Among the shadow librarians

Alternative information ecologies

Search, our means of navigating the internet, is dying. Distribution, discovery, and curation of information evolve hand-in-hand. As the information ecology enters in crisis, new techologies arise to address the overload. Fear of too many books preceded the research university. In response to television, Neil Postman's cried out against the increase in information-action ratio. Now, the worry is for Google's page-rank, our entrypoint into the hyperlink-graph. The recent solution has been to append "Reddit" to your query, a shortcut into the nerd-sphere. Perhaps instead you talk to ChatGPT, who has already read everything for you.

And so the dialectic goes: new media for distribution (books, newsprint, television, zines, webpages) burgeon production, which are indexed (bookstores, catalogues, web-directories, search, social media) for discovery, and eventually synthesized through curation (libraries, universities, wikis, hipsters). The phases aren't clear-cut; information arbitrage dictates the developments. The hipster, learning of a subculture through little magazines at bookstores and skateshops, distributed their knowledge through blogs, thus functioning as curators for a wider audience. Search automated away the hipster.

Our latest configuration, consisting of web-publishing, social media, and search, is at a stalemate. Having given up on hand-curation, with its human variations, we became susceptible to Goodhart's law. SEO, "link spam," and synthetic content pollute the public internet. We can't find what we're looking for and it's hard to trust what's offered. Trust remains in influencers, who accrue cultural capital through genuine postings. Having accumulated capital, the temptation to buy financial capital on the marketing exchange is great. These curators of our time have mixed incentives. So, instead, many retreat to the cozy web.

These undercommons point towards an alternative information ecology. They are communities centered around archives of niche material, often paired with introverted discussion forums. For psychoanalysis: No Subject. For the situationists: SI online or perhaps For 90s zine culture: Artzines. For avant-garde art theory: Monoskop. One man's annotated Waste Land, or a collective's extensible Finnegan's Wake. The godfather of them all is perhaps UbuWeb, Kenneth's personal archive that won't stop growing.

The knowledge is distributed widely and freely on top of public internet infrastructure, remnants of web 1.0. They draw things together, producing order through aggregation of collective attention. Their curatorial approach challenges the neoliberal library, whose regulating function is more popular, more likely to surface. Archivists scavenge the tails of the distribution, the glitches, the periphery of knowledge. In contrast to the ease of a chat interface, the focus is on attribution and provenance, i.e. investigation over consumption.

Nearing the end of 2022, the librarians behind Memory of the World hosted a writing retreat. In celebration of UbuWeb's 25th anniversary, they posed the question: What is necessary for Ubu to survive another 25 years. What will Ubu look like then? Underlying the message was a fear that they'd remain laboring in obscurity, swept away in the information overload. It seems to me that the archive's time is now.

Atlantic drift

I've been blogging about computational media and convivial tools since college. It's felt like shouting into the void. Through a friend and co-worker, Rob Ochshorn, mediated by Twitter, a couple of these blog posts were lifted from obscurity through a quote-tweet series by Marcell Mars: "media theory for stoners." As my Lacanian mother kindly reminded me, the letter always arrives at its destination. A few months later, a cryptic invitation involving mirrors, reflections, and shards landed in my email:

Ubu@50: The future world where 50 Ubus are happy Ubu is 50 years old. [...] We have spent years in attempts to find a sweet spot where the description of the plan how we are going to work with a proposal of methodology will not ruin its own function. [...] And for that we need to waste some time together.

Few weeks later, I arrive to Croatia by way of four independently bought one-way tickets and two layovers: New York, Buenos Aires, Madrid, Paris, Zagreb. After a bus and a tram to Zrinjevac Park, I walk to the Multimedia Institute (club MaMa), a net culture club for media artists and political activists. Marcell, a founder, waves from the depths of the courtyard, framed in the red arcade entrance. He towers at around two meters tall, with a long greying beard and Thinkpad in hand, plastered in free software stickers. We hang out inside: Marcell's weening UbuWeb off of Vimeo by sed'ing in his own stream video player.

Along his long-time partner in crime, Tomislav Medak, Marcell is a shadow librarian. There is no official affiliation, only a loose group of custodians of online archives, working on the fringes of legality. SciHub, Library Genesis and Z-Library are the better known artifacts in this tradition. The latter has recently been taken down by the FBI, accompanied by the arrest of two Russians in Argentina, currently in process of extradition. Marcell and Tomi maintain Memory of the World, cultural in emphasis, and much smaller in scale. As part of it, they host a mirror of UbuWeb, which I first encountered when searching for recordings of Lacan's Seminaires.

In the upcoming weeks spent with the crew, I'd come to understand that the subjectivity behind shadow libraries is the custodians. Not everyone online, but some people online. The ones who care by saving their own files, sharing with friends, cloning the whole archive, or even setting up replicas (mirrors). These custodians permit resilience. If one mirror fails, others remain. Z-library may die, but the other mirrors survive and with it the memory of the world. You "mirror" others, keeping their memory inside you. It's solidarity through replication.

These realizations would take time. For now, I was reenacting Rob's footsteps, witnessing the intersection of the European avant-garde and free software communities. A decade ago, Rob had met Marcell through Mako Hill at Cambridge, followed by a residency at Jan Van Eyck Academie. Those years enabled the détournement of technical expertise, towards aesthetic and political questions illegible to my Silicon Valley peers. Marcell and I walk back to Zrinjevac Park for a first chat over dinner. I import an adolescent topic from NYC bars, Europe vs USA, metonymic for other dualities: levity vs productivity, cultural vs financial capital, vulgarity vs prudishness.

We discuss dynamics between the center and periphery. I'm ecstatic about the intellectual energy around me. He feels a lull: You have your network and friends, you do your events, but it's a little stagnant. "Most of the time I do nothing," he quips. Marcell explains how the Yugoslav civil war in 90s ruptured time. It gave a generation an excuse to be "off track", to be fifty and act like thirty, or vice-versa. We concur that this affords some levity. I contrast this with the Protestant ethic in the US. He retorts with some of its benefits, some notion of possibility to just create.

Marcell concludes: "Capital is a spectrum, and you can't really have all forms of it. Maybe two or three." He implies a law of preservation: Social or cultural capital can be transmuted to financial capital, and vice-versa. Few people create both kinds, though its not impossible. This is the benefit of co-habitating, of being an American in Europe, or a European in America. I think of Wim Wenders or Robert Frank rendering the United States, and Rob's importation of an avant-garde sensibility back into the US. I also wonder how Latin America fits into the picture.

Valeria, Marcell's partner and member of Pirate Care, joins with their son Mate. We drive south, traversing Zagreb's tripartite urban geography: old town, government building intermezzo, and communist-era public housing, cordoned respectively by the railyard and Sava river. Vicki (People Like Us) will open the retreat with a performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Lingering at the bar, I meet Tomislav, Alessandro, editor of Neural magazine, and Olga, curator and professor in media arts. Vicki's husband sits to my side. Chatting, he subtly slips in the question: "Why are you here?" I'm not really sure.

Folk art in the age of digital reproduction

Vicki works with digital archives. Ripped/torrented films and audio are collaged into dense, totalizing fields of images. She operates within a practice of montage, where, removed from their source linearity, images operate primarily in relation to each other, references to their original usage fleeting in the viewer's memory. She presents a piece called "The Mirror." During the discussion, she describes its emphasis on reflexivity, how knowledge of the world feeds back into the self in a non-duality, making it impossible to separate the I from the world.

She refers to her practice as "folk art in the age of digital reproduction." Listening to her explain her methodology, I understand what she means. Vicki chooses a theme (e.g. mirrors) and then watches hundreds of films. Some come from internet searchers, others from Facebook requests to friend for films under a theme. She finds salient sections and clips them out in Quicktime. Each snippet is renamed descriptively e.g. She copies the list of file names into a word document and prints them out, each file on its own slip.

Here, the process turns towards the physical. The slips are manually clustered on the floor, linkages made based on the descriptions and whatever image they conjure in her mind. Not seeing the actual footage lets the process be more fluid. Vicki emphasizes the importance of "getting out of her head." The physicalized strips make the here and now central. There's no need for an overarching ontology, or to hold the entire film in her head, only to group the papers. "It's calming," she says. The final collage, a mind map, covers the floor.

The description-as-title technique is the kind of folk process that emerges in artist practices. It points towards a form of human-computer interaction that blends with physical practice, that values constraints (e.g. not seeing the footage) as conducive to serendipitous montage, and lets users repurpose interfaces to their own means. The return to the digital is done piecemeal, one cluster of paper slips at a time. She can easily re-link back to the source footage by Finder search with the file names. Now, working with a lot less material than what she started with "it's manageable." Invention comes as play, repetition, and variation. "We have control over small local changes."

The panel afterwards focuses on digital archives. (Vicki's works are collected on UbuWeb.) Having the raw file enables appropriation and détournement. When everything is available, but only as a stream, one is forced to remain a consumer. Olga poetically refracts Graeber's freedom to move, to disobey, and to imagine alternative arrangements, on to the media domain. The freedom to transfer files, to break proprietary notions of copyright, and to reconfigure the media environment around oneself. Marcell emphasizes how, contrary to the imaginary constructed in the wake of Snowden and Assange, where superhuman hackers contest the darkest futures, People Like Us and UbuWeb manifest a resistance which can be small, collaborative, and playful.

The latent imaginary of the archive

The next morning we leave for Cres. From grey Zagreb, through a snow covered mountain pass, to Rijeka, the coastal port town. The ferry is just a ways further, off Krk, which takes us to our destination. Despite the cold, the sea's transparent blue meets expectations. Cres is known for its sheep that wander around the outcrops. Mate's car seat is too low for him to see. Disappointed, he dismisses us: "non sono pecore... è una roccia! è una roccia!"

Sanja and Srecko, the happy Croat, arrive on the same ferry. After settling into the accommodations, we congregate for a first lunch. Introductions are made and it becomes clear everyone else knows each other. Most joined the Nothing Will Happen conferences (in homage to the coffee breaks where the actual action happens, as well as slyly dissuading authorities from peering into a gathering of ex-Yugoslavian citizens). Even earlier, they connected on the Nettime mailing lists which Alessandro and Felix helped start. Tomi and Srecko shared time in the Yugoslavian psychoanalytic scene (Slavoj, naturally, is a friend). Marcell and Srecko know each other from Zagreb's hardcore punk scene. Valeria, Olga, and Alessandro have connections in the London left-wing academic scene. I'm made aware of the obvious: digital networks supervene on social ones.

After a lunch of fish and grappa, we gather in a conference room for our first work session. Though it will only become clearer some days later, we are enacting a collective writing process with a precise methodology. The prompt: What is necessary for UbuWeb to survive another 25 years? My mind goes to resilient infrastructure: replicated servers, VPNs to proxy access, content-hashed backups on a networked file system, in sum, technological answers. In this, I'm alone.

Srecko, just off writing a book on the Apocalypse, situates the question within a larger political crisis: climate change, information overload, failings of global infrastructure, instability of liberal regimes, and a return of the thread of nuclear war. ("We are fucked, no?") For Ubu to survive, the world must survive. This mood permeates the group, a capitalist-realist lamentation of the impossibility of alternative futures. There is a gap between the tools (the excavator) and the ecological crises (the Evergreen), a hyper-object beyond comprehension. That gap between tool and crisis is an imaginary. Theoretical verbiage abounds, but used loosely and productively, not as fixed points but as constellation of ideas that the group can conceptually riff on.

To confront these object, one cannot think, but act. Here I feel the Anarchist strains of direct action. "Instead of being depressed, build a boat, make a library." Indeed, Srecko is building a small school on the island of Vis, focused on resilience. He seems correct, but we continue thinking. Olga suggests David's Dawn of Everything as the methodology: re-write history to re-imagine the future. In other words, the solution is already here, latent in the archives. Librarians must activate it. Alessandro insists on the relational dimension between readers and librarians: custodians care for their own local stuff because it has value to themselves. When the custodian shares their garden with their neighbors, they establish grassroots way-finding. It is collective action below Dunbar's threshold.

Marcell suggests a Balkan phrase, a phrase originating in the periphery: "snađi se, druže" or "figure it out, comrade." The world is not pure and the organizational structures are full of holes. You need to operate on the fringes of the structure. I discuss folk practices in computing, operating parasitically on top of mega-corporation's infrastructure, yet subverting the tools for their own bidding. Alessandro brings in Italian pirate television networks, transmitting over hacked receivers to combat the prime minister's media dominance. Technologically, it's all quite simple. The radical part is the civil disobedience. It's refreshing compared to US's technocratic bias: lots of solutions, no balls.

Marcell puts it bluntly: "Puritanism... I hate it more than anything else. Pure? Ok... Go fuck yourself." Managing Ubu's mirrors for around two decades, he's been approached with countless technological solutions. In practice, they always fail. When I mention IPFS, he just smirks. To mirror a directory, a local copy must be made. This implementation detail makes it infeasible, regardless of any theoretical guarantees. Ken Goldsmith echoes this technological minimalism and independence throughout Duchamp is My Lawyer, his memoir about UbuWeb. "Don't trust the cloud. Use it, enjoy it, exploit it, but don't believe in it. Or even the web for that matter." Worse is better.

Shards, reflections, and mirrors

As each of us goes off on our little tangents, Marcell and Tomi begin to organize the collective writing process, a methodology deemed Sandpoints. They diligently track the references and set up a digital library of all the texts mentioned. Some texts are already on Memory of the World, others are siphoned off of Library Genesis or a backdoor into the publicly discontinued Z-library. In aggregate, they constitute a local archive which centers the discussion while also being iluminated by it.

Critically, the write-up of the discussion is constrained. After an afternoon full of discussion, we're tasked with distilling thoughts, digressions, and notes into "shards," a fragment of writing linked to a text in the archive. The { shard, text } pairings constitutes a base layer for collective discourse. Each one functions akin to a meme, an isolated idea that can be riffed off of (mutated) and combinatorially remixed (breeding). The environment for this process is a hyperlinked digital wiki which we keeping building in an exercise akin to a Surrealist "exquisite corpse."

Bootstrapping off of the shards, a new phase of discussion happens on a higher level of abstraction. Shards are discussed as units and remixed and matched. The process is loose, new references and fragments can be brought in as new shards. Participants dialectically alternate between discussing, reading, writing, and editing. The artifacts of these higher-order discussions become "reflections", essays which aggregate the fragments. A series of reflections then provide alternative forking paths into a shared context, a series of texts. A "mirror" is a entry point in the form of a unifying introductory essay, contextualizing the reflections, providing access to the rhizome below.

Sandpoints, the methodology, becomes an architecture for thinking which destabilizes patterns and emphasizes collective understanding. It is an inductive process for relational writing on top of a shared archive. Two concrete instantiations are Dotawo, a series of journals on Nubian studies, and A differenza del presente, an investigation into the Gramsci archives, produced collectively in Calasetta. These are digital artifacts, with dense intertextual hyperlinking and an attached library of PDFs and ePUBs. Unlike the instantaneous luxury knowledge promised by search, they encode the interpretive labor of the collective.

Technology as praxis

The week after the retreat, I stayed in Rijeka with Marcell and Valeria. Now removed from the events, I returned to the question of what I was doing there. Prior to my trip, I had sent an email to friends:

As of late, I've been getting riled up (viscerally so) about "tech savants" opining about art. Art's going to be disrupted. AI is revolutionizing art. Everyone can be creative now. There's no barrier to art. &c. I wish I could block out the noise like some friends suggest [...]

I'm conflicted. Proving them wrong entails scale, and scale entails commodity. The other impulse is to create small gems. I write little notes about my family in Rosario, or film scenes of Brazilian levity, or document the complexity of a street crossing. I write little emails to some friends. I make little software for myself. What to do with these gestures in the face of the discourse? How to not be washed away? Can the inherent scale in software (write once, run everywhere) be somehow revolutionary? Make the sentiment behind those gems into mass? Is a non-commodity mass not tautological?

I'm off to Croatia for a week immersed with the shadow librarians, those who help maintain Ubuweb, Libgen, and Monoskop. These are the main questions I bring. I'll report what I find.

The evening before leaving, I walked along Molo Longo pier with Marcell. In poetically translated English, he spoke of "transferring metaphors from one side to the other." Those sides being politics and technology, Europe and the United States, writing and software. Rob's response to my email had perhaps foreshadowed this:

Explaining art to tech is probably futile [...] i always feel that i've achieved less with the translation than when i attempt the other direction, when the recursive ideas of "interface" or "learning" or "bootstrapping" can be glimpsed by an artist.

Archives are technology. When technology is taken as neutral, power is maintained, and commodity is produced. However, alternative ideologies can be encoded through interfaces and affordances. How does the realm of knowledge relate to the realm of needs? What are the politics of librarianship? What are its pragmatics? If technology is praxis, then encoded in the shadow library there is an answer:

We are in crisis. There is paralysis. Latent inside our archives, there is an imaginary for an alternative world. We need infrastructure, social and technical, for collective interrogations into these archives. When aggregated and distributed, that possibility will blossom. Most days, we need to wack weeds to keep the garden alive.

Cristóbal Sciutto, April 2023.