It has been reported that Kahle is building his ark to guard against a “digital disaster” like an electromagnetic pulse. A burst of radiation from a solar flare or a nuclear attack has the capacity to burn microchips and circuitry; experts contend data loss can be minimized with countermeasures. Others suggest Kahle is inspired by the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in arctic Norway, which houses the seeds of almost every plant on earth. But the Svalbard vault is designed to avert a global food crisis. Does anyone worry about the scarcity of physical books? Even Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Díaz writes, “Most people don’t spend two or three hours thinking or reading. Books seem to be artifacts from a slower time.”
My driver tears across the city. He barrels down Geary, runs a red light and narrowly avoids an elderly man coming out of a restaurant. Finally he pulls up outside what looks like a temple—a hulking, chalk-white edifice with ornate neoclassical columns overlooking the cypress trees of Golden Gate Park.
“Here we be,” the cabbie says, pushing back his cap. I remain in the backseat, deciphering his words of existential wisdom.
The headquarters of Kahle’s Internet Archive occupy a former Christian Science church. In the annex next door, where the church’s reading room used to be, a team of full-time scribes digitizes cultural ephemera. The day I visit there are 12 scribes, mostly young and surprisingly healthy looking, despite what must be the physically taxing job of scanning book after book, page by page, together with organizing the thousands of films, texts and audio recordings downloaded each day onto Kahle’s rapidly growing archive. (Kahle’s scribes operate in 21 locations in six countries, at a rate of 1,000 books a day. He even has a team inside the Library of Alexandria in Egypt.)
In the former reading room a female scribe is digitizing a squeaky film reel of someone’s home movie of the Grand Canyon, summer of 1952. On the screen, a family waves at the camera from a picnic table. One man is shirtless. The frames of the film judder across his sunburned chest as he smokes his cigarette. Did this anonymous American have any idea, back then, that his family trip to Arizona would one day be placed onto a database for the world to peruse? Her face expressionless, the scribe keeps one hand on her mouse and another on the reel. On the wall above her chair a whiteboard notes equipment issues: “broken lightbulb,” “dongle not recognized,” “scribe lower pedal malfunction.”
I leave the reading room and climb the marble steps to the giant columns of the church. I’m apprehensive—this is the control room of a repository much greater in kind than the Richmond facility, a place whose parameters I can’t define, let alone escape.
An attractive assistant appears in the lobby. She shows me into an open office area where fresh-faced young professionals perch in ergonomic chairs within a white, sun-drenched room. I recline in a leather armchair. A Labrador pads over and falls asleep near my feet.
Soon an excitable man with a smile comes bounding over in blue jeans and a Hawaiian shirt. He sticks out his hand and laughs in a scratchy, high-pitched voice. “How many words they give you?” he asks, raising his bushy eyebrows above his eyeglasses. “What kind of angle you going to take?”
“I’m just trying to figure this place out,” I confess.
He sits beside me and pets the dog. “We’re building an integration of machines, knowledge and people. It’s the opportunity of our generation.”
Kahle resembles a singer from a Beach Boys cover band. The 52-year-old silver-haired archivist sprinkles words such as rad and cool into scientific jargon. His impish eyes often make him look caught, like a boy with his hand in the cookie jar, a boy who tries to convince you the jar is his. Kahle studied under legendary mathematics genius Marvin Minsky, co-founder of the Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT. (After graduating, Kahle got rich from his inventions. In one transaction alone he made a quarter of a billion dollars selling a search engine to Amazon.) I don’t understand his motives. I ask why he dedicates so much time to archiving web pages.
“We want to create a valid historical record,” he replies, waving his hands around the church. “We have a special role outside of commerce: preservation and access.”
“Preservation of the web? What for?”
“George Orwell said something like ‘Don’t lose the past as you catapult yourself into the future.’ You never know what people might need to look back at. We’ve already had an effect on transparency. We’ve changed White House press releases.”
The motto of the Internet Archive is not short on ambition: “Universal access to all knowledge.” The yearly operating budget of $10 million comes mainly from libraries and foundations paying to have materials archived. Kahle says his ultimate goal is to build a library of the future. The entity will function as a kind of “world brain” that “removes barriers between humans and intellects.” Kahle doesn’t think anyone, or any group, should monopolize information or own too much culture. He speaks glowingly of Napster, the music-sharing website credited with changing the industry before it was shut down for copyright violations.
“What about privacy? What if someone doesn’t want their website uploaded to your database?”
“If it’s in the public domain, we want it. But the world is shifting. In 25 years, it’s going to be pretty uncomfortable for people like me. We respect people’s requests. We remove things from the archive if people want us to, using robots.”
A young man with spiky blond hair comes over and quietly asks Kahle to loan him $5 for lunch. I recognize him as one of the scribes from the reading room. “This is my son Caslon,” Kahle says, taking out his wallet. “We named him after Benjamin Franklin’s favorite typeface.”
Caslon nods hello. He waits while his dad fishes out a five. Kahle recommends what to order at the Chinese restaurant and tells his son what time he wants him back at work.
“You named your kid after a font?” I ask after Caslon has left.
“I love books.”
“Is that why you’re storing them? Are you really worried about an electromagnetic pulse?”
“No. Only a little. I’m worried about data being wiped out by the stroke of a pen. If you look at the history of libraries, they’re burned. And they’re burned by governments.”
“But surely people could be reading those books. They were once on shelves in a library, and now they’re destined for deep storage.”
“Libraries are throwing away books at a high velocity. We need a backup in case someone comes along and says, ‘You didn’t digitize that page accurately.’ We e-loan our new books to the blind and the learning disabled. Also, we lend books to the Chinese.”
“The Chinese government?”
“Yeah, their department of education pays us for large-scale loans, 100,000 or so at a time. They scan the books into their own digital library and send them back in good condition.”
I try to fathom the logic of shipping bound copies of printed paper to China, 6,000 miles away, so that further digital copies can be made of books already scanned onto a public database. (Kahle also has a team of his own scribes in China, scanning their books onto his database. The reciprocal scanning arrangement provides additional revenue.)
“Come on,” Kahle says, rising from his chair, “I’ll show you the Great Room.”
He hurries through the lobby, throws open a set of double doors and guides me into an enormous auditorium with a domed ceiling and stained-glass windows. Wooden pews stretch from the altar to the back wall.