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The ethics of printing the Internet

The ethics of printing the Internet


Scanning the RSS content in the Digital Humanities Now reader, I stumbled upon a project that’s been in the works for a while and that bridges the gap between digital and physical data representations. “Printing Out The Internet” — a collaboration between conceptual poet/pataphysicist Kenny Goldsmith, UbuWeb (effectively an avant-garde database, also founded by Mr. Goldsmith), and LABOR (a Mexico City art space set to house the installation project from July 26 to August 30) — is, according to its Tumblr, “the first-ever attempt to print out the entire internet.” A crowd-sourced initiative meant to honor Aaron Swartz, the programmer and Internet activist (and, fittingly, RSS developer) who hanged himself this January after being charged with wire and computer fraud, “Printing Out The Internet” called upon the public to submit print-outs via mail; the collected archive will be displayed in “over 500 square meters of space... with ceilings that are over 6 meters high.” The installation will include a marathon reading throughout its duration, apparently operating on the premise, “We will start at the very first page and end at the very last.” 

Many of the project’s criticisms highlight the ecological damage that the effort promotes. One plea, in which the author suggests he/she doesn’t “want my future children to live in a world with no trees but with the printed-out Internet,” occurs in the August issue of Harper’s and was posted to the project’s blog. As of July 20, the petition titled “Please don’t print the internet” is still 101 signatures short. There’s even a parody Twitter account at the handle @internotprint, where suggestions include “Kickstart this: Turning the Entire Printed Internet into paper aeroplanes that hound Kenneth Goldsmith forever more, even in his dreams.” But while the effort and its opponents have been covered by a number of news sources and blogs, including the Poetry Foundation and The Huffington Post, “Printing Out The Internet” seems to raise important questions about the way we understand information. Concerns about Goldsmith’s superfluity and indifference toward sustainability aside, I’m left wondering whether we should be attempting to print the Internet, conceptually speaking. 

A July 18 tweet from the project’s account attests, “If you printed the internet, it would be a book weighing 1.2 billion pounds and 10,000 feet tall.” But the Internet is neither book nor narrative (although we might perhaps find a subplot concerning cats if we really tried). Indeed, to “start at the very first page and end at the very last” is to impose a structure upon digital content that in many ways undermines its utility; as a student of the humanities, and of literature in particular, I value the Internet’s ability to represent the nonlinear, hyperlinked nature of thought patterns, micronarratives, ephemeral connections. While I appreciate that Goldsmith seeks to highlight what one tweet calls “the fear of information & the terror of facing the monstrous amount of data we mindlessly produce every day” by plastering the walls of an art space with publicly-curated print-outs, the transference of information (whether textual, graphical, or purely numerical) meant for digital consumption into the print realm strips this data of its dynamism. “Printing Out The Internet” even lacks the good intentions of print archives, which, while cumbersome, often act as contextually-significant physical referents for digital signifiers. 


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