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This Will Kill That: Material Culture in the Cloud

Google Data Center

The archdeacon gazed at the gigantic edifice for some time in silence, then extending his right hand, with a sigh, towards the printed book which lay open on the table, and his left towards Notre-Dame, and turning a sad glance from the book to the church,–“Alas,” he said, “this will kill that.”
— Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris

 

Last week Google pulled back the curtain to reveal its data centers, sharing photos of massive facilities housing the racks of servers that help power the proverbial “cloud”, through which much of the world’s digital information flows. I work in a data center much like this every day at UT’s Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC), which houses some of the world’s largest supercomputers for open science research. Listening to author Steven Levy’s first-hand account of the Google data centers on NPR’s Morning Edition, I was intrigued by his concluding remarks:

You know, many, many years ago I went on a quest for Einstein’s brain, which was lost then. And I felt if I saw it, it might be an anti-climax. But when I actually did see it, it really opened up my eyes as a revelation. This is where, you know, the power of the atom came from and relativity and all those other things. And I had the same kind of experience inside that Google data center. Here was the ephemeral made real, you know, the cloud really was something and it was something quite remarkable and breathtaking.

This struck me as ironic, since the cloud, and computing technology more generally, is what enables us to take physical things and transmute them into transmittable, infinitely reproducible streams of ones and zeros — the real made ephemeral. Google recently scanned the 20 millionth book into its archive, giving a person in 2012 riding on the subway access to more written knowledge than a scholar in 12 CE at the Great Library of Alexandria (or, for that matter, at the Library of Congress in 1997). And the digitization of physical objects is not limited to printed media. For example, models of ancient works of art can now be emailed across the world and replicated on a 3D printer. This is rightly celebrated as an incredible boon to humanity comparable to the invention of the printing press.

Old Edition of Lamb in His Bosom

Yet somehow, “thingness” is still important, as Levy’s account testifies. There is something unsettling about not being able to grasp and hold the book that is in your Amazon library. Sure, you know it is in there somewhere, but that connection you might have had with the edition of Caroline Miller’s Lamb in His Bosom that your grandmother gave you before she died just can’t be transferred onto the digital file that is stored in the RAM of thousands of other Kindles just like yours. Instead, we have quasi-spiritual connections with the magical devices that we interact with our books through. Certainly, Apple understands the importance of “thingness” better than any of its competitors (something Levy himself has written about).

When we copy an object, even when that copy is near perfect, our felt attachment to the people that touched it, the life it lived, is diminished. It may all be in our heads (and hearts), sure, but we disregard it at our own peril. I think this goes beyond mere sentimentality. Like faces, objects have memories. That torn book jacket is a reminder of the day that you hastily grabbed it when the kitchen caught fire and the house almost burned down. Over time, an object becomes a key unlocking a lifetime of specific memories and emotions — destroying it would be akin to a minor brain injury. Likewise, the loss of a culturally significant object is an insult to our collective memory.

Hooke's Micrographia on view at the TACC/ACES Visualization Lab

The importance of physicality is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, thanks to my collaboration with the UT Department of English and the Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology on a project to digitize an original 17th century copy of Hooke’s Micrographia in microscopic detail, as part of the Texas Institute for Literary and Textual Studies’ “Fate of the Book” symposia series.

As part of this series, Professor Janine Barchas and I will give a presentation of the microscopic panoramas the team captured on the gigapixel displays at the TACC/ACES Visualization Laboratory (Vislab) on Friday, October 26th at 2pm. The event is free and open to the public.

See the full schedule of the series, which continues through the spring.