Every time I listen to the record this happens, and every time it surprises me with this reminder of music’s materiality. I can choose to listen to that vamp, that rolling highway, for as long as I want. Every time I encounter the record I make a different choice.
Just like my old computer, my records will someday disappear. It’s inevitable. They will decay and deteriorate, their sounds lost forever. In fact, this is happening all the time. Every time I play a record, it is one step closer to dissolution, its surface deteriorating with each playback. The more I want to listen to a record, the more likely it is that this record will become unplayable.
Let’s say my favorite record breaks, or somehow becomes unplayable. Will I buy another copy? Look up the album on the Internet and stream it? Or will I instead resign myself to its loss, to never again hearing those songs? That I would even consider the last option speaks volumes.
The record’s sheer physical presence demands our attention, but its absence, its silence, also makes a demand. The fading of the moment, the dissolution of the object, has as much to say as the record itself. I listen so intently because I know the music is fleeting, that the performance, like the record itself, must disappear into nothingness.
Media’s digital revolution promises the realization of that ancient human impulse to preserve, to record, to remember. At least theoretically, we have transferred the collective fruits of civilization to electronic formats, and now have a limitless, everlasting storage unit (the servers’ physical existence notwithstanding) for everything we might create or know. This infinite reservoir of cultural memory brings us face to face with the Janus of infinity, the disappearance of it all.
The Internet Archive, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, believes that the digital world’s permanence is but an illusion, that digital storage is not infallible. This conviction drives its mission: to preserve our cultural memory in physical form. Its founder, Brewster Kahle, aims to collect one copy of every single book in existence, in massive vaults scattered throughout the world. If something were to go wrong with our digital storage, the thinking goes, we should have our cultural artifacts stored somewhere else, safely tucked away in Kahle’s ark. Despite its apparent futility, the project and its passionate proponents evoke a fundamental ontological understanding: our inescapable tether to matter—our physical, impermanent nature. As often as we willfully ignore it, we are all made of stuff. And until recently, the things we made and loved, felt and discussed, were also made of stuff. And when the day comes for us to shuffle off our various coils, we will leave behind stuff.
I imagine the ultimate irony might be that when we actually need the archive, we open the vaults to discover their contents have crumbled to dust. The servers down and our backup disintegrated, we are left only with memories, which disappear when we do. The digital archives and the Internet Archive are both testaments to the spirit of civilization. Like the pyramids or the Library of Alexandria, they are an attempt to construct everlasting monuments. But to collect and to appreciate can be conflicting tendencies. The instinct to preserve threatens to bracket experience as something that occurs later, and can lead to the depreciation of the very experiences it seeks to hold fast.
The poet William Meredith wrote, “The worst that can be said of a man is that he did not pay attention.” Truly, it is in the moment of attention where life occurs, where true joy is possible, from which meaning ultimately derives. But against our archival impulses, paying attention is not about holding something fast and preserving it—it’s about standing upright in the flux of experience, being mindful, and letting the moment take its course.
We attend to records with the knowledge that like all things, like life itself, they will pass away into nothingness. Their physical presence calls us to attention; their silence reminds us to let go.