the spoken word, written down

(h/t to Matt Locke)

At times it feels as if the internet can be analogised to anything and everything. Perhaps we should dive right in and treat it as a microcosm of the entire grand sweep of human civilisation, albeit one that’s moving at a fair clip.

It has a prehistory. At times, it feels as if we know more about Sappho or the Hittites or the people who built Stonehenge than the earliest years of the internet, of 1980s Usenet, of the web before Brewster Kahle started taking snapshots.

It has an ancient history. There are fragments that trigger memories: old Mosaic hotlists, preserved like the foundations of abandoned settlements, their datestamps testifying to when their users decamped to Netscape; ancient ‘home pages’, not just the ones abandoned on the soon-to-be-condemned Geocities, but also those surviving only in forgotten backups on degrading floppies and CD-Rs, or stored locally on thousands of hard drives to be copied across in every upgrade, because it’s easier than choosing what to delete.

As Phil says, the desire to dispose of such run-down properties, even as print-media institutions digitise their archives, disrupts the basic understanding of how we got here. When history is so compressed, the distinction between antiquated and antique is blurred; as someone raised in a Victorian industrial town who spent a decade in a mediaeval university city, I’m all too aware of how the demolition of an Edwardian building means something different depending upon the age of its surroundings.

On the other hand, for those of us who remember a time when all the links were dark blue, there’s always been a tacit understanding that the archives won’t suffice, and that we can’t be sure that a link or a post or an entire online community will be there when we look for it again. Instead, we absorb what we can, record what we can, then recapitulate and reiterate what we value, as best we can. There may be tools to help us, but their own fragility shows that what matters is our capacity to preserve and perpetuate an oral culture of the digital world.

It has a social history. If 4chan were to shut down tomorrow, what would someone be able to say about it in 20 years’ time? is locked out (not that it would make a difference) and the site preserves nothing but its most recent past. Inbound links rot like dead trout washed up on the lakeside. There are Wikipedia summaries, ancillary archives, spoors of memes scattered across countless sites. But the best way to know what 4chan was and did would be to ask those who participated.

A history that’s not just in living memory but only really in living memory is one that is always potentially challengeable because it’s inherently subjective. At the same time, a history without archives is formative in ways that one with a coherent, authoritative narrative can never quite be. The people who remember the internet before it was archived are working from a kind of muscle memory that defines what they do, because once they stop doing it, it vanishes. It pushes those who lived it into a position of constant low-level advocacy of how their particular understanding of the past shapes the present and future. It encourages the formation of communities that amplify and elaborate those narratives, sharing the collective load of memory, and passing on wisdom to those who weren’t there to bear witness.

(What can the dynamics of online communities suggest to us about the early history of religions, and the blurry boundaries between praxis, doctrine and scripture?)

This is where I have problems with those who claim that the web in its current incarnation is changing our intellectual habits (or even rewiring our brains) and substituting the practice of looking-stuff-up for independent thought. The modern reference book is a relatively recent phenomenon, and the encyclopaedic impulse was itself a product of a culture where the breadth of expanding knowledge surpassed the individual capacity of even the greatest polymaths.

For every nostalgic bemoaner of a time when schoolchildren knew poems and Shakespeare soliloquys and Latin orations and the Bible by heart, there are hundreds and thousands of people that have internalised the narratives and cultural norms and vernaculars of their particular corners of the online world. They preserve them as best they can, perhaps without even knowing that’s what they’re doing, but in the understanding that no archives may be kept, no histories written, and that what sustains their digital lives is the lived-out, written-down, spoken word.