Missing left-wing brains

Is online fan culture the future of library science?

Is everything online by now? I’m up late doing some work and IMing with my girlfriend, when she asks me for a bit of trivia:

“Was it Beavis or Butthead who had that weird laugh? Or both?”

So I do a google search. Interestingly, the top result for a nonboolean hunt on their names was this demented Russian site devoted to the show. There was nothing about their laugh, so I scanned through a few other sites, including a farewell lecture by a Hanover professor on the subject.

So I did another, narrower search — “beavis butthead laugh” — and, sure enough, this time the top hit is a site that specifically clarifies this element of the show: “Telling Beavis and Butthead apart. Beavis’s laugh is always “Heh heh” while Butthead’s laugh is always “Huh huh”.”

This took about 45 seconds, all in all. At which point I was forced to remark yet again on just how insanely mindbendingly huge the Internet is. I mean, seriously! In less than a minute I was able to locate a document that is not merely about Beavis and Butthead, and not merely about their laughs, but which exists specifically to delineate between the two acoustic signatures of their laughter.

Okay, I know this is old hat by now: Net-as-hive-mind, noosphere, woof woof, meow meow. But still, this rocks.

And, more importantly, it bodes really well for the long-term preservation of pop culture.

Consider: Back in the early 90s I was at an academic conference where an NYU professor who writes about hip-hop was talking about the difficulty of doing research in this area, because no publicly-funded libraries (and virtually no private ones) have a mandate to collect and archive that stuff. Same goes for comic books, video games, sci-fi, TV shows, and tons of other incredibly vibrant and important 20th-century art. (Previous aeons had the same problem … we have copies of the great works of literature and paintings and religious artifacts, but frequently no copies of the folk art.) Plenty of interesting little bits of pop culture simply vanished, like old Ojibway dialects, because nobody thought to retain them.

The Net has totally changed that. Pop culture is now being closely documented with the ferocious, distributed zeal of 10 million worldwide mass-culture fanatics. There’s a web site for virtually any nigh-forgotten TV show, and commercial sites like IMDB that track even more stuff. And think about file-sharing: One of the great unstated things about networks like Kazaa is that they minimize the likelihood that a piece of culture will vanish — because if everyone keeps spreading copies around, there’s no way we’ll ever lose them all. Kazaa may be considered piracy — but perhaps we should also consider it a massive, if unintentional, archival masterpiece.

And sometimes it actually is intentional. Consider the case of video games: The MAME project — emulators that run classic 80s and 90s arcade-games — was consciously created to be an archival project. The programmer Nicola Salmoria was worried that rare arcade hits (like, say, Mappy or maybe Nibbler — remember those? No, I didn’t either) were going to utterly vanish. So he created a way for people to run the original game code, taken from the arcade cabinets, on a PC. Presto: Now people are swapping arcade games all over the planet. And, sure, yeah, it’s piracy. But it’s also library science, of a very crude sort. Only a vanishingly tiny fraction of these games are still in commercial circulation; if it weren’t for the work of Salmoria and the game-swappers, as well as those with an interest in documenting the basic facts about the games (like the Killer List Of Videogames site), this stuff would go the way of the dodo.

The entertainment industry may be cursing file-sharing now, but 10 or 20 or 100 years from now, historians will likely be thrilled as hell that we were passing all this pop flotsam around.

Of course, there are downsides. Heh — maybe pop culture is in danger of being too well documented. I mean, how many Facts of Life web sites do we really need? (Don’t answer that.) The problem with the Net is that is it prejudiced towards documenting things are inherently digital — games, video, music. Stuff that requires difficult conversion, like a rare 397-page novel, aren’t getting archived. Of course, scanning in a rare novel and putting it online would be piracy too … but, you know, it also probably help keep that book from vanishing, if it were, say, a sci-fi book that most libraries would throw out in a book-sale because they don’t consider it “important” literature. But of course the author and publisher wouldn’t necessarily be thrilled at getting ripped off. (Unless the book was out of print, the publisher sitting on the rights, and maybe the author’s kinda happy to see the book bootlegged.)

If one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, the Net has turned out to be the biggest cultural wastepaper basket in the history of the world.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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