January 3, 2002

Storage Facility

cockroach

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 of cockroaches; about enough to fill the average refrigerator – which would then be released at specified locations throughout Manhattan. After about fourteen years of mating, 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 calamities, 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 reproducing with the cockroaches carrying the New York Times? Wouldn’t the resulting cockroaches end up storing an unreadable mishmash of more or less interchangeable 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 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.

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 results in shame, failure, and death, we simply transform the buggers into handy places to store old magazines.

No doubt it will happen. 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.