Source: Telling, counting, and temporal perspectives

In a thoroughly insightful essay on the relationship between telling (erzählen) and counting (zählen), German media theorist Wolfgang Ernst describes how historical narratives have developed over time.1 The earliest historical narratives were written in the form of annals, with one event following another. This genre persisted in the West from antiquity through the middle ages, but intellectual developments in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment slowly gave form to the discipline we now know as history. The historian not only recounts events in a chronology, but also seeks to explain why one event led to another, and thus how the past serves as the precedent for the present. As Ernst suggests: “chronology may supply order in the temporal arrangement of events, but it does not supply explicit patterning, and that is what separates proper history from chronicles and annals.”2 For Ernst though, the etymological link between telling and counting is suggestive of a deeper connection between these two acts of writing the past. Telling, or re-counting, still involves a kind of adding up of past events, even if these become embedded in a broader narrative structure.

For digital art historians, keeping this connection in mind is important, as digital means for telling historical narratives rely more and more on counting-based techniques. The timeline is an prominent and accessible digital tool, with many free and easy to use services available, such as Timeline JS or TimeMapper. These tools operate by drawing upon a database or spreadsheet of events, putting entries from the spreadsheet into interactive and aestheticized end products that can be embedded in blogs, websites, or digital journal articles. In form and structure, the database is perhaps closer to the annals or chronicles of antiquity than it is more recent historians’ accounts, and yet these database-fueled timelines are used to illustrate histories in the modern sense. Ernst certainly does not set up telling and counting as a hard and fast dichotomy, and we should not feel compelled to pursue one at the expense of the other. In many ways, digital scholars are developing new ways of writing history that integrate modes of telling and counting simultaneously. Still, it can be useful to schematize the ways in which we write history, or scholarship more generally, and try to place these within the broader field of intellectual activity, across both time and space. Ernst is motivated to historicize the act of writing history itself, and this kind of perspective can help us as digital scholars to strengthen, bolster, and better define our scholarly activities.

For my own timeline, I decided to create a history of digital storage media, starting with pre-computer precedents of data storage and moving to the present day. I got the idea to pursue this project based on research I’m currently engaged with regarding new media art, and building upon the work of Matt Kirschenbaum in the book Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. In this book, Kirschenbaum argues that the analysis of new media art has to look beyond what’s happening on the screen, and also pay attention to the material technologies that the work is using, including hard drives, specific operating systems, etc. Reading this book got me interested in the history of storage media. Although we don’t necessarily think about these things when we are transferring files to an external hard drive or putting material for a presentation onto a USB drive, these storage technologies have a rich history, and have developed in response to market forces, the work of previous researchers, and so on.

Establishing a history for these storage media, then, can greatly help research into new media art, providing a material context within which different works operated over time. Was an artwork originally distributed on a floppy disk? A particular web browser? These questions not only have an impact on how a work might be interpreted, but are also hugely important for the preservation of the work. Indeed, I’m learning more and more that interpretive and contextualizing activities for new media art cannot be separated from preservation activities—with new media art, the work of critic, curator, and archivist all intermingle. At the center of these activities is a necessary attention to the material aspects of new media art. As more and more new media art (hopefully) enters museums, galleries, art history curricula, and text books, a strong sense of the history of digital technology will need to develop as a corollary to these practices. In the history of painting, it would be a grave mistake to conflate watercolor and tempera, and equally so it would be a critical error to confuse work on a CD-ROM with work on a floppy.

Although this timeline was mostly just an exercise, I do think it demonstrates the potential for this kind of resource on a museum website in conjunction with a digital art collection or as part of a course pack for a class on digital art. I tried to focus on the introduction of different storage media, but I could also envision a similar time with a much finer grained level of detail, outlining the number of different research advances that all contributed to the hard disk drive, for example. Another interesting addition could be to intersperse different digital artworks into this history, demonstrating how innovative artworks responded to and utilized the newest technologies. This could open up a huge variety of potential research questions: how do the form, structure, and content of digital artworks change as storage media grow more capacious? Following Kirschenbaum, the variety and depth of research questions for new media art greatly expands when you are no longer just interested in the look, feel, and functionality of the digital artwork, but also begin to investigate the artists’ and artworks’ intersections with the historical development of technologies.


[1] Wolfgang Ernst, “Telling versus Counting,” in Digital Memory and the Archive (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 147-157.

[2] Ibid., 152.