The week of May 8, 2016

Still pools in the torrent of data

By Jesse Hicks

It’s a common complaint of the Information Age that we’re awash in data, to the point of nearly drowning. It’s an understandable complaint to have after opening up a Twitter or Facebook feed and attempting to make sense of the deluge: all that information produced daily, whether it proves ephemeral or long-lasting; whether it’s archived and made sense of, or left to the whims of data rot. In this issue of the Kernel, we’re looking at archives: How we distribute, save, and make meaning from all that data.

First, Rick Paulas talks to Fielding McGehee and Rebecca Moore, the husband-and-wife team behind the Jonestown Institute, a one-of-a-kind archive of material related to the Peoples Temple. In the late 1970s, the religious movement became infamous after its leader, Jim Jones, and more than 900 of his followers were found dead in the Guyana jungle. The commonly understood story quickly became that they’d committed mass suicide by drinking cyanide-laced fruit drinks—the grisly origins of the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid.” It wasn’t Kool-Aid, and McGehee and Moore have spent almost 40 years combing through records, diaries, and audiotapes trying to understand what really happened at Jonestown. They’ve put their work online, where it’s done much to present a more complicated, humane understanding of the Peoples Temple.

A more humane understanding of tragedy is also what Chris Stokel-Walker argues for in his story about a failed attempt to prevent images of tragic deaths from erupting on social media. A Republican state representative from Kentucky named John Carney proposed a bill that would prohibit eyewitnesses to potentially serious injuries from posting any images of the event for one hour after it happened. As Carney knew, the bill was unworkable, a clumsy and likely unenforceable “fix” for an issue that not everyone agreed was even a problem. But it did open up the question: What are the consequences of unfettered sharing, copying, and archiving of disturbing, real-time images on social media—and what, if anything, should we be doing to change things?

Finally, on a less tragic note, I talked to Jason Scott of Archive Team, the guerrilla archivists who save your favorite (and least favorite) websites from oblivion. The project began seven years ago with the unceremonious shuttering of GeoCities, the Web 1.0 host that offered free webpages to anyone. Realizing that a fascinating piece of Internet history would be lost if those sites—some 38 million of them—simply winked out, Scott and a team of volunteers began downloading and saving as much as they could. Today, thanks to those volunteers, much of the site lives on, a fascinating portal to a very different Internet than the one we know today. But, as Scott explains, the problem of vanishing websites hasn’t gone away, and the Archive Team is keeping plenty busy.

Enjoy the issue.
Illustration by Bruno Moraes