12 March 2023
Issue 44 Erasing the Archive
I’ve always been a total nerd about my work setup. I have custom-made rubber stamps for my notebooks and treat pencils like cult objects. Most days I work at a standing desk for hours. And that desk is not really a desk, but a bar table that my mother made out of a tree. The desk/tree is not the only unusual thing about my workspace. I also use a keyboard that is split into two parts. So, when the company that makes that nerdy keyboard got in touch to ask if they could profile me, of course I said yes.
When preparing for the profile, I checked out the other folks they’d profiled — and you should also at the link I’m about to give you. It’s fascinating how people work, what they use to work, and where they work. Have a look at my work set up and check out some others.
A while back, I read a story by Julieta Singh called No Archive Will Restore You. Part essay, part memoir, it was a meditation on memory, self, and how we project our history onto our body. I began to wonder what would happen if the archive were erased, bit by bit. The archive is not the past. It is the instrument that determines the future. I have an essay about that for you, and here it is.
I always assumed that publishing on the internet was a lot like owning your own printing press. You could spin up a story or any other kind of digital media, and it would last forever in electronic form.
Soon enough, I was proven wrong about that.
For example, when I commissioned the website for Future of Food, I imagined it would be an archive of food stories written by me and others. It would have the transcripts of every episode of the Future of Food Podcast and you could “click to play” to listen to and read any episode on demand.
Then one day, the site, which was built on WordPress, broke. Crucial plugins stopped working and wouldn’t update. The site designer, with whom I’d worked closely over many months, got another job and didn’t respond to my emails. He was the only one who could fix the Future of Food site, because it was custom made. Now, it, and my idea of an archival story hub, was dead.
I moved most, but not all, of the Future of Food blogs over to the new FutureX site and relinked all the podcast media there. I built FutureX myself, on Squarespace. I thought, hey, Squarespace is rock solid and I know everything about this site because I made it myself.
Then one day, the Squarespace platform changed, and the change Squarespace’s designers made left me behind. Suddenly, the FutureX site didn’t work so well. It didn’t do what I needed it to do. The decision was hard, but I decided to migrate FutureX from the old 7.0 Squarespace over to the new 7.1 Squarespace. I left some material behind, breaking the archive again.
You get the theme? I put my material out on platforms that I didn’t control and the platform owner decided to make a change and broke my archive.
Before this, I hadn’t thought very much about broken archives. Photographs last hundreds of years. You can still look at them if you hang them on your wall. But then again, I have boxes of 35mm slides but no slide projector, and I used to have a lot of records, until I got rid of my record player.
I have photos from my world travels on digital drives that don’t plug into anything, because they are FireWire 1.0 drives. I have DVDs but no DVD player. We have a big box of CDs in the closet. My wife and I had a kind of pre-marriage in India, and I put all the wedding pictures on Flickr, then lost them for ten years because Flickr was sold, and the new owners didn’t honor my password.
You’d think that I’d learn, wouldn’t you? The owners of the platform do what they want.
I’ve started to appreciate (even more!) the printed book, and formatting languages like Markdown that can store things in TXT files that are easily read. Non-proprietary formats are starting to look like gold, because when the maker of the gadget goes out of business, I can still access my media somewhere. (RSS, you are my friend.)
Now, let’s say one day you turn on your Kindle, and a book you had on there is gone. This is not a what-if scenario.
In 2009, Amazon decided that some editions of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm violated copyright law, so it disappeared them from user’s Kindles. Poof, just like that, a book about centralized control and censorship was gone, removed by a centralized authority. Annalee Newitz reported this story in Gizmondo, writing that “Amazon revealed how easy censorship will be in the Kindle age.” The books were being sold on Amazon’s platform by a company that didn’t own the copyright, and when the rights owner heard about it, they asked Amazon to remove the titles.
As Newitz writes, “Amazon decided to erase them not just from the store, but from all the Kindles where they’d been downloaded.”
Could it happen again? Let’s just say that when you read on an Amazon device, you are doing so at Amazon’s pleasure.
One more scenario for you. Once a book is published, it becomes part of a moment in time, right? Can’t be changed. But a publisher of the edgy author Roald Dahl decided that since Dahl’s books were written a while ago, they needed some updating. His depictions of characters were racist, sexist, and ableist, and not the sort of prose kids should read.
Ed Cumming reported in The Telegraph:
“Remember the Cloud-Men in James and the Giant Peach? They are now the Cloud-People. The Small Foxes in Fantastic Mr Fox are now female. In Matilda, a mention of Rudyard Kipling has been cut and Jane Austen added. It’s Roald Dahl, but different.”
The modern editor of Dahl, writes Cumming, faces a dilemma: “how to retain Dahl’s compelling spikiness, which has enthralled generations of readers, while bringing it in line with the hair-trigger sensitivities of children’s publishing.”
You can draw a straight line from a modern publisher deciding that Dahl needs a clean up, to Amazon pulling Orwell from your Kindle because it doesn’t like the copyright arrangement, to my websites becoming non-archival, to me having no way to play a CD. In every case, the creator of the material is no longer in charge of their work. The distribution system is its own kind of creator, because distribution technology determines everything now. No CD player? Sorry. Want your book to stay on your Kindle? Only if Amazon says okay.
We depend on public libraries to freely distribute books. You don’t need much technology to enjoy that freedom; just a library card. But parents in Texas are demanding that their libraries remove The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, and books that deal with sex, gender, and sexuality.
You can call that censorship, but I am starting to think of it as an erasure of the archive. Those who control the archive control the future. If you want to control what will happen next, a sure way to do it is to wipe away what came before.
Thanks for reading,
(c) Lee Schneider 2023. Take care of each other. Subscribe.