Information Threats, or: What to Do About My Archives

I’ve been thinking about legacy and archiving a lot in the last couple of years. The threats to information longevity today have taken on frightening new dimensions.

It’s been a weird year. The fifth anniversary of Unite the Right last August was a symbolic turning point, as five year anniversaries of major events tend to be, and with that commemoration came a lot of talk about legacy and history and the ability to speak to an audience separated from you by time. My dear friend, the historian and professor Dr. Jalane Schmidt, studies cultural memory, examining how we can continue to learn from the legacy of slavery in the United States, using Europe’s reckonings with its authoritarian pasts as a guide. We had drinks last year sitting outside a café in Berlin; she lamenting the tension between preserving our history as an activist community in Charlottesville and avoiding the legal scrutiny that maintaining documents and physical evidence might bring. There’s so much we can learn from past movements simply because they had the foresight to act for the liberation not only of their contemporaries but for those yet to be born into the future struggle. I fear we’re losing that.

The fifth anniversary also meant a slate of books came out. I’ve got a stack of books on my shelves, the books that have my name in them. I told my wife that this is my dent in the universe, the legacy I’m going to leave. Someone will study this event long after everyone involved has passed on. They’ll want to understand this particular moment in history we’re experiencing, and they’re going to see my name come up time and time again. Someone might look into me, might wonder what I was really about. Am I the hero, as Aniko Bodrogkhozy portrayed me as? Am I the villain, as Andy Ngô does? That’s for future generations to decide, not me. All I can do is try to curate what I think is honest.

That’s getting harder. I’ve never really had control over my own narrative, and I learned that when the writers of American Horror Story: Cult based a character on me from my August 11 video without my knowledge. I didn’t find out until a few minutes after my wife did; she was a fan of the show and I’ll never forget the look on her whitened face when she saw the fictitious re-rendering of the horrific livestream she watched during the rally. I realize this lack of control every time some 19-year old leftist digs up an old and out-of-context tweet I wrote before they hit puberty and tries to cancel me over it. I realized this when Joe Biden opened his presidential campaign with the words, “Charlottesville, Virginia,” and a video of me getting beaten up. Truth is, it was never my story to begin with, but dammit part of it was, and I earned the right to say so.

It’s been a weird year because the last twelve months have shown me just how fragile legacies are these days. The most unlikely blow to my ability to preserve my own history happened last November, when a bank vault containing my safety deposit box was robbed. Inside were two old, broken but recoverable cell phones, including the phone that I used during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. For a while I had a legal duty to preserve the records on those devices, and I figured a bank vault was the safest place for them. Alas. These old phones were far from the most valuable things the thieves took that night, but to me they were. These devices held stories, things that mattered to me. The messages of love and solidarity after the attack. The total absence of messages from my family in that period, too. Breakup texts from a lover. Silly photos of my wife.

Digital data is shockingly ephemeral. Some people say the internet is forever, but lately it feels like the complete opposite of that. Big tech companies have a storied legacy of evaporating user data. Elon Musk bought Twitter and is driving it into the ground, not to mention embarking on a far-right sponsored purge of accounts belonging to political opponents. If you don’t control your data, you don’t control your legacy. I noticed this, too, while recently re-organizing this blog. I checked some of the links I had shared to content I created elsewhere on the internet: recordings of media appearances, quotes in articles, that sort of thing. A shocking number of them were gone. This isn’t new or insightful. Every so often a study comes out measuring Internet decay, counting the number of dead links that persist in blogs and articles, leaving today’s reader no trace but curiosity for where they may have led. Even archive projects aren’t safe. The Unicorn Riot team didn’t independently archive the images from the Unite the Right and related neo-fascist Discord servers. Instead, they linked out to Discord’s CDN, so when Discord purged that CDN, those images and the critical evidence they represent were lost. And just this week, the Internet Archive lost a major lawsuit from publishers and quickly found itself fighting another one from the recording industry. It’s easy to question if these nonprofit initiatives can last another 20 years, let alone 200. Our ability to preserve our own histories is as fragile as it’s ever been.

But the truth is, I’ve spent the last couple of years undertaking a purge of my own. I decided a couple years ago, once the lawsuits were past, that I didn’t want my legacy to be dominated by tens of thousands of ridiculous tweets. I didn’t need every internecine argument to live forever, I didn’t want every shitpost or sarcastic quip to be what the future remembered of me. Old tweets serve largely as vectors of harassment; on Mastodon, I’ve configured my account to autodelete every post older than a month that I don’t manually flag to retain. Richard Ovenden writes in his fantastic 2020 piece Burning the Books about the self-consciousness of writers and archivists to choose to self-censor after their death. In older times, written correspondence and diaries and unfinished manuscripts would live on to round out the picture of the person that they didn’t show in life. Today, the DMs and encrypted messages and disappearing texts and vanishing services and platforms will leave nothing for the future archivist to find. Eventually, I decided I couldn’t support Elon Musk’s fascist worldview anymore and I deactivated my Twitter account; with its disappearance so too vanished valuable source material identifying and connecting neo-Nazi actors. The Internet isn’t forever.

I even recently purged my physical archives, getting rid of embarrassing letters and materials from my youth, deleting old chat logs from people I can hardly remember, sending old bad poetry up in flames. I donated a decently large collection of military aviation history books and almost immediately regretted doing so. I regularly purge financial records older than 7 (or 10, depending on context) years, and of all the keepsakes I collected for moments I wished to remember, I could only remember half, and half again positively. I curated some part of my own history, and now I’m wondering if I was too aggressive in doing so.

It’s not all bad. Last year, Kendall King, a UVa alum and fellow A11 activist, curated an exhibition at the UVa Special Collections library for Charlottesville’s “Summer of Hate.” As Jalane lamented to me earlier that year, it was hard to find materials: us security conscious leftists kept few documents and left little evidence, for fear of unreasonable governmental persecution. Kendall asked if I had anything I would like to donate and after some thought, I gave over two artifacts: the purse I carried on August 11th, which I placed a hardcover book in and used as a makeshift defense in case of knives; and the pendant I wore that night, a pendant of the Golem of Prague, a gift from my best friend from the time they visited me in Prague during my first trip to Europe. A few months ago I got an email from an archivist with the library confirming my donation. Some of my writing is there, too; Kendall had also included some of my blog posts about the event in the exhibition alongside the dossier warning City Council of the threats of neo-Nazi violence that I put together with the ample help of the community. Those artifacts and that writing now lives, as securely as it can be, in the same archive that holds papers from John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, Thomas Jefferson. There’s an honor in that even if those men may not be honorable: their work was deemed important enough to preserve. Now, too, ours. History will be able to judge if we did the right things or the wrong ones.

A more impressive effort is underway with one of my dearest friends, Molly Conger, also known as Socialist Dog Mom. Her tweets, blog posts, and handwritten notes comprise an essential eyewitness community history of Charlottesville, the court cases surrounding Unite the Right, and the dramas of the city’s governance in the intervening years. Her notebooks are worth their weight in gold and I am glad that others recognize the value here, too. This work is not over. People are still being arrested and tried for their participation in the August 11 tiki torch march. Molly’s accounts are a unique perspective into the historical affairs that continue long after the news cameras have left. Many have attempted to mimic or replicate what she does but few have succeeded. She’s singular in her mastery of modern mixed media to create a historical record in real time. Maybe it’s something in the Charlottesville water that binds us to tomorrow’s history.

Archives and libraries can burn, of course. Libraries in America are facing attacks with fervor we haven’t seen in at least a generation. National libraries holding centuries of cultural knowledge have been burned to the ground in my lifetime. A Wyoming library board fired a librarian for refusing to remove banned books. A school district in Iowa is using ChatGPT to decide what books to ban. Set aside the sheer technological cluelessness of this endeavor: it is evil and un-American. ChatGPT and generative AI poses a whole other class of information threat, of course. The content pollution it causes is already harming knowledge discovery. One writer recently discovered AI-generated books on Amazon listing her as the author. Why burn a library when you can simply fill it with garbage?

I’m saying nothing new. People who are far smarter than I am have been studying this problem far longer than I have. The only conclusions I have drawn is that we need a communal and decentralized solution to the problem. We need to digitize paper records, of course, but we also need to ensure that our digital archives remain accessible, verifiable, and unpolluted. We have to take community ownership of our data and our legacies and reject the governmental and corporate control. We need to teach the tech skills required to maintain and preserve these records within their own communities. In a sense, I feel like this a grand step backwards. This may not have been the Day 0 vision of the Internet, but it sure was there by Day 1.

I started the post by saying it’s been a weird year and I think that after all the deep and sometimes frightening thought I’ve given to the matter, I’m not sure I’ve come to any great solutions. Some of my work has been entered into a hallowed and serious archive; a much larger quantity was lost in an event so unlikely it verges on comedy. I’ve come no closer to resolving the tension between legacy and operational security than I was six years ago. After realizing that my Twitter account is cited in print materials, I reactivated it. I have no answer for what to do with it if it gets shut down or if Twitter itself goes under, although I’m probably clever enough to do something with the archives. I don’t have a strategy yet for this blog and how to keep it online after I’m gone, but I’m sure that’s a solvable problem. I’ve already received great suggestions that I’ll need to follow-up on.

This isn’t to say I haven’t made progress. I’ve started keeping a diary again. I’ve organized passwords and set up backup strategies and have started archiving the content on the Internet that I contributed to. I’ve got some plans for how to address the remaining challenges, but am needing to recreate the community I want to be responsible for helping carry out the curation and preservation of what matters when that time comes, hopefully many decades from now. I’m making a rapid shift back to an analog world: pen and paper and real books and writing postcards and connecting with people. Our digital sphere is on the brink of collapse and it is poisoned. The ballyhooed digital town square was never actually anything other than a colosseum.

As I reflect on this, I think that’s the crux of it: the Internet has robbed us of the durable kind of community that cares for us as people beyond our living person. We don’t write letters because we don’t have anyone to write letters to: we post and we text and we tweet and then we’re gone. I looked back longingly at old videos from World of Warcraft that I made, wondering who those people were and how they are doing. They disappeared as fast as they appeared in my life. What a shame it will be if what survives from our culture of this era is sarcasm and irony and bigotry. Who’s teaching us to write beautifully, to connect with people and leave a trace of that connection that endures for generations? We find boxes of old letters in our great-grandparents' attics and turn them into beautiful music, what will be left for our great-grandchildren to find?

Posted: 18.08.2023

Built: 23.04.2024

Updated: 18.08.2023

Hash: f70da85

Words: 2357

Estimated Reading Time: 12 minutes