Gone in a Flash: Amazing content that lives on only in memory

‘Welcome to Pine Point’ was, for me, a hallmark moment in the evolution of digital storytelling. Funded by the National Film Board of Canada and made by Michael Simons and Paul Shoebridge, this web based factual experience told the story of Pine Point, a small town in the Canadian northwest  that was built to purpose by a mining company. When the mine’s seam was exhausted, the town wasn’t just abandoned – it was packed up and erased from the landscape. All that remained were memories.

The documentary told Pine Point’s story in the form of a virtual scrapbook. The experience was intensely moving, visceral and personal, combining grainy photos, old home movies and shared memories with the author’s point of view. The work was widely acclaimed, influencing me and many other storytellers, and earned a bucketful of awards. And then one day, like the town that was its subject, it was gone.

You see, ‘Welcome to Pine Point’ was made with Flash, Adobe’s brilliant programming language, which was also not just abandoned by its corporate master, but switched off entirely. Luckily for ‘Pine Point’, the NFB funded a native app iteration of the experience, so the work lives on in a revised form.  But with the end of Flash, a vast swathe of the world’s best interactive creativity has been lost, and will live on like the town of Pine Point only in the memory of its users, or in old screen grabs or video walkthroughs.

This was brought home to me when I went looking for examples of my work for BBC Children’s from 2008 to 2011.  Almost all of it was made in Flash.  After 2011, the platform shifted to HTML5 or Unity for interactive experiences, and the old work was decommissioned.  This is a new experience for me.  I have an archive in the back of a closet full of master tapes, floppy discs, zip drives and other formats that I can’t easily access.  I even have cans of 16mm film in there, gathering dust.  But if I was determined to find something – and no-one had already posted it online – I could probably find it with enough time and money.  But the Flash work of a whole generation of game makers, designers, animators, storytellers is just… gone.  

Loss of creative endeavour and human knowledge is hardly new.  Let’s recall the history of Papyrus, the ancient Egyptian’s back up hard copy of their narrative:

It is difficult to overstate the importance of papyrus in the history and development of writing. In a way, the invention of papyrus marked the beginning of the globalization of documentation and the literary form. Before papyrus, writing was a skill reserved for a very small minority and often came in the form of at most a few sentences on a fragment of clay or piece of leather. With the papyrus scroll, the Western world gained a standard surface on which it could create and document. The scroll fostered the creation and survival of some of the world’s most influential documents, ranging from some of the first fixed law codes to the important literary works of Rome’s brightest minds.

  • Dartmouth Ancient Books Lab

Unfortunately, Papyrus tended to develop mould and rot in wet conditions, or simply crumble to dust if it got too dry – never mind the unfortunate fire at the library of Alexandria which consumed half the existing scrolls of the time.  Only the lucky few documents, made more important as much by their survival as by their content, were transferred first to parchment made of animal skin, then to paper, and now to code.  But in this modern age where received wisdom is that nothing is lost and we need the right to be forgotten, the escalating rate of obsolescence makes it inevitable that huge quantities of work will disappear.

Is there a bright side to this?  I know there’s work I’ve done that I’d be perfectly happy for no one to see again.  But there’s more that I suspect is better than I thought it was at the time – I’d like the chance to find out.  It’s like the best photo is always the shot that got away – a phenomenon photographers of the old school will recognise from those moments when the film stock or the equipment ruined a frame.

I recently was thinking about a project I wrote many years ago.  It was an ambitious mixed media sitcom.   I pitched the concept to a studio, got a development deal, and wrote a mini bible and multiple drafts of a pilot script.  Eventually, the studio passed and the project went into turnaround, the rights reverting to me.  I put it in a drawer – the studio had pushed the drafts in a direction I didn’t  like, and I knew the concept would be expensive to produce with existing technology.  When I decided last week to take another look at it, twenty years and four house moves across two continents later, I realised I had no idea where it was.  Not the hard copies, not digital drafts, not the notes.   I could spend weeks trawling for pages and discs in boxes, but there was no guarantee I’d find it.  So I’ve decided to start afresh.  Better not to be reminded of the parts that failed, and just build on the bits that have stood the test of time in memory and continue the journey of the idea.  Certainly, Simons and Shoebridge’s journey back to Pine Point gave the memory of that community another life, and even a resurrection after digital death.  I’ll let you all know how my own journey of memory turns out.

It reminds me of Proust’s Madeleine.  What’s better – the madeleine itself or the memory of it?

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