I’ve been sitting on this incredible find for a little while now, and I thought I ought to write about it.  Agrippa (A Book of the Dead) was released in 1992, expensive collector’s books to be sure, but their contents are pretty fantastic.  What’s most fascinating to me is William Gibson’s disappearing poem, “Agrippa.”  At the end of the book — photos of several beautiful editions are available on the Agrippa Files — there was a floppy diskette.

On the diskette was the Gibson poem, and when you ran the diskette, you could read the poem, but only once.  After appearing and scrolling up the screen, the data was encrypted to make the poem disappear.  I really love this run of “Agrippa” on a Mac OS7 emulator, because 1) you get to see the poem in action and 2) Mac OS7 was my first Macintosh.  Ah, the memories.

What really blows my mind is that this was done in 1992.  I was five years old — just barely in school — and this beautiful work of digital art was released.  The text of the poem is available on Gibson’s website.  The poem itself isn’t terribly revolutionary by itself, but I think presenting it as a piece of digital ephemera makes it haunting and, over fifteen years on, kind of disturbing.

To me it is kind of a surprising harbinger — something that I wish I’d discovered years ago, that is a bit of a hint and a wink at what I would learn very soon about the nature of creation and digital media.  Though “Agrippa” is intentionally presented as transient, so after you run the diskette you are simply haunted by this poem, and can never re-read it in its original form, there are many ways in which my creative output for the past eleven or twelve years has been slave to a different kind of digital impermanence.

I learned early on the need to back up your work, that computers are only as reliable as the people who make them, and I also learned early on that people, by and large, are not terribly reliable.  The volume of work I have lost — plunged into darkness by a reformatted diskette or a crashed hard drive or a corrupted file — is pretty incredible.  I sometimes wonder what I would commit to forcing into transience.  What might my “Agrippa” be?

Something seems so solid and constant about a photo album.  The comparisons to a site like Flickr are indicative of the analog-digital divide — the sheer volume of data that is available on Flickr that could never be made available due to costs of production and storage in analog formats boggles my mind.  Flickr is fast, it’s easy, and it’s easy to erase or lose.  Pulling the plug on Flickr (god forbid) would be an incredible loss of data.  I know I have photos in my Flickr account that don’t exist elsewhere, and to be fair they aren’t of enormous importance to me.  Yet it would be easy for them to be lost forever, important or otherwise.  But I don’t think that necessarily makes the digital any more transient.  The last print copy of a photograph, negatives lost or destroyed, is just as easy to lose to fire, water damage, animals, or merely age and forgetting.

What is it about the digital that seems so transient?

“Agrippa” makes me think a lot about this.  I can’t help but contemplate how our digital lives create hundreds of digital ghosts.  Disused MOOs, dead IRC channels, long-defunct blogs — the internet is littered with them.  What things are intentionally left to be ghosts?  There is a surprising amount of permanence to digital ephemera, but our lasting impression of the digital is something that is hard to pin down, intangible, and ultimately, easy to lose.  The click of a mouse is enough.

I think that’s what makes such a presentation of “Agrippa” remarkably powerful — packaged in an art book, something large, heavy, tangible and expensive, is something small, light, transient, and cheap.  Yet that little diskette also is weighed down with a long, contemplative poem about relics and remembrance.

I’m still impressed this was done in 1992.  But then again, I felt that way when I read Julian Dibbell’s My Tiny LifeMy internet has only been around for five or six years, but an internet, and more broadly access to digital tools, has been around for far, far longer.  Perhaps this is a good reality check.  I would like to learn more about the history of the use of digital media in literature and how it informs what we do now.  Does anybody know of a comprehensive history that already exists, or should that be my job?

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