At one point during his discussion of a “melancholic” (108) desire for the immortal preservation of digital media Tung-Hui Hu cites Paul Duguid’s quotation of the archdeacon Claude Frollo, a character in Victor Hugo’s 1831 Notre-Dame de Paris (107). The dialogue, as rendered on page 107 in Hu’s A Prehistory of the Cloud is as follows: “‘This will kill that. The book will kill the building… The press will kill the church… printing will kill architecture.’”
Hu’s selection of this literary reference is informative of the lineage of his own preoccupations. Hugo’s novel is quite famously as narrative as it is disquisitive. Entire chapters of the book regard with as much reverie and impart upon with as much pathos the architecture of medieval Paris as any of the tribulations of Quasimodo and Esmeralda. As is evident from Hu’s citation, Hugo’s central assertion is one of media obsolescence. Whereas physical buildings once rendered the zeitgeists of societies across the world into form and structure—legible with a crane of the neck or an echo of the voice—media of mechanical reproduction would hold the power to end, to kill (in Hu’s mortal terms), those older ideological stoneworks which were built principally to withstand the forces of nature and war. For Hugo (or at least his novel’s narrator), the heights of western society’s productive capabilities were the towering spires of Gothic architecture.
The engineering, and more importantly, the handiwork through which Hugo’s edifices were constructed was often anonymous and deadly. That is, we often have little record of bricklayers, in spite of the skill their surviving works make evident. To return to the work in question, it would seem to me that such a relationship between laborer and construct is exactly the opposite of that which Hu describes in his book. Take Hu’s example of the Bangladeshi CAPTCHA solvers. The “slow violence of the information economy” (146), enacted upon human beings, appears, in spite of its shared semblance of anonymity, diametrically opposed to something like the threatened violence of the hopeless and rapid descent to the ground implicit in the labor of medieval stoneworker.
Indeed, as Hu writes, in many respects the very act of labor, not just its laborers, becomes anonymized into invisibility. The invention of the digital “user” reflects the mediation between corporate clouds and individual personages—economic transactions and personal privileges—of a mandate “to continually act” through use itself (50). To be sure, the labor which built the cathedral was done in the service of larger economic and political causes, but also in the service of the eventual worshipper. In the age of networks, Hu implies, this collective distinction evaporates into an individual “paranoia” (11, 147). “Because creating the system of connections is synonymous with exposing or unraveling the system, creating the system is synonymous with the act of pulling it apart” (19).
Where Hu seems to diverge from Hugo’s somewhat Darwinistic approach to media succession, however, is found in Hu’s notion of the the cloud itself. Hu defines “sovereignty of data” as the unique process by which “the cloud grafts control onto an older structure of sovereign power; much as fiber-optic networks are layered or grafted onto older networks” (XVI). Operating as a cloud, Hugo’s print may have, instead of killing it outright, adapted the form of the cathedral to its own use. Yet, inasmuch as the 19th century preservation of medieval Paris is concerned, could such a sovereignty be read as the ironic heart of Hugo’s novel?