To Bind and to Liberate: Printing Out the Internet

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Kenneth Goldsmith at Labor Gallery, Mexico City, 2013. Posted on Printingtheinternet.tumblr.com with the caption, "We printed the fucking internet."

"Printing the internet is not creative nor art. It is a waste of time and resources. Please, find something more creative to do."

So reads a comment on a petition on change.org. Directed at Kenneth Goldsmith, the petition was published in 2013 in response to a project the poet organized at LABOR gallery in Mexico City, where Goldsmith invited people from all over the world to print out the internet and send the pages to the gallery.

While those who signed the petition ("Please don't print the internet") objected that printing was "not creative nor art," Goldsmith took the contrary view. (From UbuWeb's Twitter account: "Secretly, what people hate most about @internetprint is its democracy; with a simple, command+p, anyone can be an artist.") While the petitioners discussed material issues of sustainability and resources, Goldsmith was interested in the presentation of the internet as a material thing—by reframing it in very, very tangible terms. He characterized the project as a memorial to Aaron Swartz, and as an attempt to illustrate the quantity of information that the late internet activist liberated from the scholarly article database JSTOR.[1] There's a fantastic image of the poet lying atop boxes of printouts, and a couple of months into its inception, the project's Tumblr celebrated the reception of ten tons of paper with the prompt: "Keep it coming! We're getting close!"

Close to what? Goldsmith's project is a visual, idealist gesture that winks at failure, both a comment on the economies of circulation and dissemination (versus privatization) of knowledge on the internet and an echo of his other major project, UbuWeb, which also makes cultural documents public via an online repository of avant-garde work. For Goldsmith, printing out is a way of liberating digital content from paywalls and password-protected services.

But what we are most likely to remember about Goldsmith's printing project is not exactly the impossible gesture of wanting to print out the whole internet, not the monument to Swartz, not the liberation of strictly protected content, but the fact that people participated in it at all. The content that was sent reflects very much what internet users deem important, from emails to song lyrics to YouPorn, and reflects the way we use the internet—but also the stuff online that we valorize. Goldsmith may not have made everyone an artist, but he did touch the raw nerve that is our fear of losing our data.

Printing out YouPorn.com at Labor Gallery, Mexico City, 2013. Posted on Printingtheinternet.tumblr.com.

For most people, printing is a way of preserving content, of fixing it in a bound, physical location. This desire to bind our data has led to a rapidly growing sector of commercial services trying to monetize the printing of the internet. Printing, though, is not the same as preservation; in Goldsmith's project, pressing command+p enacts a transformation, which is part of what this project turns a critical eye to—printing online content may liberate it, but it also divorces it from its surroundings and the dialogues inherent in them. By printing our data, these aforementioned services alter the ephemeral content we share online, strip it of its context, and further complicate our already tenuous sense of ownership over our online social lives.

A Yearbook of Facebook

MySocialBook, Yearbound, Egobook, Social Memories, JotJournal, YearlyLeaf. It seems like all these companies' names were cut from the same cloth. In fact, their products aren't so different either. All offer differing versions of books created from users' Facebook profiles. YearlyLeaf, which prints Facebook accounts onto hand-bound Moleskin-type journals, publicizes itself as "a new dimension for your Facebook—an experiment in social permanence." There's also Tweetbook, TweetBookz, Twournal ("Twitter to journal!" brought to you by the people who make Fonicle, which stands for Facebook to chronicle). Also, Printstagram.

Egobook.

All these companies prey on the same anxiety: The internet is constantly shifting; will your memories—in the form of writing, images, or anything else—survive the demise of the sites that host them? From Twournal's comma-averse about page: "Over time tweets can tell a story or remind us of moments. In 20 years we don't know whether twitter will be around but your Twournal will be. Who knows maybe your great grandkids will dig it up in the attic in the next century." In other words, you can't trust corporations to be good caretakers of your content; but the solution is not to stop sharing it freely with corporations, but to seek out third party memento-making services. All of these services feed off the angst over the future of this content without prompting users to consider its present form, who owns it, and what is being done with it.

The solutions offered by these services are also very similar: a product, a one-dimensional, concrete version of a user's social media content. While for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, the money is in the user as a target for their real clients, advertisers, the services printing out those users' content are banking off the users more directly by charging them for their own stuff (images, texts). Rather than allowing us to keep a tighter grasp on the fruits of our social media labors, these services change them. When we upload content to social media websites, we are producing social relationships (ones which are subject to expropriation, but relationships nonetheless). When we print our content as a scrapbook, it is flattened, becoming merely content again. Disregarding the complexities of the way we interact online, these companies allow us to consider Facebook as the raw material for a kind of scrapbook, a way to organize our private memories and public interactions. They also allow the clients to edit what goes in the book, making for a manicured reflection of our not-always-so-perfect, messy online life.

Are Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram regretting not offering the book printouts themselves? Probably not. In comparison with the big money that is in data about users' behaviors and relationships, the resale of user content is peanuts. And yet, by taking offline the material that users upload themselves and then charging them for it, they ever so slightly shift the economy of social networks, making the user both the product and the client.

Making Sense of Wikipedia

When Encyclopaedia Britannica ceased printing in 2012, moving to an all-digital format, many people tied that decision to the growing importance of Wikipedia. The 32 volumes of the 2010 15th edition of Britannica may seem like the stuff of musty libraries today, but it was still a shocking announcement, so much so that a post on the encyclopedia's site following the announcement was titled "Change: It's Okay. Really." With a 244-year-long tradition in print, we learned to associate the idea of the encyclopedia with alphabetized multi-volume sets.

By He!ko (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

And maybe that's a hard tradition for some readers to shake, which is why there are a number of projects dedicated to printing out and selling Wikipedia's content. PediaPress, a team of developers who have created an open source Wikipedia-to-book tool, recently got a lot of media attention for its crowdfunding campaign to finance an initiative to produce a "Wikipedia A to Z" set. The print-on-demand services that PediaPress has developed are repeated in other initiatives like Project Webster, which publishes books that bring together disparate pages from Wikipedia according to subject. Project Webster claims that, "We believe books such as this represent a new and exciting lexicon in the sharing of human knowledge," but by "sharing," they mean that books are sold via Amazon for sums averaging $15. Also, a lot of said "lexicon of human knowledge" seems to be directed at celebrity culture and other nonessentials.

Are these "curated" books proof that we are simply looking for someone to make sense of the amount of knowledge we ourselves, as contributors, created on Wikipedia? A big part of what these projects are reacting to is a gap between received form (the encyclopedia) and actual function (a constant reassessing and rewriting of knowledge) in Wikipedia. If what Britannica offered the buyers of its sets was a reassurance that knowledge is stable and fixed, we're apparently still hungry for that in the age of Wikipedia—and so we turn from the constant reassessing and rewriting of knowledge online back to our association of permanence: print. And we're willing to pay for that.

Is anything really produced when printing out Wikipedia? Not much, other than the creation of fixed commodities from what was once free, open to debate, and collectively created.

Internetausdruckern

Earlier this month, Goldsmith began another printing project, Papers from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, currently in progress at Kunsthalle Dusseldorf, as part of the "Smart New World" exhibition, on view through August 10. With this iteration, Goldsmith more directly responds to the commodification of knowledge (and more directly invokes Swartz) by making available the prints of more than 230,000 pages from JSTOR. In a recent email interview with Yahoo! Tech, he said: "The material being printed consists of arcane scientific papers that are hundreds of years out of copyright, yet JSTOR is firewalling & profiting from this stuff, which should be available to everyone at no cost." As before, the concreteness of this work is a way of visualizing the marked contrast between the actual abundance of knowledge and its enforced scarcity.

The JSTOR Pirate Installation just before opening at Kunsthalle Dusseldorf. Via.

Whether or not Goldsmith's printing projects are successful (and I think they are), it is crucial that he recognizes the transformative nature of printing and frames it as a potentially subversive act that changes the power relations that surround any cultural document. Printing can release us, as producers and consumers of content, from the corporations that set the terms of production and consumption. And we, in turn, shouldn't let paper go to waste in ways that perpetuate those power relations. Interestingly, it seems like quite a bit of the anger (and petitioning) directed at Goldsmith's project was rooted in the fact that it seemed like Goldsmith was calling for people to print something that, for many critics, has no cultural value—the internet. But it's the fact that their products originate from online content that gives services like MySocialBook their value.

When our content is printed, it has already become something different. There is a derogatory term in German for people who can't understand online content without printing it: Internetausdrucker. It's derogatory because the Internetausdruckern do not understand that printing online content fundamentally alters it.[2] It is not the content that we pay for with companies like MySocialBook and PediaPress: it is the transformation of our online activities into a different medium; it is the reassurance of the permanent.

The economy of the internet has managed to make us all into producers and consumers of the same material at the same time—the fact that we generate content for social networks and do not consider that an economic relationship is already problematic (and some people are calling our attention to that). But this is a moment for us to reevaluate economic relationships online, not reproduce them again in print.


Notes

[1] "I downloaded a torrent that was supposed to be some chunk of Swartz's heist. It was 33 gigabytes, and it was something like 18,000 documents, and I began unzipping those files. And within each one of those were thousands and thousands of pages…I started thinking about the large data sets that everyone's dealing with," Goldsmith said in an interview with the Guardian, concluding "We have no idea what we're talking about, and I think the way to understand it is to concretise it…we're dealing with abstraction, and we have no idea what this is. We need new metrics for infinity."

[2] Perhaps the best example of this sentiment is the website http://www.politiker-stopp.de, which suggests that users insert code into their website so that those who try to print it see the following message offered up: "Your browser is trying to print a page from the so-called Internet. The Internet is a worldwide network of computers that provides people with new possibilities of communication… If you believe that you should still see this website, you can access it any time through normal use of an Internet browser."