High Concept

The Art of Losing

Why forgetting everything that ever appeared on the Web wouldn’t be a disaster.

No writer has captured the strangeness and melancholy of life on the Internet better than Jorge Luis Borges. In stories written decades before the Net was even conceivable, he wrote of a book that contained all possible outcomes of any action (“The Garden of Forking Paths”), a library that contains all possible books (“The Library at Babel”), a man who cannot forget a single thing he’s ever seen or heard ("Funes the Memorious”), a map so accurate that it completely covers the kingdom it describes ("Of Exactitude in Science”), a country where there is no plagiarism, because all books are considered the work of a single author, who is everyone ("Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”). In all these works, along with the philosophical ingenuity and wit there is an almost suffocating sense of being trapped under glass in an intellectual hothouse with no way out into the sun. Funes dies at 19, seemingly as old as a pyramid. The librarians of Babel have their ranks thinned by illness and suicide.

Brewster Kahle has been reading Borges of late, which is appropriate, because last March, Kahle started a project that could, if taken to its logical extreme, make the world a more Borgesian place. Kahle heads a nonprofit organization called the Internet Archive. Its mission: to preserve every last bit ever posted on the World Wide Web, in Internet newsgroups, or made available through gophers. “A copy of every bit will be maintained by a charitable trust, funded to a level that assures that the bits will never die,” he says. “Which means that every ten years or so we’ll have to translate it all into a new format, to preserve it in accessible form.” Doing so, he says, is surprisingly practical and cheap. The entire Internet, all its text and video and audio, takes up from one to 10 terabytes of code. (A terabyte is a million megabytes, which would fit on 2,000 500 MB hard drives.) That means even the biggest estimates on the size of the Net make it equivalent to 10 large Blockbuster franchises.

If someone doesn’t preserve the Internet, Kahle says, it will be lost to posterity forever: “There needs to be an accumulation for future historians.” Right now he’s working with the Smithsonian on a project to preserve election-related Web pages, so that they can take their rightful place among the memorabilia of the 1996 race in the museum’s exhibit this winter.

The thought of capturing all this useful information for future scholars is appealing, at least at first glance. The ancient Romans didn’t care what kind of graffiti people scratched into the walls of the red light district, but those scratchings (“Sabinus was here with Primagenia”) are now part of the scholarly Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum. But with Borges in mind, I can’t really wish Kahle good luck and baud speed.

My problem is not with posterity, which is welcome to as many teen-agers’ Web sites as it wants (“I now have a band!!! They are really good and I am very happy!” is what I read on one just the other day). The problem is that an Internet archive will be available not just to our distant descendants but to us, and if we’re not careful we’ll use it. Think about it: The most embarrassing e-mail you ever wrote, available to anyone curious enough to go looking. You want to write a song full of ingenious rhymes for “orange”? A click can tell you it’s been done 11 times already. Your boss wants to know if you called the client exactly at 10 last Tuesday. Prefer not to remember? Too bad, it can be checked.

Personally, all this stuff would drive me crazy. “Me too,” replies Nathan Myhrvold, a Microsoft executive who lately has been championing the idea of an archive. “But I suspect we’re going to have to get used to it–the trend is all but inevitable.” “It scares me too,” says Kahle. “One of the nice things about humans is that we die. We don’t have our grandparents hanging around over our shoulders. Every so often you go through and burn the libraries, just to rid yourself of the past so you can go forward.” Many a physicist, chemist, and biologist over the past three centuries has wished that Aristotle’s precious works on science had been preserved a little less well, because whatever Aristotle got wrong about planets and plants, motions and animals had to be cleared away by tremendous and sometimes dangerous effort. Undue reverence of Aristotle ruined Galileo’s career and nearly cost him his life. In China, imperial officials were trained to pass rigorous exams in the Confucian classics; as a consequence, they looked down on trade, practical work, and foreigners. The outcome was not good.

It wasn’t just that Aristotle or Confucius were out of date at this point or that. The sheer volume of work preserved in libraries made people hold what the 17th-century English poet and botanist Abraham Cowley called the “pernicious opinion” that “all things to be searched in nature had already been found and discovered by the ancients.” (His contemporary Henry Power wrote: “Me-thinks I see how all the old rubbish must be thrown away.”)

The ill-effects of perfect records are already upon us. Take the Brady Bunch movies. Audio and video archives make all the bad songs and TV shows and outfits of the last three decades available, and so pop culture in the 90s is an uneasy mix of ironic quotation and frank nostalgia for stuff whose only merit is, hey, I watched that show when I was a kid. Teen-agers dressed like hippies from a time before they were born can sit before a TV whose ads and programs are full of references to old TV shows, and see a clip about the making of a movie version of The Flintstones (itself a lousy copy of The Honeymooners).

If culture seems too remote a thing to worry about, consider the prospect in personal terms. I was once in a relationship in which two or even three e-mails a day weren’t out of the ordinary. It was the best-documented liaison I was ever in, and the fights in it were the worst I’ve ever experienced. This is not a coincidence. With all that documentation establishing who’d done and said what, we had no freedom to reinvent the past according to the emotions of the present. We had no wiggle room. Exhausted, we broke up.

You might reply that much of human endeavor throughout history has been the struggle to preserve the past from the all-destroying fire of time. But what makes a vibrant culture or inner life possible is the fact that neither the past nor the fire ever completely triumphs. As Tom Stoppard puts it in Arcadia, a play that meditates beautifully on the counterpoint of saving and losing, “It’s wanting to know that makes us matter. If the answers are in the back of the book I can wait, but what a drag.” Another character, a chaos theorist, chimes in: “It’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.”

“I think that we will learn ways to forget information, even if it’s in digitally accessible form,” says Kahle, reassuringly. “When we went from an oral culture to writing, people complained that people wouldn’t remember as well and wouldn’t speak as well, because they’d have writing as a crutch. And then when printing superseded writing, people worried about being inundated with trash. We’re in the middle of one of these transitions.”

Sensible enough. And in that coming debate, I know where I stand: In the party of forgetfulness. I don’t want to live in a museum. As we’re encouraged to exult over the vast new volumes of information that are becoming easier and easier to capture, remember that the art of losing is also important to master.