There's a post that's been sitting here in draft form for months that I think may never see the light of day. I can't find the right words to finish it. In short, I found the files from my students.uiuc.edu website on a backup disk. They were gone—I must have deleted them to save space—but they survived. It was a lucky break to find them because they weren't captured on the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine. Trust me. I spent hours looking for evidence of that site, and other sites I had created on the 90s internet. I don't understand what that period causes so much tension when I think about it; see also: AOL Instant Messenger Is Away. It's silly, but that piece bleeds.
I'm going to leave that all alone for now—if I finish it, I finish it. If not, well, so what?
Recently I read two disparate articles that made me think of this terminal draft piece:
- Michael Engelhard, Moving Pictures from the Permafrost, Utne Reader (Fall 2018)
- David Bixenspan, When the Internet Archive Forgets, Gizmodo (2018-11-28)
Both articles struck a hidden nerve. Why? First, an urge I can't explain except to say that I have it and it's there: the urge to preserve information. It feels awful to lose it—whether it's Brazil's national museum burning down or reading about the destruction of all but a literal handful of Mesoamerican records by the Spanish or old, old books that we know about today only because they are referred to in other books... It feels like a personal thing lost when collective information like that is obliterated. Knowing something—really really knowing something—feels like a permanent state that can't be erased, and when it is erased, it's like cutting out a load-bearing column.
The permafrost article is about finding a cache of old, forgotten movies from 1903 to 1929 in an old, forgotten, filled-in gym swimming pool in Alaska. The Internet Archive article is sort of the opposite: the Internet Archive itself is a remembered cache of media—but if you have the lawyer money to make an inconvenient part of that cache disappear, you can do so.
There is something about media—movies, books, the internet— that seems permanent. If I can see something and you can see something and others can see something, then that's permanent, right? We can objectively say that a thing exists and has always existed and will always exist, right? I really think that is an obvious and natural position to take. But after searching for my own recent, once-publicly-available history, I know it's not right. A thing exists if it exists; but a thing that existed without currently existing... the problem is different.
I've seen dinosaur bones but not a dinosaur: I believe dinosaurs existed. I've never seen any people on the moon but I believe they were there. Thousands of movies were made in the 1900s but are now lost, and I believe they existed, but it really seems that something as compact and portable as a movie should have been preserved. But that's not the case, eh? Dig in: Paul Harris, Library of Congress: 75% of Silent Films Lost, Variety (2013-12-04).
Why does it matter that we existed? That we created something?
Stephen Crane (1899):
A man said to the universe:
"Sir I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."
What does the universe know anyway? Most people consume. I consume. There's no need to record consumption. But creation? Record that. Protect that. Creating something is holy. Being human is more than who you are and what you have. It's the aggregation of the entire body of work.
See also: Paul Auster, Leviathan (1992)