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Brewster’s Ark
  • July 06, 2013 : 07:07
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“Look,” he says, grinning. He points to two rectangular black boxes standing upright in the corner, flashing with blue lights. “That’s two and a half petabytes right there—the primary copy of the archive.”

“What are the blue lights?”

“Each time someone uploads or downloads something. We average 2 million a day.”

I try to picture what 2 million “visitors” to this place, none of whom leave their physical homes, look like. Down near the altar are people, or what I think are people, sitting in the pews. I want to get away for a moment, to escape Kahle’s manic enthusiasm for his peta boxes and collect my thoughts. I wander down the aisle, only to discover the people in the pews aren’t moving. They sit rigidly, their faces turned toward the altar, mouths frozen into oddly painted smiles.

Kahle is right behind me. “What do you think of my statues? Aren’t they rad?”

I look at their faces more closely. I recognize Sean from the Richmond warehouse—his stubbly face, his childlike eyes.

Kahle throws his head back in a laugh. “You work for me three years, you get a statue of yourself. Check it out—they’re made of terra-cotta, just like the Chinese soldiers in Xi’an.”

I had officially entered Kahle’s virtual world. I must have looked a little pale. He places his hand on my shoulder and says it’s time we had lunch. He reassures me that we’ll have real food from a real restaurant and that it will taste better than I can imagine.

Maybe Brewster Kahle is just concerned about our cultural heritage. He distrusts the behemoth of the book-scanning world, Google Books. (As of March 2012, Google had scanned more than 20 million books with the cooperation of the world’s most prestigious libraries, including Harvard’s Widener Library. Many remain skeptical about Google’s data mining, its supposed adherence to privacy and copyright laws and what it intends to do with our electronic reading trails.)

“They’re locking up the public domain,” Kahle tells me. “All the early press was that this would be open to all, but it’s obviously not the case. We don’t want central points of control—we want to scan every book beautifully and make them available to everyone.”

I e-mail Danny Hillis, an inventor of the parallel supercomputer, to ask what he thinks of Kahle’s archiving. He claims Kahle is a “rare visionary” whose collections have “created a priceless human resource that would otherwise have been lost to history.” Kahle came up with the concept of the Rosetta Disk, stainless steel encrypted with 1,500 language exemplars embedded in nanoscale. Many of the world’s languages are dying without a trace, so Kahle wants to bury the disk “somewhere in the desert” with a target reader of someone alive 3,000 to 5,000 years from now.

Even if Kahle’s motives are selfless, why is he keeping all the books he scans? Is there any basis for his concerns about government book burning? I need advice. I fly to Los Angeles to meet a radical librarian. I call my friend Tony. He’s a highly paid information specialist for one of the biggest law firms in the city. He can find information on almost anyone, anywhere. (Recently a junior partner in the firm awarded Tony a $25,000 bonus for uncovering little-known facts about the layout of a certain celebrity’s mansion to fight a lawsuit. The junior partner won the case.)

Tony is an information revolutionary, medical marijuana aficionado and occasional associate of the hacker group Anonymous. He wants us to meet in his tiny one-bedroom apartment between the movie studios of Culver City and the east side of Venice. The neighborhood gives him a perfect place to smoke, hack and read.

“The preservation of books is a realistic pursuit,” Tony tells me. He gestures for me to come inside, and he locks the door. “It has to be done, the physical part. Good librarians are obsessed with preservation. Believe me, it’s both madness and logical.”

I’ve brought him a gift of Russian vodka. I pour out a couple of ice-filled tumblers. I join him on the sofa and watch him load high-grade medical marijuana into one of his 14 designer bongs—an “unbreakable” tempered-glass number, specially made in Germany to fit the exact contours of his palm.

“But why is he storing all these books himself?” I ask. “Why not just let the Library of Congress do it?”

“You think the guy’s being paranoid?” Tony leans over and laughs in my face, bathing me in the remnants of his weed. “You need to read up, fool. Read the history of libraries and book burning.”

He scribbles down the books I need to check out. I look across the carpet. Beside the TV stands an extensive collection of video games, most of them violent. On top of the game cartridges sits his stoned cat, staring at me with glassy eyes.

“There’s this data bank in Arizona,” Tony says, “and another one in Nevada. I used to use them all the time for work, and now they’ve gone dark. It’s the government shutting them down, intercepting e-mails, phone calls, shutting down websites. People need to guard against this shit. If Kahle is collecting millions of books, he has his reasons.”

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read more: entertainment, News, books, issue july 2013


  • Yeghia
    Great project to work on.