The Arctic World Archive: Storing Human Knowledge for a Long Winter
In 2017, deep in an abandoned coal mine in the arctic archipelago of Svalbard, a Norwegian company built a vault designed to store backup archives of human knowledge for thousands of years, inspired by the so-called "Doomsday Seed Vault" just down the road. The "memories", as the company calls the contents, include portions of the Vatican's secret archive, hamburger recipes, and videos of an Indian wedding. In 2019, they took on their largest client yet, a subsidiary of Microsoft that manages the platform for the largest hive mind of the contemporary world -- open-source software. The CEO talks about the need for a "civilizational reboot" and "futureproofing", as well as a desire to communicate with beings 10,000 years in the future. What sort of imaginaries are at work in this project -- about human knowledge, about archives, about time itself? And why do these types of deep future projects seem to be proliferating? I will share some early thoughts based on visits to Svalbard in October 2019 and July 2022.
Shannon Lee Dawdy is Professor of Anthropology and of Social Sciences in the College. Her fieldwork combines archival, ethnographic, and archaeological methods in the U.S. and Latin America. She is especially interested in how landscapes and material objects mediate human relationships and how shared cultural experiences affect our perceptions of time (past, present, future). Topically, her research has focused on death, disaster, sensuality, and histories of colonialism and capitalism. Also, pirates. She has written a couple of quite different books on New Orleans (one on its peculiar French colonial past and another on the city's relationship to old things, before and after Katrina). Her latest project, which takes the form of both a film (I Like Dirt.) and a book (American Afterlives), focuses on rapidly changing death practices in the U.S., particularly around disposition and transformation of the body.
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