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Digging up the /root

What connects Pong with Toy Story? What connects MacPaint with the World Wide Web? What connects The Lawnmower Man with Baby Cha Cha?

We spoke to /root creator Jim Boulton about digital archaeology and his commission for Digital Revolution, in collaboration with The Space.

While researching Digital Archaeology, I was surprised by the number of connections between projects. Some of these are casual and inconsequential, others profound and far-reaching. The first computer-generated image to appear in a film, Yul Brynner’s pixelated robot-vision in Westworld, was created by John Whitney Jnr, the son of computer animation pioneer John Whitney Snr. Whitney Snr’s programming, Larry Cuba, went on to create the Death Star briefing scene in Star Wars, the first extended use of CGI in a film. Lucasfilm spawned the company that became Pixar, from which we can connect to Atari and Apple via Steve Jobs. This is just one branch of the digital family tree.

In order to investigate and document these connections, Craig Blagg and I created /root, a degenerative algorithm that generates digital bloodlines. Inspired by John Conway’s Game of Life, we created a data-set, wrote the rules and let the computer do the rest.

Each of the approximately 100 digital projects – from iconic creations like Space Invaders and Star Wars to more historical choices like Christopher Strachey’s Love Letters and John Whitney Snr’s Arabesque – is tagged with the artist, designer or technologist they were created by, the companies or institutions they were created at and the projects they were inspired by and went on to inspire. Research institutions and universities are tagged with students and faculty, companies are tagged with founders and employees. The result is a network of nodes that software can investigate and understand. By applying context to information, new connections occur, unexpected discoveries are made and new knowledge is created.

‘root is more than a nostalgic trip into our digital past’

This web of connections is reproduced as a game grid, which the user can explore to discover more about each project. Selecting a project from the grid reveals its digital family. Family members then battle against each other to reveal the dominant bloodline. Parents versus children, brother versus sister, computer art versus computer-generated image, video game versus website. After several round of fights, the strongest of the litter emerges. The computer then identifies up to four projects in the bloodline, from earliest incarnation to most recent manifestation via the dominant and chosen projects.

Like all archaeological projects, root is more than a nostalgic trip into our digital past, it seeks to plug gaps in the historical record, identifying lost and neglected connections. The hope is that by following common denominators, /root will rediscover forgotten pioneers and document their rightful place in history. Free from human bias, the computer narrates its own story.

Start your journey in to digital culture with /root on The Space.