24 February 2008

Case Study Three: The Granite Mountain Record Vault

Part four of five.

The Granite Mountain Record Vault in Little Cottonwood Canyon, near Salt Lake City, Utah, which contains the equivalent of some 3 billion pages of genealogical records of the LDS or Mormon Church in microfilm and digital copy, can be read as an explicit and imaginative attempt to save ourselves with content-rich information. Three points follow on the timeliness, timelessness, and content-rich information of the vault.

One, the vault is also an artifact of cold war mentalities: its 14-ton doors were built to withstand a nuclear blast. It's built in granite caverns removed from the neighboring Salt Lake City. It purportedly has places for top church officials to protect themselves in case of nuclear disaster. That is, the vault could literally preserve at least a few humans from nuclear apocalypse. This reminds of iconic media in the air at the time: Kubrick’s classic Dr. Strangelove—where old men in charge volunteered to save themselves underground—was released in 1964, two years before the completion of the vault. Pat Frank's /Alas, Babylon/ a post-apocalyptic novel of small town US was published in 1959, the same year LDS leadership approved the $2 million project—$14 million in 2007.

As a physical structure the vault is an impressive effort to preserve information from entropy. 65 staff members take careful pains to slow the decay of microfilm. The staff makes digital copies of the original as new content floods in daily from microfilm and digital imaging cameras in over 45 countries. From its beginning, it exemplifies the idea of preserving information by hoarding stuff—scarce material—to yourself.

Two, vault exists only because of an explicit and imaginative theological belief in the translational power of record keeping to preserve and save humans (Doctrine and Covenants Section 128, Revelations 20: 12, Malachi 4:5). Mormons are not unique in their belief that only their religion has the power to save, but the Church does have a peculiar way of getting about the many contradictions involved. (e.g., what of the fact that almost all the people to walk the earth have never even heard of the LDS Church?) It asks its members to do genealogy, or to organize human history by family trees, and then to perform the necessary saving ordinances (e.g. baptism) for deceased family members by proxy. Ordinance work requires two things: one, knowing at least a few of the deceased person's biographical coordinates—name, birth date, birth place, death date, death place—and, two, a person who is willing to stand in their place to be, say, baptized in the deceased person’s name.

There may be no better example than the Mormon temple or its genealogical vaults of content-rich information work. Minutia of the record—a new name or a death place—excite the everyday people who do this everyday work; and the record must be exact, corroborated by multiple witnesses, to be transcendent.

LDS founder, Joseph Smith interprets Revelations 12:20 “whatsoever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven,” with the following: “taking a different view of the translation, whatsoever you record on earth shall be recorded in heaven, and whatsoever you do not record on earth shall not be recorded in heaven (DC 128).” For him, exacting content-rich record keeping is a necessary though insufficient condition to connect humans with the deceased. This may sound strange until you realize it is what historians do this everyday: they keep the dead alive with the content that lies between us and them.

The practices surrounding the vault may be in some ways extremely possessive: i.e., gather all the names of the dead into a mountain and make them Mormons in a temple (i.e. the Salt Lake Temple) cut from the same granite as the vault. But this reading unravels when the opt-out option to the ordinance work is considered. Not only is it true that, on Earth, if don't want your family's names there, your request should be granted, but that holds for yourself in the afterlife as well. LDS ordinance work is, as Phil put it, a bit like an afterlife stock option. The deceased can cash it if they want, or not.

The basic theological vision of Mormon theology then could be read as guiding corrective to the enthusiasm of open-source work. That is, imagine a world in which every person is empowered to help any other person—regardless of their relation to them—by proxy, at a distance, and over time. Mormons and copyright anarchist-collaborators believe this world already exists. In the LDS vision, the original author of the life on Earth can freely accept or refuse edits. The practice of collaboration with the otherworldly is rooted in not only content-rich information but in individual human labor. Enthusiasts online, I think, do not recognize enough how much real labor needs to go into virtual collaboration. No world can be totally virtual: even brain-in-the-vat thought experiments, like the Matrix, identify in its name a material base to reality, that is, a brain and a vat.

Three, with ongoing digitization efforts of the vault’s index and contents, the vault is a bit like a Fort Knox with a satellite dish, an outlet to saving information by sending it away (distributed, disembodied information). Even when all the vault's contents are digitally preserved in the memory caches and Internet archives, the vault will survive on the promise that, even in catastrophe, the granite bowels of the earth and physical labor around the records will preserve its Geist.

In other words, the Mormon Temple, the granite vault, and Fort Knox all exist on the symbolic belief in an underling order. Knox promises hard currency in a market crash while the vault and LDS Temple provide progress in heaven through history on earth that, even in times of catastrophe, matter. Moreover, the underlying order rests on matter in all three cases (gold, granite, or microfilm).

12 Comments:

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The hoarding of family tree information is puzzling inasmuch as the Mormon Family History Centers are a leading source of genealogical information to researchers not of their faith and at no cost.

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