the Massive Archive (“I have forgotten my umbrella” & tweeted about it)

I have argued elsewhere against the futility of the Infinite Archive – as expressed through various projects, many of them by google (like the desire to scan and digitize every book ever). But the futility of the Infinite Archive is built into the dream: its being is its perpetually unfinished becoming. The problem is thus not with the Infinite Archive (that at least can be thought and conceived. The problem, rather is with the Massive Archive.

Human beings can think infinity. We can grasp the concept. Sure there are vagaries that escape some and nuances that escape others. We are not all mathemagicians. But the infinitesimal and the massively massive are much more difficult entering into impossible. There are not infinite grains of sand on a beach. Planck length can be grasped mathematically but conceptually? As numbers approach the massively huge and minusculely small, we humans lose the ability to fully grasp their meaning.

Why does this matter? How does this relate to the archival project? Consider, if you will, the process of collecting the libraries, works, letters, files, papers, and documents of the notable. Various libraries and universities pride themselves on the collections that they possess and the research potential of those archives can, indeed, be tremendous. But what will happen to the collected papers of a contemporary figure? For some, it may be little different. But what about those who maintain a significant digital and social media presence? Who conduct research, writing, & public speech, etc. through those various platforms and the platforms to come? Will their archives necessarily include their Twitter feeds? What about deleted tweets? Saved but unpublished blog post drafts? The value of these archives is that they often include personal documents but how will we decide which private messages and private feeds are to be archived? How many of the endless stream of digital photos saved in ever cheaper digital storage? What part of our search histories (even the ones on incognito?)? Ironic and/or informative hashtags? Location data? What portion of the cloud? Will the NSA contribute what they have gathered?

The personal archive of a contemporary individual is not infinite. But the process of archiving a digital life in order that it might be useful and meaningful for later generations is going to involve a whole new form of culling and curation. Because surely keeping everything would make the archive unwieldy, spoiled for riches and thus starving because of its own excess. How can Nietzsche’s laundry lists compare to Istagramming our meals? But who decides what is archived and what is left to the digital landfill? Who decides which fragments and feeds might be relevant in a century or two? And what would that deciding look like?

There remains hope that the metadata of the future might resolve this issue down the line (for those down the line) but since the process of attaching appropriate metadata to current archiving and digitization projects is so complex and time-consuming at present, one wonders if that will provide much help to the present. One can conceive of a search capable of “finding what we are looking for” but is there a practical way of implementing such a vision? Keywords and tags are useful but certainly flawed.

Perhaps the solution lies in curation, perhaps in improved metadata, maybe in some really cool thing that I don’t even know about, but the issue of the Massive Archive remains and remains to be solved. And now, this.