The invention of digital images
Computers started as a text-based media. The ability to render and display graphics needed to be invented; it was not a native feature of the hardware. Even after the computer became graphical, the internet and web browsers needed to also display its own graphics. Lisa Nakamura was quoted as saying:
“In 1995 Netscape Navigator, the first widely popular graphical Web browser … initiated popular use of the Internet and, most importantly, heralded its transformation from a primarily textual one to an increasingly and irreversibly graphical one”.
Traditional images were constrained by the size of the page and the colors available for printing. Those boundaries limited the preservation and storage issues that come from maintaining items for future users. Digital images have fewer restrictions. Nothing illustrates this point better than webcomics, which have evolved beyond the 3-panel comic in the newspaper to become tall, wide, many-paneled, full-colored, or even animated (The Rise of Webcomics).
You can Photoshop that, right?
Everyone knows the old saying, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. Images spread easier and faster than a blog post and are, therefore, more useful as a tool for social commentary (Is Photoshop Remixing the World?). Those digital images helped create something that is shaping the modern world: the internet meme.
However, there cannot exist an internet meme without the software to create said meme. One specific paint program, Microsoft Paint, was once described in one article as, “The graphics program that was most available during more than a decade of intensifying internet usage and meme production, the period from 1995–2007, was one inherited directly from the painting methods and tools of the 1980s”.
MS Paint was originally marketed solely as a way to sell more operating systems at a time when Microsoft Windows did not come standard on a computer. It was designed to get people interested in buying Windows to do more with their computer. Nowadays, MS Paint has been overshadowed by newer, more specialized image manipulation programs, such as Photoshop, Illustrator, and many others.
“The convergence of MS Paint’s ubiquity, with the rise of Nakamura’s ‘increasingly and irreversibly graphical’ internet, produced the circumstances under which MS Paint helped produce a visual, participatory, and online culture. This software was the graphics program most readily available and easy to use at the moment the internet took its graphical turn.”
But why call the program ‘Paint’? The word means many different things depending on the context. In home improvement, it means the stuff you put on wall, or other things, to change their color and make them look better. To an artist, it means to use that same material to create something wonderful that expresses something. To a visual effects artist, it means to remove something from a video. To a computer, it is how the image is created.
There are two ways to create an image on a computer – through vectors or bitmaps. A vector image is math-based compared to a bitmap image, which is pixel-based. Vector images are a series of instructions on how to re-create, or draw, the image through creating lines or arcs between set points. Bitmaps are a pixel-by-pixel record of what the individual points of an image are. Vector-based programs, usually with ‘Draw’ in the name, were marketed towards businesses due to the precise way they created the images. Bitmaps, with their free range of expression, were sold to the general public as ‘Paint’ programs.
Copy of a copy of a copy…
In addition to what is created digitally, people have enjoyed taking pictures since the first camera was invented. This article points out that digital cameras have allowed people to take more pictures in two minutes than were taken in the 1800s. Before the internet, the vast majority of the pictures taken was never seen by anyone other than the photographer and their friends and family.
Now, the internet allows one to share their images more easily, directly to people they know or through social media to the world, and photo-editing software, like Photoshop, is ubiquitous. But, with all those copies in different locations, which is the copy that should be preserved? What is the original, or final, version? Or should everything be kept? What about derivative works?
The argument between those that say ‘keep everything since storage is cheap’ and ‘curated collections’ will probably never finish. However, it has become easier to keep everything than to cull it, as there is too much stuff to go through in any amount of time (Digital Copies and a Distributed Notion of Reference in Personal Archives).