Each medium has its own attitude towards history. Palm fronds, for instance. Indian scribes wrote historical records, folk tales, medical knowledge on palm fronds. The palm frond libraries relied on bureaucracies of scribes to continually transcribe documents, replacing old fronds with new. In the nineteenth century, printing on paper broke the cycle of transcription. Some of the old palm frond libraries are still there, rotting away - hundreds of thousands of texts, never printed, no longer faithfully reproduced. Scholars are now attempting to digitize what remains. When I think about data rot, the gradual degradation of digital information, I think about palm fronds.
Some media form tiny epochs in our lives, like the pet goldfish children bring home from class and neglect to feed. NASA’s original, full-resolution footage of the Apollo 11 moon walk somehow found its way into this category. After the broadcast of Neil Armstrong’s lunar surface operation, NASA filed away the tapes, forgot about them, and later recorded over them, or lost them, or something (no one’s sure exactly). Those SSTV tapes are reusable, and the important thing at the time was the event, live on television.
Other objects we add to a material world that existed before us and will continue to exist after us: cathedrals, obelisks, Ozymandias’s lonely statue, books. An innovation of paper, the one that consigned India’s palm frond libraries to neglect, is its attitude towards the future. Paper can remain readable, without upkeep, for centuries. Books are less dependent on the attention of bureaucracies of scribes. The American philosopher William Ernest Hocking’s library - including first editions of Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, and Locke - sat for a generation in an unwinterized New Hampshire cabin, until its recent move to safer quarters. Paper is low maintenance, it doesn’t have to be capital-intensive to store, and it stands up fairly well to neglect.
Palm frond storage works for bureaucracies with the money and man-power to keep a priesthood of scribes continually transcribing documents before they rot. Digital storage works for bureaucracies with the money and man-power to keep networks of servers up to date. Even then, archivists avoid hard disks for long-term storage. I remember some rather mocking and incredulous articles about the Library of Congress’s decision to archive Twitter on magnetic tape. Magnetic tape? Are you joking? Shelved next to the stack of old holiday specials on VHS? Magnetic tape is indifferent to search; you definitely can’t follow a hashtag on magnetic tape. Though a bad database medium, magnetic tape is a great archival medium: cost-effective, low-maintenance, and reliable. The cognitive dissonance, the weirdness, of archiving tweets on magnetic tape shows how little we think about the internet within a timeframe longer than a few years.
Hard disks are an ephemeral, high-maintenance storage medium that we often treat like a long-term, low-maintenance medium, like paper or oil painting. In the temperature- and humidity-regulated concrete bunker of a major American philanthropy archive, I once asked the archivist how she handled data rot. She recited the catechism of digital archiving best practices: lots of redundancy, devout updates to the latest hardware and software, archival pdf formats. The archive’s director interrupted, chuckling from the other side of the room. An institution, thinking itself tech savvy, digitized its documents, discarded the originals, and sent them off to the archive. Bequests usually come with a stipulation that the materials remain closed, unavailable to researchers, for a specified period of time. Ten years later, the archivist opens the boxes full of forward-thinking 8-inch floppy disks, carefully preserved and labeled. She gasps, I assume, and then starts eBaying various permutations of vintage hardware and software. We all think we know better than this. We have archival pdf formats. I wonder, though, if it isn’t a parable for us. Think about a shoebox full of photos left in a closet for ten years. Now an external hard drive left in a closet for ten years. A cloud storage account forgotten for ten years.
But isn’t the problem with the internet that data sticks around forever? Internet start-ups collect personal information, fail, get parceled out to larger advertising companies like Google, filter-feeding information leviathans. The economy of the internet rests on the foundations of this data, or more accurately, on some combination of current advertising revenue derived from it and (much more important) the indefinitely delayed future possibility of even more ads, even smarter ads, ads like guided missiles targeted to a fraction of an inch. All this information is expensive to store, but it sticks around because of its value to advertisers. The data exists only as long as investors can be convinced to keep the servers online. After that, perhaps the webpages can be passed along to the scribes at archive.org, who duly perform the upkeep as a public service.
Archive.org, then, is our pro-bono army of palm frond-transcribing monks. Even palm fronds, though, have a longer shelf life than hard disks and HTML. Another analogy: the Yale University Art Gallery has in its collection Russian Constructivist sculptures made out of experimental early plastics, which have turned out to be highly chemically unstable. Antoine Pevsner’s 1926 Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, cellulose nitrate on copper with iron, is turning to dust. The conservators made 3D scans of the decomposing sculptures to preserve as much information about them as possible. An archive or museum presents itself as a collection of fairly stable documents and objects, perhaps undergoing periodic conservation. Archive.org takes its name from this reassuring analogy, but it much more closely resembles a last-ditch attempt to conserve a bunch of disintegrating experimental plastics.
As digital becomes a medium of first resort for information storage, this information becomes more expensive to maintain, more centralized, and more fragile. Our histories become more administratively complex. Information that once persisted into the future without major investment, without annual updates and IT staff, will no longer persist. First we had to learn that all the potentially embarrassing, privacy-violating things we put on the internet might be there forever. Now we have to learn that digital information lasts only as long as it earns its keep on the server farm.
Image via Cornell University Library
"Night Scene in the Gobi Desert," a photogravure illustration from The Heart of a Continent: A Narrative of Travels in Manchuria, Across the Gobi Desert, Through the Himalayas, the Pamirs, and Hunza 1884-1894 (1904) by Col. Francis Edward Younghusband, C.I.E.
Mark Rothko, No. 14 (Horizontals, White Over Darks), 1961, oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art.
Image: John Marin, Movement: Sky and Grey Sea, 1941. Collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
The Song dynasty Chinese poet Su Shi lies on his back in a boat:
I greet the breeze that happens along
And lift a cup to offer to the vastness:
How pleasant — that we have no thought of each other!
I like to think of this as Su Shi’s Wildean riposte to Thoreau:
We might try our lives by a thousand simple tests; as, for instance, that the same sun which ripens my beans illumines at once a system of earths like ours. If I had remembered this it would have prevented some mistakes. This was not the light in which I hoed them.
An aphorism for starting grad school last week (the Modern European Studies MA at Columbia):
Freshman year at Yale I did a kind of great books program called Directed Studies. The second author on the syllabus after Herodotus was Thucydides. The week we read the section about the civil war at Corcyra, everyone got really excited about the line, “Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them.” It became this thing people would bring up at every opportunity all the way through the western canon to T.S. Eliot—“This is like Corcyra guys! Words are being given new meanings!”
When I graduated in 2010, the classicist Mary Beard had a review in the NYRB mentioning that the “words had to change their ordinary meaning” passage was an artifact of our 19th century translation. A more accurate rendering would be pretty banal and not at all Orwellian-sounding. I thought that was the end of Thucydides and words changing their ordinary meanings.
Three years later I go to my first political theory seminar at Columbia. The professor brings up the same line and quotes the same 19th century Orwellian-sounding translation. But then he mutters something about how the whole section is apocryphal and wasn’t written by Thucydides.
Anyways, excited to be doing academic work for the near future.
I spent the summer in Southeast Alaska making a video essay as part of the Sitka Fellows Program — here’s my studio, which consisted of an ever-evolving configuration of white pedestals. Not pictured: twisted little alpine trees on mountaintops, estuaries jammed with belly-flopping salmon, swimming at the base of an airport runway, Ben playing drone music at dawn, a smoky bar lined with photos of the boats of the fishermen who frequent it, innumerable Bald Eagles circling overhead. I was looking for a Horned Puffin all summer, but the closest I got was a Rhinoceros Auklet.
In my first few days in Sitka I did a Tedx talk about "How Economic Disparity Has Changed the Art World," which digests and condenses a few things I’ve learned working in art the past couple years. I also got to do an interview on the quirky and awesome local public radio station KCAW (aka Raven Radio).
I exhibited a draft of the video at the end of the fellowship, after a sleepless night sanding down rough spots. I guess I’d describe it as a dérive through Sitka, NYC, and art history? I’ll share it again once I’ve had time to revisit it with refreshed eyes and make revisions.
I was invited to DJ a donut-themed (!) (?) concert at McKibbin last weekend! Played this Metro Area/Giorgio Moroder/Italo Disco set (thanks to Ted for the expert Italo Disco consultation). Got two rather timid requests: “some TLC” and “some real grimy disco.” Actually I thought my disco was pretty grimy already, so I wish I’d asked him to clarify that one.
Dr. Bashford Dean: Curator of Fishes at the American Museum of Natural History, founder of the department of Zoology at Columbia, founding curator of the Metropolitan Museum’s Arms and Armor Department, designer of protective helmets for trench warfare.