Sugar Mountain

A Paper on the Power of Storing

This paper was written during the course Design and the Future of Publishing at the New School in 2014. The course was led by Juliette Cezzar and sought to bring design and writing together in an interdisciplinary manner. Both students from Parsons The New School for Design and from The New School for Social Research, which I attended during that year, joined to discuss and question contemporary forms of publishing and its consequences. Fascinated with the non-transparent aspects of the web and the wealth of data that is being stored for and against us every day, I decided to attempt a formulation of thoughts about the nature of these ever more solidifying power structures and the thought systems at their core.

Sugar mountain is the English translation of the German word ‘Zuckerberg’. ‘Zuckerberg’ as in Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder.

Almost ironically, his last name establishes a meaning beyond being a randomly assigned name. It brings together a few aspects that become increasingly important when one starts to investigate the realm we spend most of our waking lives in, the internet.

The unbelievable amount of data that is collected and stored from our activities and simple consumption of various websites seems irrationally out of proportion when one tries to imagine its size yet it is resting on a base that could not be more rational or, one could even say, conceptual: zeros and ones, on-off, there-not-there, being and nothing.

As if compulsively driven we do not cease to consume, extract, contribute, and store. And ‘they’, the companies behind the websites, do not cease to accumulate, index, analyze – and store. While our living and working selves are slowly migrating to the ‘clouds’, just to have “countless invisible spiders […] crawling across [our] data” (Haddow 2011), others experiment with the incredible storing capacity of DNA in order to translate data into the densest archive of human thought and creation so far. In this paper, I will try to question this ‘simple’ activity: the activity of storing.

To begin this journey, Zuckerberg’s last name provides a few valuable parallels.

A sugar mountain brings us back to our earliest versions of storing; the storing of food and the seeming independence of nature's unpredictability that it allowed us.
When taken in its more symbolic dimension, the sugar mountain allows for a second reading: until the end of the late middle ages, a mountain of sugar would have meant incredible wealth and an almost dubious economic power. Yet, a simple rain storm would easily have transformed it in a fleeting river of sweet, sticky water.
So it brings forth a third parallel. It would have been just as fragile as ‘our’ data now is: only apparently stored eternally in the ethereal safety of a space beyond time and natural powers, the availability of data in fact relies heavily on structure and infrastructure, on immense amounts of energy and enormous amounts of engineering minds. It is just as vulnerable to decay and unpredictability as anything else.

When taken to its core, it is not that difficult to understand the way data ‘is’.
With every letter we type on our digital devices, we create a stream of eight times electricity flowing or not flowing. Eight spaces for either a zero or a one. A capital ‘A’ for instance translates in binary code as 01000001. These eight zeros or ones, these eight bits are, taken together, also called a byte. One million of them is one megabyte.

It becomes more difficult when one tries to imagine the scale of the stored data so far.
In 2013 we lived with 2,7 zettabytes of digital data. That are 2.7 sextillion (2.700. megabytes. With an average length of five letters per word in English and an average of 64.000 words for a book, you would have to write 8 quadrillion 437 trillion 500 billion (8.437.500.000.000.000) averagely sized books to fill up a space equivalent to this. The library of congress, the largest library in the world, contains ‘only’ 36.000.000 books. The internet has grown far beyond imaginable dimensions.

And it will not cease to grow any time soon. Rather, it is expanding at an incredible rate. IBM predicts eight zettabytes for 2015 and so far all their estimations have been understatements.

Through every interaction with the internet we contribute. By posting, uploading, linking, liking, streaming, sharing, spreading. Even by just moving our cursor. Our actions and interactions get registered, saved and stored.

It is no news that it is impossible to erase the trails you leave behind, but even if you did take the initiative (a life’s work for sure as the case of austrian law student Max Schrems illustrates), you would not be able to delete the impact you have had on its development. As slight as this impact may seem, we have all already become part of the analytical data that has been made from the bits of life we shared. We have already become part of statistics, of marketing strategies, of political campaigns and reformulations of algorithms. The digital part of our lives are closely and intricately meshed with our physical lives. Anything we do in it has impact.

The internet is not a place apart or ethereal. It is itself physical, with its data centers, wire infrastructures, and the devices we use to access it. But it is also physical in another sense. It has become intrinsic to how we understand ourselves as human beings and how our monitored interactions determine the culture that is created. Not to take part in it would also mean to silence one’s public voice, to censor oneself from influencing the shape it takes and the world it creates.

And yet, these activities, even if they can thus be labeled as activities of citizens, cannot be understood as being ‘owned’ by those who put them forward. In the best cases, we own what we say in the sense that we can adhere to what is mostly, if we were to judge it on a scale of intellectuality and compare it to the published output of past decades, a heap of junk made of online output. We create the sugar mountain but we do not own it. Once our ‘doing’ is transformed into data and landed on a server external to our own hard drive, we can no longer properly call it ‘ours’, we can no longer properly call it ‘private’, nor ‘public’. In the moment we connect to the rhizomatic superstructure called the internet, we have simply handed over its meaning to the owners of the platforms we use, and also, of course, the state.
Like a sleep-walker filling in survey after survey without conscious consent or intent, we supply countless information on our relation to the world, and are heavily reliant on the implemented structures. The public and the private get intermingled in an unprecedented fashion, a process in which both are reduced to the apparent digital neutrality of zeros and ones, of electronically stored and retrieved ‘facts’.

The words of Benjamin describe the condition that we experience in the coming to be of such a world:

“The stripping of the veil from the object, the destruction of the aura, is the signature of a perception whose ‘sense for all that is the same’ [Johannes V. Jensen] has so increased that, by means of reproduction it exhausts sameness even from what is unique. Thus is manifested in the field of perception what in the theoretical sphere is noticeable in the increasing significance of statistics. The alignment of reality with the masses and of masses with reality is a process of immeasurable importance for both thinking and perception”
(Benjamin 2008, pp.23).

I could not resist the crude appropriation of Benjamin. It is far too insightful a passage to be left unquoted. It leads us straight to key issues concerning the kind of society that is obsessed with statistical evidence, the immortalizing of the fleeting substance of life, and the belief of attaining knowledge through the splitting of whatever has material existence into what has been determined as its elements – whether they’d be chemical, or genetic, or atomic, or, yes, behavioral. By adopting a view point of sameness rather than difference, by determining the smallest possible denominator, what is different, unique, individual per se, becomes analyzable, quantifiable. With a perception aligned to the ‘sense for all that is the same’, we “exhaust sameness even from what is unique” (ibid.).

The reproduction of the unique, in Benjamin’s original context the reproduction of the ‘aura’-ful artwork, the artwork as expressive mass of materiality brought forward by the artist and experiencable only in its real presence, does indeed destroy its unique aura, its unique material presence and impact on the world. By being mechanically reproduced, its reproduction educates the perception for sameness, because it transforms what is utterly in the world only once into patterns of repetitious recognition. It does not claim to be the unique itself, but it makes claim to evoke it, to represent it, to be representative of it. Just as any census claims to represent the population of a country, or as digital data collectors claim to excavate truth about humanity as a whole:

“Consider for a moment, the grandiosity of some of the claims being made in Silicon Valley right now. Google’s mission statement is famously to ‘organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.’ Mark Zuckerberg recently told investors that, along with prioritizing increased connectivity across the globe and emphasizing a knowledge economy, Facebook was committed to a new vision called ‘understanding the world.’ He described what this ‘understanding’ would soon look like: ‘Every day, people post billions of pieces of content and connections into the graph (Facebook’s algorithmic search mechanism) and in doing this, they’re helping to build the clearest model of everything there is to know in the world.’”
(Krenchel & Madsbjerg 2014).

It seems as if our culture, “long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control” (McLuhan 2011, p.19), has, in a dialectical fashion, shifted to “total field” (ibid., p.25), has “returned to the inclusive form of the icon” (ibid., p.24).

Through the general acceleration that electricity permitted, we have moved from fordist mechanization to algorithmic automation. Suddenly, any word search on Google presents not only the definition of the word, but its historical development in the form of a graph – a new feature that was implemented in 2010. The creators of this algorithm claim in their book Uncharted: Big data as a Lens on Human Culture that “Big data is going to change the humanities, transform the social sciences” (Aiden & Michel 2013, p.8), that “this big data revolution is about how humans create and preserve a historical record of their activities” (ibid.). Thus, Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel create icon-like instant messages like these, based on the 30 Million books scanned by Google so far:
A graph showing the words ‘the future’ and ‘the past’, as their usage frequency increases and decreases over the years. In 1914 ‘the past’ took over ‘the future’.

To retrieve, store, analyze and visualize that data would not have been possible without the immense storing and working capacities of computers today, and are only conceivable because of the exponential growth of their electrical information en- and decoding power. So McLuhan, identifying electricity as the main motor for change and as the medium per se, may well be right:

“the greatest of all reversals occurred with electricity, that ended sequence by making things instant. With instant speed the causes of things began to emerge to awareness again, as they had not done with things in sequence and in concatenation accordingly. […] The movie, by sheer speeding up the mechanical, carried us from the world of sequence and connections into the world of creative configuration and structure. […] When electric speed further takes from mechanical movie sequences, then the lines of force in structures and in media become loud and clear. We return to the inclusive form of the icon”
(McLuhan 2011, p.24).

The fragmented world, created by a scientizing culture, which makes our knowledge and understanding of being in the world fundamentally grounded in an endless subdividing and categorizing, quantifying and mathematizing of matter, the shift to total field allowed by mechanization, automation, and increasing acceleration, does indeed do what Benjamin predicts. We are confronted with a new total field, new icons in the forms of graphs and numbers, that permit the “alignment of reality with the masses and of the masses with reality” (Benjamin 2008, p.24).

It may thus not be surprising that the computer finds its beginning with the challenge of the american census of 1890. Virtually incapable of coping with the amount of data taken from the fast population growth in the United States, the clerks worked eight years to reach any conclusions on the data they had collected in the census of 1880. One of these clerks was Hermann Holerith, who, inspired by the steam-powered weaving machine of Joseph Marie Jacquard and the calculating machines of Charles Babbage, created a half-automated system with punch cards. The citizen’s answers were transformed into holes, and thus the card into a pattern of yes’ and nos. Where the hole would permit an electric circuit to be completed, the machine would count a ‘yes’ on the specified answer. It was already a code translatable to pre-assigned meanings, a system of zeros and ones. Eventually the logic of electric circuits being enabled or not, would lead to the form of integrated circuits on electronic chips as we know them today, a development that increased working power exponentially, and is intrinsic to the accelerated rhythms of our lives today, “for the ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs” (McLuhan 2011, p.20).

What has considerably changed since the time in which governments and scientific institutions were the main collectors of such data, is, of course, the emergence of the internet and its now almost global ubiquity. What social networks, the data collected from our activity, and the so called ‘deep web’ provide, is a very different picture from the one censuses paint.

A census is the collection of fixed data. Big data analysis, on the contrary, is the science of the in-between: of relations between people and relations between people and the world. An incredible well, an unprecedented collective brain, an expanding community of the dead and the living, a heap of junk certainly, but heaps of junk can indeed be seen as the “valued collections of the future” (Pearce in Knell 1999, p.21), an incredible excavation site for future anthropologist-archeologists. Yet, as exciting as this sounds, we ought to remember, that these databases are not in the public domain, but are held by private companies with economic interests. Also, that the internet still is rather an accessing tool than an archiving tool, as Alessandro Ludovico argues (2012, chap. 5). Nevertheless, we are on a good way to make it into the largest data warehouse that was ever available. But what is the kind of data that is collected there, what kind of mirror image is presented to us? It is a realm intrinsically limited by its own dimensions, it is a space of description and simulation, lacking the sensuous dimension of what it refers to. Its framework are zeros and ones connected to meanings that appear on the screen and can be decoded, but are still just a referent.

As long as we are aware of these limitations and use and integrate them into our lives for what they are, this may not become a problem. The problem are totalizing rhetorics of ‘knowing the world’, possessing the evidence. These do no longer question their own point of view and therefore claim it to be absolute truth, the ultimate way forward. Phil Agre, unfolding his ideas of the relationship between knowledge and the web through reflections on Digital Libraries, puts it this way:

“The design of computer systems begins with concepts: concepts that describe the people, places, and things that the computer is supposed to represent, the attributes they can possess, the actions they can take, and the actions that can be taken upon them.
The concepts that become embodied in computers are part of intellectual history: they come from somewhere, and indeed the usefulness of the computer will consist largely in the accuracy with which the users’ concepts can be used to explain what the computer does.”
Further on, he warns us:
“if we derive our institutional ideas from the metaphors already embedded in the technology, then the process may be tautological from the start. Every technology is embedded in the social world in complicated ways, and this is particularly true for digital libraries, which are intertwined with the cognitive processes of a complex society. Unless our conceptualization of society stands on an equal footing with our conceptualization of the technology it uses, our analysis will inevitably be overwhelmed by myths.”

The tautology that Agre describe, becomes apparent when data analysts promise predictability, higher consumer satisfaction, and the digging up of new ideas from the well of the internet’s underbelly. We already live in an automated world that makes extensive use of such data as the example of Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Washington shows: a “zoo made with data” where “IBM Big Data & Analytics has improved those estimations [the number of “employees to hire, how many supplies to purchase”] by correlating data from various sources, like mobile check-ins and weather reports. With insights drawn from data, they can now better anticipate the needs of their visitors and make more effective business decisions” (IBM 2014b). We stand at the beginning of these practices but they will certainly be far-reaching in their consequences. The Point Defiance Zoo may be an innocent example, where estimations that already existed simply become more precise, yet it is worth asking for what aims we are employing these strategies and what their implications are. For whom exactly do we need more efficiency? And what happens when “companies of all shapes and sizes systematically pick through our digital droppings, collating them, passing them around, inspecting them, and feeding them back to us” (Deibert 2013, p.56)? The tautology becomes complete when we are only fed what we want and how we want it, when spaces of friction are smoothed out, when the recorded past determines what happens to you in the present and the present, when all that is shown to you is your mirror image rather than a world full of enigma, in which new thoughts can emerge.

Google, with its ever so ubiquitous services, its collecting, storing and indexing of the web is the biggest fish of them all, responsible for 40-50% of all traffic on the internet (Worstall 2013). But Google’s crawlers have so far only covered 10% of the web, according to Paul Gil’s 2012 guide What is the ‘Invisible Web’? (Devin & Egger-Sider 2014, p.41), and most people do not go past the first ten search results. “Drawing on the terabytes of behavioral data it collects through its search engine and other sites, it carries out thousands of experiments a day, according to the Harvard Business Review, and it uses the results to refine the algorithms that increasingly control how people find information and extract meaning from it.” (Carr 2008). In addition to this, what Google shows to its user is not, as most people presume, ‘the internet’. It is its mould of the internet, what it has indexed so far with the help of its crawlers, or ‘spiders’, the part of the internet that is stored in their data centres. We access Google’s resource and not the source itself. Google creates meaning, and driven by the speed of everyday life, we mostly trust its judgements.

We all contribute, yet someone keeps the record, keeps the documents, judges. It is here that I would like to introduce Derrida’s writings on the archive.

“The meaning of ‘archive’, its only meaning, comes to it from the Greek arkheion: initially a house, a domicile, an address, the residence of the superior magistrates, the archons, those who commanded. The citizens who thus held and signified political power were considered to possess the right to make or to represent the law. On account of their publicly recognized authority, it is at their home, in that place which is their house (private house, family house, or employees house), that official documents are filed. The archons are first of all the document’s guardians. (…) They have the power to interpret the archives. Entrusted to such archons, these documents in effect state the law: they recall the law and call on or impose the law.”
(Derrida 1995, pp.9)
What could be more explicit?
“The archivization produces as much as it records the event. (…) The archive has always been a pledge, and like every pledge, a token of the future. To put it more trivially: what is no longer archived in the same way is no longer lived in the same way. Archivable meaning is also and in advance codetermined by the structure that archives.”
(Derrida 1995, pp.17)

The internet is a curious place. The vastest heap of junk that ever existed, taken seriously as if it were the last remains of a long forgotten civilization only forgotten seconds ago. But, again, what could be more precious to human beings but understand their own present? And isn’t that made possible through the ever-growing, ever-renewed store house that the internet is? A present and presence in which all that is past, and even just past a second ago, is recorded? The internet is open to any project, it permits the making public of anything without gatekeepers. Yet it has, since its spreading, established meaning-creating institutions that reach far beyond encyclopedias, libraries, and museums. The internet is far from still being the innocent child and the world of possibility that some still pretend it to be. Certainly, some good ideas find their audience and a vast amount of great content is being generated, but all this does not undermine the fact that meaning-creating institutions have established themselves and are powerful not only because they influence our interaction with the world in a deep and meaningful way, but simply also because they are the economic powers of today. The internet permits us, as long as we understand its underlying language and learn to code an appearance on a browser, to be our own archons. Douglas Rushkoff makes exactly that argument, summarized in the book title: Program or be programmed. But few of us recognize and are capable of using that agency. And therefore stay reliant on the contemporary princes of the cabinet of curiosity, hyperlinked, indexed, and contracted in its own way.

The first cabinets of curiosity, maintained by the wealthy princes of sixteenth and seventeenth century Italy, were collections of objects valued for their uniqueness or exceptionality, and are seen as “an attempt to reappropriate and reassemble all reality in miniature, to constitute a place from the centre of which the prince could symbolically reclaim dominion over the entire natural and artificial world” (Imply & MacGregor 1985, p.5). Soon these cabinets were joined by collections with more scientific intentions, which started not only to collect the exceptional but also the unexceptional, to gain knowledge over the natural world, i.e. the study of plants and animals as they appeared in the local, rather than exotic or simply imagined, fauna. Museums started to see it as their duty to communicate with and educate their public. The painting “The Artist in His Museum” by Charles Willson Peale , shows the “artist-collector citizen [lifting the curtain to] a collection representing the world in microcosm” (Dilworth 2003, p.3). With his piercing and straight forward look, it seems as if he were saying; ‘now you see, you see it all, you see it all at once, in total field’, and you look behind the curtain, onto a world unfolding like a play on a stage. Among the ordered objects, mainly birds in glass boxes, representants of the natural world, frozen in time, immortalized, stroll contemplating humans. Like fixed data and the in-between. Leah Dilworth interprets it thus: “the public (…) are learning about the world and their relation to it as Americans” (ibid., p.3). Leaving death, present as a dead wild turkey ready to be prepared for taxidermy, and an unordered life in the dark foreground of the painting behind, we, as spectators, find ourselves with the artist, who opens the possibility for us to enter the lit and enlightened space. We are put in a double position of knowing. We still remember the darkness and shadowness of Plato’s cave, yet are on the threshold, via the immortalizing, labeling and ordering of the world by the artist collector, to enter the world of those strolling citizens, being enlightened by the reproduction, imitation of the natural world. And yet, what are the black boxes, as Latour would call them, that we take for granted, accept and forget to question, but which stand at the core of how ‘the world’ is presented to us? When the moment of contemplation vanishes and we turn away from the painting, we find ourselves catapulted back into a world in which, in Peale’s eyes, much still needs to be done. Were we to visit the painting today, we would actually just have been thrown back into the exact picture to which Peale so courteously allows us an insider’s view. A mirror image of what is happening behind the curtain, a room in the museum of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, filled with indexed frames, and strolling ‘enlightened’ people. A double reflection on our conditions as humans in the world today, navigating and weaving back and forth between life and its mirroring on our communication devices.

This repetition, doubling, immortalizing, producing, reproducing, brings us back to Derrida and therefore also to Freud.

For Derrida, “there would indeed be no archive desire without the radical finitude, without the possibility of a forgetfulness which does not limit itself to repression (…) there is no archive fever without the threat of this death drive, this aggression and destruction drive” (Derrida 1995, p.19). Archiving, collecting, preserving is a measure, act and process against the radical finitude, against death, and against the process of forgetting, existing only as a form of Eros against Thanatos (of the life drive against the death drive).

“At this very instant that, having written something or other on the screen, the letters remaining as if suspended and floating yet at the surface of a liquid element, I pushed a certain key to “save” a text undamaged, in a hard and lasting way, to protect marks from being erased, so as thus to ensure salvation and indemnity, to stock, accumulate, and in what is at once the same thing and something else, to make the sentence thus available for printing and for reprinting, for reproduction?”
(ibid., p.22).
He “saves” the text, saves it from what? From its disappearing ― “To protect marks from being erased”, “to ensure [secure] salvation and indemnity”. “Saves” it for what? For the future ― for reproduction, for the continuing of life, the passing on of one’s being? To “stock, accumulate”, as we stock and accumulate food for guaranteeing the survival of us and the survival of a future of ‘us’, us humans? “What is at once the same thing and something else”, to fix, immortalize and yet also open up, make accessible. “In a hard and lasting way”, like an inscription in stone, permitting us to decode the symbols and signs of whole civilizations, as for instance the Rosetta stone, that uncovered the secrets of hieroglyphics. Or, indeed, as determinant as the law engraved in the tablets of Moses.

At the core of “a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive”, for the safety to accumulate, to store, is “an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for the return to the most archain place of absolute commencement” (ibid, p.57).

The hope to understand, to ‘know’ through accumulation, to understand what lies hidden in the objects that surround us, the ever hope of something ‘behind’ reality, something that is there to eventually be understood, just by looking closer and closer into it, as if there we would find the origin, thought of by Leibniz as zeros and ones “the creation of all from nothing through the omnipotence of God” (Leibniz in: Codognet 2002), the sensuous transformed into its particular characteristics, into its facts, its data, stored and indexed, with the hope to generate the overview, the “icon”, the icon of “absolute commencement”. Of remembering and understanding our own birth, the birth that we can only be told about.

The Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, are well known for building intricately carved store houses, also called ‘Pataka’. They were usually set up in front of the chief’s house, on the meeting grounds (‘marae’) and contained dried food, preserved birds, weapons, wooden bowls, garments, fishing and agricultural equipment. They were important symbols of wealth and prestige, and were inaugurated with festive ceremonies. The larger the pataka the greater the display of abundance of food and wealth of the chief. The Maori kept almost nothing in their private homes, their treasured belongings were kept in store houses of different sizes and shapes.

We now are building the vastest store house that ever existed. The information society that built it, transformed its content into gold. It contains all that the knowledge economy understands as valuable: facts.

By trying to give a picture of the world that our communication devices are linked to and enmeshed with, I have wanted to connect the problematic aspects of this structure with the structure of thought that it represents and believes in. By turning data into gold, zeros and ones into sugar, we, as a society, have given immense powers to those who store that data and retrieve it. Who stores has, and who has, has power.


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Written by Elsa Westreicher, published July 2014.