Archives and the Old Mole

Punk rock, or, digital life in a terminal society

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The outline of what happened and is happening to the Digital Public Library of America is understood. On November 8, DPLA sent emails to a couple of co-ordinating councils of its members network (n.b., I have no idea what any of those words means) saying that it had laid off six staff. Word went through the grapevine that these were folks involved with DPLA’s signature achievements — digital collections aggregation, and primary source materials curation. At the LITA conference on November 10, DPLA chief John Bracken outlined an organizational pivot to support ebook delivery to public libraries, perhaps, or something, whatever this shit is:

And on January 9, some chud from an entity called Biblioboard posted whatever this is:

Now, I steadfastly refuse to read whatever “greetings fellow kids”-flavored gibberish the above is, so you’re welcome to peevishly correct me here. But, just to complete the outline, effectively Sloan and Knight and Mellon said “Your five years is up, great work, you don’t exist anymore,” and John Bracken and similar folks felt that they weren’t ready to stop being Directors of Something or Savvy Digital Technology Knowers, and they looked around the room in a flopsweat, searching for ways to make DPLA attractive to some other form of support, all collectively heaved “It’s ebooks,” said “Nobody gives a shit about archives, fuck them,” and reached for the long knives. We’ve seen this shit before, man:

Man, I don’t even remember NetLibrary, dear Wikipedia, please tell me about this noble, doomed endeav-

What does Sloan want? Or, more clearly, what is it that these large information science funders think they want? Never forget, early on, DPLA swamis thought they were going to drive around the country scanning shit, in hand to God, a Scannebago

In this discussion, Palfrey argued that “you could create a DPLA for a town or for a historic society. You could imagine it also taking the form of mobile scanning operations. So you could imagine a project I like the name of—the Scannebago—…driving Winnebagoes across certain areas, going to historical societies, going to local libraries and helping people to scan materials that might be of local interest; having them fold up into the DPLA but also be curated locally as part of a local collection that otherwise might not get put into a digital collection.” The idea might involve library students, active librarians, and retired librarians, as well as those who work in other cultural heritage institutions, driving the Scannebago around the country.

What do Sloan, and the John Palfreys and Carl Malamuds and Brewster Kahles of the world think they want? And what does that mean for the rest of us who keep working in this hopelessly fucked field? Look at what they clearly don’t want: well-curated collections, nor do they want to support the labor-intensive contextualization of primary documentary sources in the cultural production of history, I mean, look at how young people use technology, after all. The most successful recipient of funders’ dough is also the — I have to be fair here, because it used to be worse — most lightly-curated one. Aww baby you know who I’m talking about:

Holy shit guys, you have nine (9) items in your Ferguson collection! I’m proud of you for removing the wack community-contributed content from this set — Jim Hightower podcasts, self-publishing Pakistani polymaths, pr0n — but shit my balls that is not a lot of work there!

Look at Washington University’s Ferguson collection, set up at the same time, but looked after with human resources. Nothing is perfect, but hey 782 items, chiefly community-contributed content, carefully selected, and it’s not just live news footage, there’s creative responses to the murder of Michael Brown, you know, poems and shit. There’s at once an expansive notion of what constitutes the archival record, and a thoroughgoing rootedness in the task at hand, a moral focus. This kind of work is the good shit, and it’s exactly the kind of work DPLA stripped off.

What do funders think they want? Ten years ago, it was mass digitization. Five years ago, for a blink, it was content curation, with skilled human operators. With the human element removed, and deep thinkers like Bracken vaguely waving toward uSes Of tEChNoloGy wE cAN’t fAThOm, it’s clear that funders are back to wanting what they wanted in the 1990s — all the things, digitized and dumped in an online swamp, with robots set loose to crawl the swamp. Get robots sufficiently sophisticated and you can do dumb shit like upload your consciousness to the cloud like every other neckbeard incel with three undescended testicles ever.

Whether you think that our current artificial intelligence is real and not good at what it does, or whether you think that AI is basically a term used by dilettantes and heartless manipulators to siphon cash out of venture funds like something out of the 19th fucking century, and I guess por qué no los dos, in any case the behavior of funders gives off a strong whiff of grief response.

I think that funders recognize that, really soon, the first world, via the increasingly nightmarish present effects of global warming, which incredibly keep manifesting at the disastrous end of scientists’ range of predictions like a fucking swarm of black swans, is going to first of all murder the third world, and then immediately commit suicide, and that this pact is locked in. In their grief, they deny what’s transparently real, and so we get that garbage asshole who killed Gawker drinking teenagers’ plasma and fucking smug apartheid-emerald lad shooting Camaros into space or some shit.

Even something as piddly-shit as how a non-profit markets a new partnership is a symptom. Why punk rock? Most of us immediately saw Ramones and thought NOW I WANNA SNIFF SOME GLUE. And it’s sad. The illusion of individual freedom, peddled in that stupid LinkedIn blog, and whomst the fuccc uses LinkedIn as a platform, is the last one that a culture bent on annihilation has before it pulls the plug.

But the thing is it’s not that there’s no future, it’s even worse than that. I started writing this blog, my longest-running and least-productive ever, as entertainment, back when I realized that the easiest way to be with an infant on a 45-minute sleep cycle was to just stay up all night. Five of the six years of my kid’s life have been in the all-time top ten warmest, 2012 the aberration iirc. No the worst part isn’t that there’s no future, it’s that there is a future, it’s going to suck shit, people like me are going to feel the least of it mind you, and there’s absolutely no sTRaTeGiC pIvOt off that, and there’s absolutely nothing meaningful about our narrow little intellectual endeavors unless our work is jolted back to life by the fear of these futures, and directed by a desire to atone for setting them in motion.

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