Our ever-growing collections of information and objects can lead to thoroughly modern crises that echo the past. Commentary by Momus.
I’ve been thinking about the parallel between object storage and information storage — apartments and computers — ever since visiting an interesting exhibition at London’s Barbican last month.
Future City looks at experiment and utopia in architecture over the last 50 years. I was particularly impressed by a quote from Japanese metabolist architect Kiyonori Kikutake. “A Japanese room is determined by information,” Kikutake was quoted as saying, “whereas a Western room relies on objects.”
I thought immediately of Kyoichi Tsuzuki’s photographs of Tokyo apartments. These tiny places (I lived in one myself for a year) tend to consist of an empty living space — typically a tatami-covered floor — surrounded by densely packed information-storage systems.
The information “saved” to these spaces might be clothes, records, knickknacks, magazines, toys — the obsessively collected, meticulously arranged, somewhat pointless “hard copy” of countless shopping trips. The tatami-and-futon floor space, meanwhile, is where processing happens.
There, the room’s occupant does his living, eating, loving, sleeping, thinking. This is the room’s RAM, its processor, where the present moment is all. Here the timeline of human attention scans through a book, a manga, a magazine or website, one page at a time.
Never one to pass up an opportunity to think of my lifestyle as Japanese rather than Western, I decided there and then to create a “Japanese” apartment in Berlin, a place devoted to information and the storage of information. My new apartment, after all, was on the small side. I’d have to resort to Japanese tricks and a Japanese sensibility to make it work. I had in mind not just Tsuzuki’s photographs of stashed Tokyo pads, but also a lovely book I have (it’s in a box somewhere) of photographs of Japanese writers’ rooms.
There you’ll see Kawabata or Mishima sitting in a light summer kimono, cross-legged at a low writing desk, surrounded by books, shelves of them, stacked to the ceiling.
Having a photo of something was as satisfying as owning it, sometimes more so. In 2000, when I moved into a tiny apartment in New York’s Chinatown, I began a habit that continues to this day: I rented a Manhattan Mini Storage unit and stashed 90 percent of my “permanent collection” out of sight and out of mind. I became an iceberg, with most of my cultural weight hidden below the waterline. Without my past around me, I felt younger, more buoyant. And yet I never quite had the courage to jettison everything. That’s the curse of storage!
If storage is in crisis, it’s because the web has become everything a library used to be. The web is something like the Aleph that Jorge Luis Borges talked about, the point in space that contains all other points, and from which everything can be seen clearly. It’s the “window on the world” McLuhan told us every dominant medium pretends to be — and of course betrays us by never quite becoming.
And this inevitable betrayal is an important reason not to throw away your books. The web may be king, our emperor may be Google, but books (and they aren’t Googleable quite yet) provide an alternative way of perceiving reality. Their subversive potential has always been entirely evident to the powerful. Records of the past make us see the future in a different — and sometimes dangerous — light.
“There are some men of letters who do not model themselves on the present, but study the past in order to criticize the present age,” declared the Chinese emperor Qin Huang-di in the third century B.C. “They confuse and excite the people…. Those who use the past to criticize the present should be put to death together with their relatives.” The emperor, hoping that posterity would date the beginning of history with himself, also decreed that all the books in China should be burned, along with all the Confucian scholars who might have memorized them.
But Qin had a fatal flaw (and it’s why history doesn’t start with his Year Zero): Even he couldn’t resist keeping just one copy of every book in China.
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