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Storage Facility

Back in 1999, Jaron Lanier, a leading figure in the history of Virtual Reality (he coined the term), proposed a revolutionary vehicle for archival storage: cockroaches.

Back in 1999, Jaron Lanier, a leading figure in the history of Virtual Reality (he coined the term), proposed a revolutionary vehicle for archival storage: cockroaches. Lanier’s plan was to translate the contents of the New York Times Magazine into a form that could be stored in the DNA of cockroaches—eight cubic feet worth of cockroaches; about enough to fill the average refrigerator, including the various door shelves—which would then be released at specified locations throughout Manhattan. After fourteen years of, you know, doing it, every cockroach in Manhattan would carry the archival information.

Lanier, who was not kidding around, submitted this proposal to an international competition sponsored by the New York Times Magazine to build a time capsule that would preserve information for a thousand years. In his insanely brilliant proposal, Lanier noted that the cockroaches would be able to survive nearly all conceivable bad-thing scenarios, including terrorist attacks, rising oceans, and ecological catastrophe.

The archival cockroach exceeds the materials specifications: it is water tight, impervious to changes in weather, easy to locate, impossible to destroy.
Because the archival cockroach will exist in so many copies, it will be easy to read the data without altering or destroying the archive. This is the most attractive aspect of the archival cockroach. No future historical revisionist will be able to locate and destroy each copy.

I know what you’re thinking: What if other cities adopt similar archival strategies so that cockroaches imbedded with an archive of, say, the Washington Post start, you know, bumping uglies with the cockroaches carrying the New York Times archive? Wouldn’t the resulting cockroaches end up storing an unreadable mishmash of more or less interchangable news pieces and sadistically difficult crossword puzzles?

Good point, you, but Lanier has it covered.

As significant sequence similarity is required for recombination to occur, genetic crossover between Washington Post and New York Times articles is extremely unlikely. Indeed, if crossover were to occur, an earlier of instance of plagiarism or reprinting would be implicated. At any rate, as long as each article is stored with its proper reference data, it will be possible for future historians to reconstruct both archives from a sample of roaches.

Makes sense to me. Or no less sense than the idea of preserving a complete archive of the New York Times Magazine for a thousand years. Not that it was Lanier who decided that one; no, that was decided by the competition’s sponsors at the New York Times Magazine.

Alas, the corporate corpus reaches everywhere else, so why not inside cockroaches? If nothing else, it would provide a postmodern twist to Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis.’ Instead of becoming cockroaches, which in Kafka’s world leads to shame, failure, and finally death, we blithely transform the buggers into handy places to store old magazines.

No doubt it will happen, just you wait. However, for the present, Manhattan’s cockroach population is free to party all night without fear of having its DNA used as a latter day storage facility: Lanier’s proposal lost out to a metal sphere folded to look like a giant fortune cookie.