What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

January 26, 2015 Issue

The tagline of Jill Lepore’s brilliant "The Cobweb," in this week’s issue – “Can the Internet be archived?” – struck me as dry and theoretical. Not my cup of tea, I thought. But I read the first paragraph, which begins, “Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 took off from Amsterdam at 10:31 A.M. G.M.T. on July 17, 2014, for a twelve-hour flight to Kuala Lumpur.” I read the next line and the next line. The paragraph is anything but dry and theoretical; it’s vividly specific and real. It tells about the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in a field outside Donetsk, Ukraine, and about a Ukrainian separatist leader known as Strelkov posting a message on VKontakte, a Russian social-media site: “We just downed a plane, an AN-26.” I went on to the next paragraph, conscious of being hooked by the story and by the prose, which is crisp, direct, and factual. The second paragraph reports that two weeks before the crash, Anatol Shmelev, the curator of the Russia and Eurasia collection at the Hoover Institution, at Stanford, had submitted to the Internet Archive, a nonprofit library in California, a list of Ukrainian and Russian Web sites and blogs that ought to be recorded as part of the archive’s Ukraine Conflict collection, and that Strelkov’s VKontakte page was on that list. It also tells that the Internet Archive’s collections are stored in its Wayback Machine, in San Francisco. I moved to the third paragraph, fascinated by the linkage of the downed Malaysian Airlines plane, which I knew about from reading news reports, with the Internet Archive, which I had no clue existed. The third paragraph begins, “On July 17th, at 3:22 P.M. G.M.T., the Wayback Machine saved a screenshot of Strelkov’s VKontakte post about downing a plane.” It continues,

Two hours and twenty-two minutes later, Arthur Bright, the Europe editor of the Christian Science Monitor, tweeted a picture of the screenshot, along with the message “Grab of Donetsk militant Strelkov’s claim of downing what appears to have been MH17.” By then, Strelkov’s VKontakte page had already been edited: the claim about shooting down a plane was deleted. The only real evidence of the original claim lies in the Wayback Machine.

The only real evidence of the original claim lies in the Wayback Machine – and with that remarkable revelation, the utility of archiving the Internet suddenly becomes clear. But it’s the next two sentences, the superb opening lines of the fourth paragraph – “The average life of a Web page is about a hundred days. Strelkov’s “We just downed a plane” post lasted barely two hours” – that form the lynchpin of the piece, ushering in its main subject, what Lepore calls “the overwriting, drifting, and rotting of the Web.”

“The Cobweb” reads like a streak. I especially enjoyed the part where Lepore visits the home of the Wayback Machine, in San Francisco, and meets its inventor, Brewster Kahle, who is one of the most interesting characters to appear in The New Yorker in a long time. Here’s Lepore’s description of him:

Kahle is long-armed and pink-cheeked and public-spirited; his hair is gray and frizzled. He wears round wire-rimmed eyeglasses, linen pants, and patterned button-down shirts. He looks like Mr. Micawber, if Mr. Micawber had left Dickens’s London in a time machine and landed in the Pacific, circa 1955, disguised as an American tourist.

Lepore tells this memorable anecdote about Kahle:

I was on a panel with Kahle a few years ago, discussing the relationship between material and digital archives. When I met him, I was struck by a story he told about how he once put the entire World Wide Web into a shipping container. He just wanted to see if it would fit. How big is the Web? It turns out, he said, that it’s twenty feet by eight feet by eight feet, or, at least, it was on the day he measured it. How much did it weigh? Twenty-six thousand pounds. He thought that meant something. He thought people needed to know that.

I relish Lepore’s emphasis on “meant” and “know” in the above passage. It allows me to hear the wonder in her voice.

The variegated material that “Cobweb” comprehends is transfixing: Malaysia Airline Flight 17, Ukrainian separatist leader, Russian social-media site, Hoover Institution, Ukraine conflict collection, Internet Archive, Wayback Machine, San Francisco, Britain’s Conservative Party, Andy Borowitz, link rot, content drift, Harvard Law School, United States Supreme Court, Los Alamos National Laboratory, the footnote, Brewster Kahle, the Library of Alexandria, hyper-text, M.I.T., petabytes, the Library of Congress, the National Library of Sweden, the British Library, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, copyright, Web crawlers, legal-deposit laws, Europeana, Google Books, Harvard Library Innovation Lab,, Herbert Van de Sompel, Memento. All of which coheres in a compelling narrative frame.

“The Cobweb” ends beautifully:

One day last summer, a missile was launched into the sky and a plane crashed in a field. “We just downed a plane,” a soldier told the world. People fell to the earth, their last passage. Somewhere, someone hit “Save Page Now.”

Where is the Internet’s memory, the history of our time?

“It’s right here!” Kahle cries.

The machine hums and is muffled. It is sacred and profane. It is eradicable and unbearable. And it glows, against the dark.

This is great writing. I enjoyed ‘The Cobweb” immensely.

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