Welcome To The Age Of The Completely Archived Life

Stanford University isn’t just collecting the papers of pioneering architect William McDonough–it’s documenting his entire existence.

Welcome To The Age Of The Completely Archived Life

Stanford, like many other schools, has a massive historical archive–boxes upon boxes storing the life works of hundreds of notable thinkers from throughout history. The collection includes the papers of Paul Ehrlich, a Nobel Prize-winning physician from Germany who coined the term “magic bullet” (54 linear feet of boxes); John Blume, the “Father of Earthquake Engineering,” (49.5 linear feet of boxes); and Betty Grover Eisner, a psychologist who pioneered the use of LSD as a supplement to psychotherapy (10 linear feet), among countless others.


That list also includes William McDonough, the pioneering sustainable architect responsible for Nike’s European Headquarters in the Netherlands. But his case is unique. The school isn’t just getting his papers after he dies; it’s documenting his life as he lives it.

The Times details the effort to make McDonough the school’s “first living archive”:

… the architect, a leader in sustainable development, has started filming all of his meetings and recording all of his phone conversations. He will send them in something close to real time to Stanford, which will be making much of the material immediately accessible on the Internet. Even presidents are not observed so closely and so continuously.

Traditionally, individuals would pull together drafts and notes and letters later in life themselves, and then sell them to the highest bidder. McDonough’s process is a bit more involved:

Mr. McDonough told me in an interview–which he recorded, of course–that until about a year ago he kept some stuff and threw out other things. It was not a systematic approach. Now he has a full-time archivist, Ryan Martin, whose office is next door to Mr. McDonough’s. Stanford will also have an archivist or two working on this project for the next year or two. But no money is changing hands between subject and university. Mr. McDonough will still control the intellectual property rights to his material, although Stanford will own the actual material.

Sometimes, of course, people do not want their meetings with the architect preserved. ‘That’s happened twice out of a thousand,’ Mr. McDonough said. He must get permission to tape phone calls. The privacy implications of this are still somewhat murky. But meanwhile, even the titles of the books on his shelves are being filmed for posterity.

In terms of creating a publicly available archive, it’s the most ambitious effort to date. But McDonough isn’t the only one out there whose existence is currently being saved to a hard drive. Beyoncé has a life log, too. A recent profile in GQ let us peek into the pop queen’s self-initiated archive, “a temperature-controlled digital-storage facility that contains virtually every existing photograph of her … every interview she’s ever done; every video of every show she’s ever performed; [and] every diary entry she’s ever recorded while looking into the unblinking eye of her laptop,” in addition to thousands of hours of footage her personal “visual director” has captured in between.

So what’s the point of it all? In Beyoncé’s case, the archive seems like a combination of the ultimate self-improvement tool and a bulletproof resource for fact checking unscrupulous journalists. With McDonough, like all the other archives that came before him, it’s simply about preserving a great mind for future generations–making sure impactful lives and important thoughts aren’t lost to history. It’s just a matter of reaching a point, technologically, where we can do that much more quickly, in a much more comprehensive fashion.

But it opens up fantastic possibilites for how we might access all that knowledge in the future. Instead of just documenting discrete lives, institutions could document entire movements and trends and schools of thought–hyperlinking individual archives to trace how ideas form and flow. Conceivably, someone sifting through all those documents at home could note how two living people had complementary fragments of a solution to the same pressing problem and put them in contact. It’s the type of content we’d need to build something like Google’s Knowledge Graph for ideas, not just facts. That, and it will make for one hell of a Beyoncé Blu-ray some day.

Read more about William McDonough and his instant archive over at the Times.


[Image: Pixels via Shutterstock]