07 July 2013

The Art of the Archivist

My friend’s approach to dealing with the accrued data of his life is different to mine: He treats his with reverence; I treat much of mine with cold pragmatism.

This makes little sense. I have experienced the trauma of losing personal-meaning-suffused data when, many years ago, a lightning strike fried my PC and, along with it, the hard-drive containing the sole copies of songs I had written. Losing such data feels a lot like grief, probably because it is grief. You can see such grief in the expressions of those who have lost all their possessions to fire or flood. The rationalist in us may shrug and say, ‘Well, nobody died’; clearly, however, something died – the part of the person that was implicit in their now-destroyed archive.

To a large extent, we take our personal data for granted. It has become easy for us to create (and back-up) vast amounts of it. For some, physical things that cannot be converted into easily-storable binary data have become a burden; for others, an MP3 file could never substitute for a cherished disc of grooved vinyl. But consider, for a moment, the burdens (both physical and metaphorical) of earlier archivists: inscribed stone tablets; purport-laden sheets of carefully-prepared Cyperus papyrus; symbol-etched tree bark, bamboo, bone; ‘illuminated’ codices on parchment of goat skin; and, of course, delicate and easily-corrupted networks of interconnected neurons (present in the brain of the skilled storyteller – in effect, an oral archivist – charged with memorising and relating the history of his/her people).

Ancient archive disasters such as the destruction (by various fires, spaced over hundreds of years) of the Library of Alexandria demonstrate the vulnerability of some of those early systems. Though less vulnerable to complete destruction, well managed modern-day digital archives are still burdensome and, regrettably, still prone to corruption.

For cryonicists like me, the understanding of self as potentially-preservable pattern demands a practical/radical approach to archival. I am my own medium, so my approach to the storage of this particular archive has been to choose a method by which the important parts of the pattern might just survive my death: the cold, radical pragmatism of cryonic suspension. The other practical strand of the required approach (which I have not yet fully addressed) is to do with the archival of the externalised parts of myself – the valued data that I have acquired, created, and sometimes stored, that constitutes my distributed avatar-halo.

An article by Mike Anzis in the April 2013 issue of Cryonics magazine goes into the issues of ‘very long-term storage of personal information and materials’ at length. It’s all delightfully practical. I already knew that the head would be going in the liquid nitrogen ‘box’, but Anzis has the other bases covered too: the physical possessions go in the Alcor storage box; the data archives go onto a Millenniata M-Disc (‘a DVD made out of stone that lasts 1,000 years’), or up to cloud storage services such as Google Drive or SkyDrive. None of this sounds much like encapsulation of an avatar-halo, until, that is, we get to ‘mind files’. LifeNaut and CyBeRev are secure, cloud-based services that allow the user to create a central hub linking together their various online presences, to upload files for secure storage, and to generate (from photos) an avatar that can relay stored information to those granted access to their profile.

My friend already has part of my mind file. Whereas I have misplaced much of the music we created together and the photos taken when we were in a band together, he has kept it all. And he knows where to find it: it is all neatly stored and clearly labelled. Because of his diligence, parts of my life have been preserved that would otherwise have been lost. I admit that I have been careless with my own past, but, paradoxically, that’s not because I don’t care about it; I think it has to do with the fact that the connections to it that remain are painfully tenuous. That’s no excuse, though. I care deeply about the preservation of life, so I should also care deeply about the preservation of the stacked or scattered elements that go together to make a whole one.

Perhaps what is missing from my attitude to archival is the art. My friend feels and knows how to enhance the significance of the objectified data in his hands. For him, a cassette tape containing old songs is more than just that; the spine and the song titles have been inscribed – in his inimitable jagged-pen style – with care, with love, and with moment. He, like other archivists through the ages, makes the object itself, not just the data, radiate significance. This ability to capture meaning and moment is an integral part of his personality. It is what makes him both artist and archivist.

Today is his molybdenum birthday. This piece of writing is my cheapskate gift to him. Happy birthday, Scott. Keep on caring. And keep on keepin’.