Forgotten Spaces: What will happen to the websites we abandon and leave to rot?

This summer the high-design frozen-yogurt shops — those cute Chlorox-bright franchises, all zillion of them — are flourishing, with maybe just a hint of darkening around the edges, like an August leaf.

But looking ahead, I can’t help but ask: What will become of all the Pinkberrys?

This is not to suggest that the current appetite for cold, chemical non-cream consumed in acrylic décor isn’t insatiable. Perhaps it is, and all that will survive the apocalypse is styrofoam and 16 Handles.

But if, just if,a small market contraction ever affects the numberless franchises of Pinkberry, Red Mango and Yogurtland that currently enliven American streetscapes—if that contraction happens, what will become of the machines, and the fake-Saarinen decor, and the rows and rows of toppings bins wherein now rest tepid kiwi and shards of offbrand Oreos?

They will be trashed. Like Cybex machines at old Curves gyms and CD-listening stations at long-gone Tower Records. As municipalities awaken from froyomania, the shops will be bulldozed, or repurposed, or left to disintegrate in the way of all things. Yogurt to ashes.

And that’s fine. Our world is pocked and streaked with the remnants of old zeals—overly-optimistic dandelion-asphalt lots, forgotten Fotomats and haunted cineplexes. Making sense—or making use, better yet—of forgotten spaces has become the preoccupation of many urbanists, landscape architects and designers who have had, in some cases, great success: In Paris, an abandoned railway track was transformed into the Promenade Plantée, an elevated greenbelt now covered in trellises. In Manhattan, a similar elevated greenspace called the High Line opened, running along the path of an obsolete railway.

But all this pertains to actual space. Will there ever be virtual-landscape architects to address incoherent and defunct digital spaces that proliferate like weeds this very minute? I’m talking about the promotional page for the movie Space Jam. Or John Edwards Presidential campaign site. Or even better: Bob Dole’s Presidential campaign site! Those lonely, weedy, isolated spots have been forgotten and left for dead during the breakneck digitization of the past twenty years. Will anything green ever grow there again? Or will they rot, and become increasingly ridiculous and even macabre as time marches on?

The homepage of Bob Dole's presidential campaign website from 1996, preserved online.

In his 2010 book “Cognitive Surplus,” Clay Shirky skillfully compared industrialization to digitization. The same year I began to track the way the Web’s evolution had come to parallel the evolution of cities. Not long after, Michael Wolff and Chris Anderson wrote a cover story for Wired with a similar theme.

But none of us drew the line forward in digital history to the current state of some of our crumbling cities. Reviving their edge spaces; rethinking depots and infrastructure afterthoughts as habitable or arable or worthy of art. The digital world, right now, is too busy building. Later, the nonsensical spaces of the Internet might have to be reconsidered—or allowed to slip into malware-infested desuetude. Like gold-rush ghost towns overrun with coyotes.

The Internet, of course, is unlike the City in an important sense: While the limited space of the City is immediately apparent, on the Internet it is not. The Internet is not a zero-sum space: We can build anew without tearing down.

Still, the strangeness of the Web’s abandoned lanscape abounds. This came vividly to my attention the other day when I spotted a dim screen that flickered meaninglessly last week on the back of the divider in a New York City taxi. The screen was like a triangle patch of weeds left by a Robert Moses expressway in 1980, or a banged-up, rusted Pinkberry machine in a cineplex basement in 2030.

When the screen is working, it is supposed to show Internet TV to a captive audience. That day, however, it featured an error message seemingly composed without oversight. “Application has generated an exception that could not be handled,” said the screen, in a Windows-style box.

And then, lyrically: “Process ID=0x134 (308), Thread ID=0x270 (624).”

But this was only the most central of the symbolic snarls. Along the bottom of the screen was something leftover from a news crawl: “Getting back to flat would be JCP victory: Analyst.” This news from the financial world was meant to be writ on water, an informational will-o-the-wisp. But imagine that the screen never disappeared: What would our great-great-grandchildren, were this screen to be frozen till they found it, make of the urgency of this “news”—the clever, snarky joining of “flat” and “victory,” the letters JCP and that crawl-trademark use of the colon?

Would they ever imagine that the retailer J.C. Penney, itself thoroughly renovated by digitization, and perhaps by then reorganized and renamed and acquired and ingested and shut down, was being observed by people on the Internet who believed that the best it could hope for would be not to lose more money? Or rather, that there were people who had a stake in saying such pointed things, and that these pointed things merited such urgency that they needed to be summarized in a newscrawl for taxi riders?

I had a choice. “Click OK to terminate the application. Click CANCEL to debug the application,” instructed the Windows box.

An error message on the screen in the back of a taxi cab.

OK to terminate. CANCEL to debug. This wasn’t human language any more than the spaces under elevated train tracks are human spaces. And yet they’re all around us. I read and reread the screen, thought about human, bricks-and-mortar back-to-school shopping at a J.C. Penney in Manchester, NH, in the 1970s.

There’s a certain kind of evocative beauty in these marginalized digital spaces: the Space Jam websites, DoleKemp1996.com, someone’s old Xanga, LiveJournal, Friendster. You see in them both the absurdity and the possibilities of the present digital moment. For a time, I didn’t OK and I didn’t CANCEL. I didn’t do anything. I asked the driver to pull over so I could pick up a handcrafted pomegranate Pinkberryshake.

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