Rupert's world

Digital dust & decay

We often think things like "dust" or "decay" as downsides of the physical world. One big benefit of cloud computing is that nothing decays – your data is stored forever, ethereally, somewhere out there.

But decay, dust, disintegration — they are all vital to understanding the state of our physical world.

* * *

Back in 2019, when I was working at Google, I was taking a walk down one of the wharves alongside our Sydney office. I came across a portion of the boardwalk that had just been replaced. Planks of wood have this great latent data-visualisation feature: by default, they display how old they are, and indicate when they need replacing or updating.

An image of planks on a boardwalk, half clean and new, and half old and dirty

I thought – imagine if web content did that?

To a certain extent, of course, it does already. Links "rot" (fantastic terminology btw), designs go off-trend and then weirdly become hip again.

But I'm interested in how intentional decay & dustiness has made its way in our interfaces, how incorporating a very anti-tech part of the natural world can make our computer interactions more sensible to humans.

* * *

A few examples I've stumbled across over the years:

1) Web developer Chris Coyler wrote a wonderful article about how to show readers that a piece of documentation was ageing and no longer relevant.

One of his solutions: having pages without recent updates start to decay organically over time, with words blurring and eventually falling off.

Words on a website blurring and decaying over time

2) Artist Zach Gage's Temporary.cc (now fully degraded – it's just a blank page), is another take on this idea. But instead of decaying over time, his website decays with use, like an old shoe that starts to fall apart on a long hike.

From Zach's portfolio:

Temporary.cc eschews this paradigm. For each unique visitor it receives, Temporary.cc deletes part of itself; a single character from its own code. These deletions change the way browsers understand the website's code and create a unique (de)generative piece after each new user. Because each unique visit produces a new composition through self-destruction, Temporary.cc can never be truly indexed, as any subsequent act of viewing could irreparably modify it.

3) The idea of collecting dust has been used in mainstream tools like Trello for a while, with cards crumbling and ageing when they haven't been used in a while.

4) Nattyware had a prototype app back in 2004 that covers all unused items in the desktop with a fine layer of dust.

5) A new read-it-later app Alfread asks you to blow off the dust from articles you've had on your digital to-read pile for too long:

* * *

Our physical world is the original interface. It makes sense that even the less-technologically-savoury parts of it give us important cues about what's going on. Let's bring the messy, mouldy, decaying bits of real life into our digital world.

Dust is dead, long live dust.