporal but oriented toward the future — and I would argue that it is — abandoned digital space is atemporal but inherently oriented toward the past.
The staticity of abandoned digital space can lend it an odd feeling of permanence — that because things haven’t moved on or changed, they never will. But a lack of decay doesn’t mean no ending, and the physical and digital are still enmeshed. In a ruined post-apocalyptic world, when the last server goes offline and the last hard drive is rendered unreadable, empty static digital space vanishes into the ether and the ruins are silent, heavy with time.