BRAIN TUBA: Fluid Neon Origami Trick (Alive in the Sea of Information)
It took 14 straight hours, plus another hour on the following day, but I made it through. The starting number was 907. That is: webpages I’d bookmarked since approximately October 2008. Like a fella once said: first world problems. But there were all sorts of reasons I’d saved it, and I wanted to file it away properly and make sure I wasn’t missing anything: bits of information I needed for stories, travel, blogs that looked useful, blogs that friends started, videos that I didn’t have time to watch, pages for books I wanted to check out, long-form writing I needed to spend more time with, albums I wanted to hear. The project of going through them turned out to be a sort of archeological dig through the past year-and-a-half of my life.
What surprised me (and, in a way, pleased me) the most—besides reading about super-fetishy record stores in Japan or finding a collection of Napster-era mic-in tracks—was how many links 404ed. That is, how many were utterly dead. For starters, it made my job easier, and I could click “delete” without worrying about what was there. Though Brewster Kahle’s archive.org rushes to log the internet’s always-shifting fabric with their Wayback Machine, that’s hardly an unbreakable solution. Of the five arbitrary 404s I saved, none of them were represented by the Wayback Machine. To be fair, one was a disappeared, album-leaking blogger, and one was an eBay item. But, given eBay’s status as a defacto, consumer-level index of the world’s goods, a well-managed archive of the items that have passed through their public auctions would be a truly useful tool on many levels.
There is a vast perception of the internet as a kind of synthetic memory. And, in the sense that the average human often forgets facts, and lets stories blur into one another, it is maybe reassuring that the internet as a whole, on occasion, displays this natural sense of humanity. This very column, for example, disappears 12 years into my past, month by month, spanning back to a month before my 20th birthday. And while I’m reasonably sure most of this material can still be found somewhere online, it’s not that easy, either.
The internet is as fragile as anywhere on earth. First world problems, but still. Later next month, the Netspace servers, which house many of the early mailing lists that gave way to the jamband community, including phish.net and others, will go off-line permanently. The maintainers of one of the lists, active since 1997, though diminished over the past decade, have lately been discussing whether or not they even want to archive the material. This month (today, in fact), Duke University is shutting down its original Usenet server (the data since folded into Google Groups). We are—as Emeralds put it, cribbing from Gary Snyder—alive in the sea of information.
On good days, it’s like that first moment in William Gibson’s Neuromancer when Case drops into cyberspace—“fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of his distanceless home, his couuntry, transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity”—and it’s a nice way to think about the world, instead of (say) the yucky data-paranoia fantasies of the last Batman movie, or the corporate-info klüsterfuck of the recent Facebook privacy freak-outs. Which isn’t to say that those realities aren’t happening, but it’s more fun to think about our bits passing through the same tubes as everybody else’s, spinning through routers in Malaysia with government communiques, sharing temporary server space with packets of ChatRoulette obscenity, floating through the air between our fingers in the form of a wifi signal. Data is everywhere, and we are data. But we a lot of other things, too. For example, alive in the real world. When I was done, I stepped out into the spring in New York. The Mets lost. It was still nice.