Operative since 1996, the Internet Archive (web.archive.org) makes regular scans of all publicly available pages and collects them in an online database that anyone can search. According to its FAQ page, the Archive boasts over nine petabytes—a unit of measurement roughly equivalent to a thousand terabytes, over a million gigabytes—of data. That’s something like 469 billion websites, amassed over twenty years, which the Archive says it intends to keep available, free, in perpetuity. But the project of the Internet Archive points to a technological ambiguity: how do you archive the internet when it’s already a kind of archive itself?
Using the Archive’s search engine, the Wayback Machine—so named for a time-travel device in The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show—I can browse, for example, a functional version of amazon.com from early 2007. It advertises “low prices” on a series of silver Nuvi GPS machines, bulkily proportioned by today’s standards of iPhone navigation; underneath these I see three thumbnail portraits of women modelling lingerie, staring into the void of digital time, collected under a heading that instructs me to “Spice Up 2007.”
I log on to a cached version of Twitter from 9th November 2006, six months after it launched. The homepage features the same tweets it did on that day a decade ago, even though many of the accounts that produced them have long since been deleted. I look at the profile of Crystal, who’s based in San Francisco and whose last tweet—ten years in the past—was five hours ago. It reads: “being thankful for random refreshing honesty from complete strangers.”
Most of Crystal’s tweets are the kind of coy banality so common to the impersonally intimate network of social media, in which everyone had a medium but no one a message. About fifteen hours ago (the early morning of 9th November 2006) she tweeted: “some early days are full of energy. others… not so much!” Seven hours and as many tweets later, she writes again: “they suck you right in, those screens. My, what big screen you have…” She concludes with an unusual emoji: @_@
On 14th April, 2009, at 1:22pm I get a message from Cameron:
wats that, he says.
wats wat, I say.
the link thing, he says.
oh its my myspace page, I say.
: ) I say.
do you hav myspace? I say.
no, he says.
“In research libraries and special collections, we may capture the portrait of history,” says Susan Howe, standing at a lectern in the Woodberry Poetry Room, somewhere deep in the bowels of Harvard University. It’s October, 2014, and Howe is delivering a lecture called ‘Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives’. Howe is a poet-critic. The hyphen is important: it signals the point at which criticism crumbles into poetry, or the poetic surrenders to the critical.
Across her essays we see the development of a few central ideas: that American history suppresses its women geniuses; that secular devotion is not only possible but necessary; that art and history are deeply embedded in one another; that beauty, often, is oblique. But her great theme is the archive. Translated into pithy academese, you might say that it is the affective experience of the archive, but it’s equally the archival experience of affect—the way that art and life both are necessarily historical events, how we historicise them and are ourselves made into history by them. “Electronic technologies, as they evolve, are radically transforming the way we read, write and remember,” Howe says, at the start of her address, in 2014, deep in the bowels of Harvard. “Archival research is in flux,” she says. I look into my computer screen, slowly nodding.
On 4th April 2009 at 8:07pm, I get a message from someone with the screen name thomas is best and he rules and kills u:
hey, he says.
Whodfuck are YOU? I say.
We do not, apparently, speak again.
This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #30. Get your copy now.
Joshua Barnes is a writer and editor from Melbourne. His work has appeared in Kill Your Darlings, The Suburban Review, Junkee, The Point, Voiceworks and on All The Best Radio. He is a fiction editor at Voiceworks.
Michael Hawkins is a cartoonist, artist, illustrator and sometime stand-up comic, originally from Tasmania, currently residing in Melbourne. He believes in mystery.