The reason I’m doing a bunch of entries around the theme of “A couple people asked, so here’s a long and drawn-out answer that touches on a host of considerations” is because the era of “I am on multiple platforms that harvest my low-level brainwaves and let me make two-sentence jabs masquerading as insight” is coming to a close. In its dimming light, I can make out the glow of people wanting to know some of the opaque processes I engage in, either as inspiration or a warning.
That approach (one focus drains, another rises) is the core of how I do everything, so let me answer the curiosity of a few people who wondered why I choose what I do and how I do it.
The usual caveats: One person’s approach to life, especially as described by themselves, is an observed artwork, not a curated manual. Priorities shift and opportunities flicker and fade, and it’s not a good idea to have made your priorities or opportunities the defining (or worse, only) aspects of your life. In a year I could read all this and laugh at that deluded bastard, unaware of the Coming Thing that will make any of it irrelevant. Consider this all a gentle introspective song played in words and not a thundering drumbeat demanding you march in lock step.
I am also focusing on my Internet Archive era, not how I approached things back when I was a systems administrator and doing documentaries on the side, that is, a documentary filmmaker who administered systems to pay his travel and camera equipment costs. I’m talking about 2011 to the present.
With all that out of the way.
On a personal level, I’ve been speedrunning a game called “Die With The Least Amount Of Confusion About What To Do With Your Remaining Stuff”, and professionally, I’ve been running a project called “Die With Maximum Finished Projects Lacking Interest By Co-Workers And Reasonable Public Levels of Awareness Of My Efforts”. Both are going quite swimmingly.
It’s bright-line obvious and easy to cleave my Internet Archive era into before and after my 2017 heart attack.
I’ve described the situation at length before, even doing so onstage, and I’ve touched on the themes and lessons that came from the event. But functionally, the result was my realization of how entirely arbitrary existence is. Reality provides the experience of going from Zero to Dead with alarming frequency; but even more troubling for me was the inaccurate signaling my body provided that anything was wrong.
You would think 99% blockage of a major artery on the heart would be really really intense, a thunderstruck pain shifting all priority, but it was mostly an annoyance until it was a misery. But even the misery was just that – an ache one might get from sleeping poorly, or having eaten an undercooked potato, which I’ve done once or twice. Only with a number of experts and authorities showing me exactly how dangerously close I came to ceasing and exactly how that happened, am I even able to articulate what went on. No sense of conclusion had come to me beforehand, no overriding awareness of a chapter and possibly the entire book closing.
It was Luck, but also a Lesson. Things will shift in an instant, and I am likely to have little warning beforehand. One moment delicious meal, next moment oblivion. And with that outlook, a lot of stuff came into pretty sharp focus and a pretty deliberate roadmap came into being.
Building on what I said a couple entries ago, cleaving my possessions into items held for myself and items held in trust for others betrayed a ridiculous ratio, something on the order of 99 to 1. For every memento of a person or experience that I was keeping close, I had dozens and dozens of magazines, floppies and pieces of equipment I took on just because I was worried nobody else would make the effort. This outlook had resulted in a shipping container of materials, and when I finally put together the process of transferring most of them away, the resulting movement of material was, frankly, shocking.
Thousands of magazines went to organizations and tens of thousands of items went into the Internet Archive’s physical archives. Monitors went to museums and individuals, and gaming systems went to yet more locations. By the end of it all, I had divested so much material to more permanent homes, that it would be assumed I’d had absolutely nothing left.
And, comparatively, absolutely. It was less than a couple storage units worth, a sliver of what it was, and that description is where it remains today. In a recent consolidation effort, with a number of volunteers, a single truckload was able to take the contents of all the remaining units and put them into one, and while the view of the remaining storage unit could seem dire on first view, it is not:
A heartening sign is that a notable percentage is furniture and vintage equipment, particularly nice pieces that are not compatible with my current living situation. A good amount are books I’m either going to donate, or which I’m going to bring back to a bookshelf in my home.
And then, in an amount I will be able to better quantify soon, are the Things Held in Trust; floppy disks, cassette tapes and typewriters, materials meant to have something “done” to them, after which they will go into some manner of permanent storage away from me. This is probably the majority of non-furniture and technical object items.
The remainder are a set of what would be called my Personal Effects – papers, drawings, pamphlets, mementos and a handful of artifacts from old jobs, old experiences, mostly meant as talismans for me, personally, to be able to recall people and events that otherwise I might have a harder time to remember. How many of THOSE could stand to be just digital and then stored away with a marking to toss them if people want, is part of the near future task set.
Now, for a moment, let’s veer into Everything Else.
This is a lot of material. It’s books, software, papers, videotapes, and a smidgen here and there of the kind of weird gathered up miscellany that comes when you absorb the world by the truckload. I can’t estimate how much this is. It’s probably many tons.
This is waiting for me. If I work on it alone, and single-stream, it will never be done before I am 100 years old. It’s that’s much.
Luckily, I’m not working alone. There are collections that have a general mandate to be digitized over time, and I am but one of many potential parties who may do that work. There are others that will get pulled into other larger digitization and archiving endeavors that will come along in the future, during that madness when an entity comes along saying “We want to put this truckload of cash into a digitizing effort; what do you have available to work on as a set?”
Then there’s some sets that are definitely “mine”, in terms of I advocated for them, we’re holding them, and in the expanse of time I’m the top candidate to step in and start getting them pulled into an online form. I’ll resist distraction listing their classifications and stories, but just be aware they are in big pallets in a very large set of rooms and the second I address them is the second they ultimately get addressed.
Which, ultimately, brings me back to being in my hot little rented office, digitizing whatever materials with whatever equipment is working, as fast as I can, for as many hours as I can.
Permit me to join the legions of people for whom the Pandemic was and continues to be disruptive. Besides health issues, I did not visit the Internet Archive Headquarters and most of the physical archives for years. It put a pause on my digitization and classification efforts, while no pause was put on acquisition. (The Archive actually took in dozens of entire libraries of institutions shutting down during the pandemic, literal millions of books and items.) For a lot of 2020-2022, significant portions of my pipeline and priorities went out the window. I wouldn’t call everything “normal” now, but I am proceeding with my scanning/digitizing efforts full apace now, and doing activities of assessment and interaction that would have normally been done multiple years before they actually are happening.
Here, in the present day, things have gotten understandable and quantifiable enough for me to be able to finally address piles of to-dos that are within 10 minutes of my rented office, easy to pull in, do work on, and then mail away or store locally in a “just in case” contingency. I expect by the end of this year, I will have a reasonable understanding of where things are and where they will be going.
From then, it’s rinse, repeat. Take in each new block of promises and intentions, do the work, often on a stream, and go forward until I run out of materials, time, energy or health.
That’s the priority list: Do the media and materials I have machinery for, acquire machinery to do materials that I currently can’t, exhaust my local collections, then acquire the larger to-dos from Internet Archive stores and begin doing those to the best of my abilities.
Simultaneously, be aware of the fact that since I was unable to detect life-threatening health issues until it was past too late, it’s always possible that happens again, and I leave everything in a grinding halt, halfway through a project, with all my machines humming until they crash.
At that point, I hope that that what I’ve left behind is inherently obvious, in good hands, and understandable in case someone else wants to race the doomsday clock and make more items see a digital future.
If not… well, buy a Ouija board.
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