Isse 104:2017 7 20:The Electric Sheep Fold (J.R.Thomas)

20 July 2017

The Electric Sheep Fold

Do we need an electronic archive?

by J.R. Thomas

What is the similarity between the internet and a wild garden?  Obvious; they are both wonderful to wander in, full of obscure corners in which it is too easy to get lost for hours on end.  But also, without a little care and attention, leave them too long and both will vanish into a wilderness of scrub and rubbish.  Whatever the richness of the collections now, without a kindly gardener or a well programmed android, in twenty years most of what is there will have vanished for ever, dead and lost.

About eighteen months ago a friend introduced me to a blog written daily by a friend of his.  If a blog is like a garden, this record of a diverse life is a truly wild place, with odd glades, wandering paths, flourishing oddities, but with a constant theme, several constant themes in fact, reminding us where we are – in West London, in Ireland, in the arts, and formerly in the City, as it happens.  This blogger is a veritable Pepys – he meets interesting people, wanders around London and sometimes outside, is always able to make the apparently mundane interesting, and is good natured and amiable.  He does not however detail his sexual proclivities or describe his grapplings with serving wenches at the back of City churches – though such stuff is widely available elsewhere, so my friends tell me.  It is a great record of a cultivated polite life in C21st Britain.

Which is, sort of, the point of this piece.   A massive amount of writing and self-publishing is pouring into the web, on every subject you might care to imagine, and many you probably wouldn’t.  Some of it is bizarre or boorish; there is some dreadful rubbish, some appalling abuse, some real mind numbingly awful nonsense.  Much needs a sub-editor’s blue pen marking “sp” and “do you mean…?”; drawing strange connecting loops and massive exclamation marks.  Much more would benefit from that simple instrument of scribblers torture, the grumpy editor’s spike, the ultimate full stop of bad ideas and excruciating writing.  But even if all that was erased by some celestially pressed “delete” button, it would leave much on-line which is well written, well informed, and well worth reading.  More than just well worth reading in fact; well worth preserving as a store of knowledge, as a permanent resource of the lives and enthusiasms of our age.

Many biographers have drawn attention to the problems likely to be faced by future writers seeking to record and understand the lives of this generation; we no longer write rambling impassioned letters to confidential friends, keep great stacks of hastily scribbled diaries at the back of wardrobes, scribble late night analyses of options on the back of envelopes, later used as bookmarks.  Much of what the noteworthy of our times record electronically will die with them, erased by careless elderly thumbs, deleted by nervous grieving relatives, simply switched off when the final bill goes unpaid.  Our generation is hugely indebted to those like Churchill and Wedgie Benn, who could not resist keeping every scrap of paper however obtuse or irrelevant.  See for instance “No More Champagne” by David Lough, a cracking and extraordinary insight into Churchill’s finances that reveals a great deal about the man and his motives, to say nothing of the workload he imposed on himself to keep solvent, even in the depths of the Second World War.  Winston kept almost everything, from bank statements, to wine and cigar merchants bills, to notes from Clemmie pleading for economy.  One suspects that current cabinet members do not print off their on-line bank statements and bookshop bills, and without those archives we shall have that much less understanding about their drives and pressures.

Is there any way that this vanishing of so much insight can be reversed?  Maybe nothing can ever be deleted from the internet (Hillary Clinton, take note) but from a biographer’s perspective it is likely to be almost impossible to retrieve material; this is a power reserved to governmental investigative agencies and there would rightly be a great deal of fuss and bother if writers, however distinguished and erudite, should also be enabled to go electronically snooping.

In the same way, what a pity it is, or will be, when all those blogs vanish.  Already some fascinating material has gone to that electronic impulse dump in the ether.  This scribbler has in the past couple of weeks sought and found valuable amateur, but well informed freely posted advice, on how to fix a minor problem on his very elderly motorcar, managed to cook a delicious if heartburn-inducing supper dish from an unlikely combination of left overs, researched roses that might thrive on a north facing wall, and decided to seal a floor with four coats of a well-known proprietary wax in defiance of the manufacturer’s instructions that two would suffice.  But much of that came from sites which will simply vanish if their owners finally take to the willow coffins so widely recommended on discussion sites dwelling on that very subject (but not by professional undertakers), or forget to pay their bills, or switch their enthusiasms from old Mercedes to Triumph Stags.

The British Library began as a room, a big one admittedly, in the British Museum, with overflow stock in the basement, then becoming a large building in northwest London, moving on to occupy a massive building on an industrial estate in West Yorkshire, and finally emerging as a modern retrieval and reading forum on the Euston Road with (so it is rumoured), basements that extend far lower than the adjacent Circle and Metropolitan tube lines.  And why?  Because the Library demands, and gets, a copy of every book and publication published in the British Isles.  So far the internet age has had no discernible effect on the cascade of printed literature that squeezes onto the over-burdened shelves.  It is a resource that will, barring fire and worm and thieving, be there for ever.

So should we have one for electronic impulses?  An electronic library of our age into which things may be deposited (we will come back to that weasel expression “things” in just a moment) and become proofed against deletion or destruction.  In spite of what half our fellow citizens believe, the internet does require premises to be kept; nothing so grand as the British Library but rather large anonymous sheds lurking mysteriously behind security fences on industrial estates, with two main power sources and three back up generators.  In those grey sheds are memory chips backed-up and cooled and protected against power failure.  We might need one or two of those to create a permanent store of all that blogged wisdom and those eccentric websites.  But surely it would be worth it, to keep the collective memory of our age, a permanent chipstore of wisdom and experience?

Which brings us back to those “things”.  If it is legal, and maybe even if it isn’t, we ought to keep whatever the creators and stewards of electronic insights are willing to file in the great collective electronic memory.  The only condition that might be reasonably imposed is that the material cannot, if the depositor requires, be accessible until after his or her demise.  But for future historians and writers and biographers, here will be the great picture of our age, the diaries, the emails, the blog-sites, the notes to self, the drafts abandoned, the self- justifications – yes, and the angry coruscating torrents of witty abuse conjured up late at night but wisely never sent (“Dear Mrs May, When you called me to No 10 to discuss my Chancellorship it did not even cross my mind that somebody so appalling and obviously deficient in any economic skills….”).  Nobody can be forced to keep their records; lots of wise persons have strictly instructed that their archives should be burned upon their deaths; many equally wise executors have failed to comply.  But at least this modest proposal creates an opportunity for those with an eye to posterity to store all that which would have been stuffed in the attic in former years.

Come on Mrs May.  Create a British Electronic Archive.  Here’s something that will perpetuate your name for ever.  Electronically, of course.


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