1683: Digital Data
Title text: â€œIf you can read this, congratulationsâ€”the archive youâ€™re using still knows about the mouseover textâ€!
Digital information has the potential to be copied such that the copy is 100% identical to the original. While physical media themselves (such as books, or hard drives) and information stored by analog means may degrade as the universe continues, digital information as expressed by specific values, such as combinations of binary zeros and ones, does not decay over time and can be copied indefinitely with no changes.
However, in this comic, Randall points out that while digital information itself doesn't need to degrade, things that are on the Internet are often degraded through copying when the copy is not a 1:1 copy or changes are deliberately introduced. In addition, as technology advances, the method to save or call the information changes and the medium to view it changes, occasionally causing misinterpreted information. (This is also demonstrated with the title text.) As the frames continue, they gain the appearance of images which have been screenshotted repeatedly, with a resulting loss of quality due to compression of the original resolution and JPEG artifacting. (The JPEG format is intended for representing photorealistic grayscale or color images; when misused for line drawings, such as comic strips, any compression artifacts become particularly noticeable, as the background is normally of completely uniform color.) In the last frame, this is taken to an extreme, as the frame appears to have been very sloppily screenshotted off of at least two different smartphones (not the same device that uses the bottom frame in the third panel as the top border in panel four), and the final image is covered both with a watermark from an unregistered screenshot program, as well as references to at least two different web sites: 9GAG (bottom right image) and Tumblr in the web address bottom left. 9GAG is an online platform and social media website where users upload and share content of their own, or of other networks. It is often accused of rehosting other sites' funny content without attribution and adding their own watermark to the image or video.
To further drive the degradation point home, the comic's quality overall seems to worsen over time. The current comic on xkcd.com is of a poorer quality than the saved image on explainxkcd.com. This was noted on 06/18/2018 but could have been happening earlier. As time goes on, the 'real' comic may eventually become unreadable, with only copies such as the one on this page to recall its content.
The title text is seemingly addressed to a reader in the future who will only be able to access xkcd through a digital archive. Digital information might not degrade with time, but it can't be properly displayed without knowledge of the encoding. As new encodings and file formats get developed and old ones abandoned, the webpage format of the comic might not be available in the future, when users would need special archives to view content from today's world. The title text contains seemingly garbage characters, which typically result from data being interpreted according to a character encoding different from the one used to encode it. In this case, the characters are the result of encoding the string “If you can read this, congratulations—the archive you’re using still knows about the mouseover text”! using UTF-8 (which represents non-ASCII Unicode characters as multibyte sequences) and then interpreting the resulting bytes as the still commonly used Windows-1252 encoding (which uses only one byte per character, but utilizes the non-ASCII codepoints for a limited selection of extra letters and symbols such as "â" or "€"). This shows that degradation of digital data through conversions isn't restricted to images. Furthermore, as screen navigation moves away from the mouse toward touch, voice recognition, and modes still to be implemented, mouseover text will itself become archaic.
- [Cueball and a White Hat are walking, Cueball holds both hands in front of him palms up.]
- Cueball: The great thing about digital data is that it never degrades.
- [They walk on in the next panel which shows jpeg compression artifacts, as if the image had been converted from png format to a lossy jpeg format.]
- Cueball: Hard drives fail, of course, but their bits can be copied forever without loss.
- [They continue walking in the third panel which is now clearly pixelated, the white is slightly discolored, and it contains part of the interface of some program, probably supposed to be a screen shot from a smartphone. At the bottom there are three blue buttons and one gray. the first is a blue "<" indicating back in a browser. Then a grayed out ">" that is not active. And then three more standard buttons in blue to the right of those two. The interface matches that of an iPhone running Safari in iOS 9 (or other versions with the same Safari UI (probably iOS 7-9))]
- Cueball: Film degrades, paint cracks, but a copy of a century-old data file is identical to the original.
- [Still walking, now Cueball holds out both arms to the sides, and finally White Hat replies. This panel is heavily pixelated and discolored and has a distorted aspect ratio. It contains a clear watermark of 9GAG (although difficult to read all letters in the end of the first word), even more 'frame' elements, and text above the image at the bottom (where the last letter is obscured by the frame of the image). There is also an internet address at the bottom left, but it is not readable except for the .tumblr.com ending. In this panel it is clear that it is a screen shot from a smart phone. The frame around the image obscure the very top of Cueball's text and the half of the last letter in White Hat's reply.]
- Cueball: If humanity has a permanent record, we are the first generation in it.
- White Hat: Amazing
- Watermark: Screenshotpro 2
- Watermark: ~Unregistered~
- Top border: Verizon LTE 4:45 PM
- Bottom text [slightly cut off]: 9GAG
- Internet address at the bottom [nearly unintelligible]: [ama].tumblr.com
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