Essay: John Douglas Millar considers the social and political implications of the archive from classical antiquity to the present day, rasing new questions around technology and capitalism as spiritual experience
"Myth is already Enlightenment and Enlightenment reverts to mythology." - Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1944
Founded in the fourth century BC within the Mouseion — a shrine to the Muses that also housed expansive botanical gardens, a zoo, dissecting rooms and an observatory — the Library of Alexandria was a vast repository of knowledge for the Ptolemaic civilisation that then dominated the Mediterranean. Its founding librarian, Demetrius, employed huge teams of scribes and translators to copy manuscripts loaned from other collections, or impounded from ships entering the city’s harbour. At its peak, the library is thought to have contained some 700,000 manuscripts. However, six centuries after it was founded the library was consumed by a series of fires, destroyed along with the civilisation that had produced it. A most heady smoke drifts down the centuries.
In his essay Experience and Poverty written in the early 1930’s the German philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin offers a sorry diagnosis of the state of European culture. Benjamin’s native Germany was collapsing into collective psychosis as Hitler’s National Socialists began the final stage of their rise to power and Benjamin, in exile on Ibiza, writes gloomily of the spiritual poverty of his time: “We have given up one portion of the human heritage after another” he writes, “and have often left it at the pawnbrokers for a hundredth of its true value, in exchange for the small change of ‘the contemporary.’” This impoverishment of experience is in direct correlation with the rise and spread of new technologies and modes of communication that promise utopia while in actuality offering up the very means of enslavement and annihilation. Benjamin writes of “the horrific mishmash of styles and ideologies produced during the last century”, a maelstrom and swamping glut of information and ideas resulting in a culture “divorced from experience” or where “experience is simulated or obtained by underhand means.”1 Almost ninety years later one might ask, after Benjamin, what kind of experience is possible during the particular phase of developed capitalism through which we are living? A phase that in its totality perhaps even Benjamin could not have foreseen. What kind of compromised subjectivity does the instant and hyper-connected culture technologically facilitated and ideologically spun from within the web of Silicone Valley produce? And what are the social and political consequences?
The mainstream media regularly bewails the effects of digital technology on concentration, memory and child development while itself growing increasingly tourettic and hyperactive in its click baiting, rendering itself both symptom and cause.2 If the conditions of a functioning democracy are a live public sphere based on clear information and debate grounded by a semblance of historical consciousness then is the monadic and a-historical Web ‘consumer’ undermining the very conditions of participation? Given the appallingly truth-absent and anti-intellectual timbre of the recent Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom and the rise of the demagogue Donald Trump in the U.S it is hard to disagree with the art historian Hal Foster when he writes that over the long twentieth century the chimerical but nonetheless necessary notion of the public sphere was “effectively overwhelmed by the publicity of mass media, not to mention the management of political opinion”. The digital revolution has only accelerated the demise of something that, even if it never really existed in fact, is now almost impossible to conceive of in thought: “As the sociologist Talcott Parsons argued long ago, social integration is not required if system integration is achieved, and with routine surveillance and big data that goal seems all but met.”3 Ours, it seems, is an abject and broken body politic. However, a frail rejoinder to this argument says that the new connectivity in fact offers resources for a new and radical model of participatory democracy. After all, those who produce and police technology cannot always foresee its outcomes. Jesus spread the doctrine that would bring down Rome by walking along the roads that Rome built.
In any case, clearly these questions are neither new nor original. Indeed the question of the relation between knowledge, technology and memory, at least in the Western philosophical tradition, can be traced back to Socrates’ discussion in Plato’s Phaedrus of the technology of writing and its deleterious effects on memory and therefore, according to Socrates, on knowledge. The same anxieties surrounded the creation of the Gutenberg printing press in the fifteenth century, and, more recently media theorists such as Friedrich Kittler have traced the tussling to and fro of technology and subjectivity in modernity. Nevertheless, the rise of the web has refocused these debates and rendered them vital. Given the contemporary prevalence of these anxieties and preoccupations it is not surprising that the archive and archive studies have become increasingly ubiquitous areas of academic and cultural focus within the humanities over the past two decades. The archive has increasingly come to be seen as a site of cultural and political contestation, the place where the historical consciousness necessary for the formation of political and anthropological communities is located. There has been a dramatic rise in the founding of archives devoted to feminist, queer and minority cultures. Contemporary art has become, to a very significant degree, a culture of the archive both in terms of actual artistic production and in terms of curatorial practice. The positive reading of this development says that it is based on an interpretation of Benjaminian theory where remaindered objects from the past can become charged with historical and political valences in the present. The less favourable reading, such as that made by the philosopher Peter Osborne, suggests that the paucity of serious contemporary artistic production leads to museums seeking that seriousness in the relic status and historical weight of the archival document.
In contemporary art and other fields there have been attempts to consider the Internet itself in archival terms. The conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith for his project Printing out the Internet asked people to print out web pages and send them to a gallery in Mexico City, while the hashtag #SAVETHEWEB aims to draw attention to the need to preserve digital material for future generations. The most interesting and symptomatic manifestation of digital archive fever though is to be found in a neo-classical colonnaded building in the suburbs of San Francisco and it is called, simply, The Internet Archive.
In their well-known essay The Californian Ideology (1995)4 the media theorists Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron presented an unlikely “collision of right-wing neo-liberalism, counter- culture radicalism and technological determinism.” Writing in the mid-nineties Barbrook and Cameron were still able to map two alternative cultures on the verge of radical symbiosis since the shreds of the libertarian but politically left anarchist elements of the tech revolution were still blowing around in the deserts. Writing twenty years later the victory of the right wing model where libertarian equates most directly to liberal free markets seems almost complete. Barbrook and Cameron described this model in the following terms:
In this version of the Californian Ideology, each member of the 'virtual class' is promised the opportunity to become a successful hi-tech entrepreneur. Information technologies, so the argument goes, empower the individual, enhance personal freedom, and radically reduce the power of the nation-state. Existing social, political and legal power structures will wither away to be replaced by unfettered interactions between autonomous individuals and their software. These restyled McLuhanites vigorously argue that big government should stay off the backs of resourceful entrepreneurs who are the only people cool and courageous enough to take risks. Indeed, attempts to interfere with the emergent properties of technological and economic forces, particularly by the government, merely rebound on those who are foolish enough to defy the primary laws of nature. The free market is the sole mechanism capable of building the future and ensuring a full flowering of individual liberty within the electronic circuits of Jeffersonian cyberspace.
The Internet Archive is the perfect material manifestation of the tensions inherent to the California Ideology. On the one hand it seems to represent a socially progressive commitment to education and the notion of the public sphere. Its website maintains that the founders of the archive realised that humanity might be about to enter another “dark age” as the historical record of our time was lost in dead servers. It also rebukes the claims towards universality of access promulgated by hegemonic content providers such as Google. For example The Internet Archive’s tech entrepreneur founder Brewster Kahle has criticised Google’s book digitisation programme for limiting access and as such has set up his own digitisation project that, he claims, will be fully accessible to any individual or organisation. The Internet Archive is funded via donations but also through commercial web-scouring and indexing work that it does on behalf of clients. At present the archives servers contain more than 15 petabytes of information and growing. However, in a sense it is not the project of indexing and retrieval that is so interesting, it is the motivation and the aesthetic and symbolic features of actual material place that are so fascinating and that reveal something intrinsic about our present moment. Chroniclers of the Bay Area, whether in fiction or historical record, find its rise over the Twentieth Century comparable only to the most profound historical antecedents; Periclean Athens, Ptolemaic Alexandria or the Florence of the cinquecento5, and not just chroniclers, there is as belief in Silicone Valley’s exceptionalism amongst its new priesthood. This new ‘cradle of innovation’ represents what Benjamin would have called the dream-work of an era, the very core of the mythic, a combustible fusion of the forces of rationalism and irrationalism that spanned and scarred the last century. As such the minutiae of its objects and cabals are worth detailed investigation since they might be made to reveal some of the social truths of the present age. If we pour the dye of critique into the veins of Silicon Valley perhaps we will be presented with the circulatory system and nerve structure of our own contemporary moment.
The Internet Archive, as noted, is situated in a neo-classical building, has its own heraldry and its web indexing arm is named Alexa after Alexandria, the city that housed the famous library of antiquity (As Benjamin noted the new must always define itself in terms of a relation with the ancient). Indeed the only mirror and back up for the Internet Archive is at the Bibliotecha Alexandrina, the new library in Alexandria that opened in 2012. This web scouring arm was sold to Amazon, (another name that invokes antiquity) for 250 million in stocks. One has to ask whether what Amazon intends to do with the knowledge it gains from this tool will be to the universal benefit of mankind and the opening up of knowledge to all? Workers who have worked at the archive for a given length of time have a garden gnome like statue of themselves produced and housed in the archive building. These objects are at once both hilariously kitsch and horrifically creepy. One imagines them at night amongst the whirr and flashing LED lights of the servers. In their dreams of our digital past can we read our nightmare future?
1 Walter Benjamin ‘Experience and Poverty’ in Selected Writings: Vol 2, Part 2, 1931-1933 edited by Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith, (Belknap Press: Cambridge MA, 1999) pp. 731-737.
2 A few recent examples:
‘Are Tablet Computers Harming Our Children’s Ability to Read’ The Guardian, 24.08.2015. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/aug/24/tablets-apps-harm-help-children-read
‘The Internet: Is It Changing the Way we Think’ The Guardian, 15.08.2010. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2010/aug/15/internet-brain-neuroscience-debate
‘Is Google Ruining Your Memory’ Wired, 15.07.11. Available at:
‘Scientific Proof that Google is Destroying Your Memory’ New Republic, 03.06.2014. Available at: https://newrepublic.com/article/117986/how-google-affects-memory
3 Hal Foster, Bad New Days (London: Verso, 2015), p. 123. Foster alludes to the chimerical nature of the public sphere when he writes that “this sphere was always more hypothetical than actual, and it was problematic in any case: its franchise was largely restricted to the bourgeois class; it was further constrained by gender and race; and when the bourgeoisie was threatened politically , it was quick to sacrifice its social ideals”, p. 123. One thinks here of the Paris Commune as the signal example amongst many.
4 Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, The Californian Ideology, 1995
5 See for example the admittedly eccentric introduction to 'A History of Silicon Valley' by Arun Rao and Piero Scarify (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform: 2013) or the equally eccentric and but entertainingly awful series Silicon Valley, for example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZaWQltT374