Research Programs: Summer Stipends

Period of Performance

7/1/2020 - 8/31/2020

Funding Totals

$6,000.00 (approved)
$6,000.00 (awarded)

We the Dead: Preserving Data at the End of the World

FAIN: FT-270775-20

Brian Michael Murphy
Bennington College (Bennington, VT 05201-6004)

Completion of a cultural history of America’s obsession with permanent data preservation.

"Preserving Data in America, from the Depression to the Digital Age" is a book-length project that traces the emergence and growth of Americans' obsession with preserving data over the past century. From the first "permanent" time capsules in the 1930s, to the three million data centers located in the United States today, an ever-expanding "data complex" preserves data on paper documents, microfilm reels, hard drives, magnetic tape, and even digital code written in DNA. The data complex has intensified in response to three major national crises: the economic instability of the Depression, the threat of nuclear attack during the Cold War, and the rise of environmentally unsustainable digital media in the time of climate change. This project marshals extensive archival research, and draws upon recent work in both Media Studies and American Studies to explain why efforts to preserve data do not produce the relief from anxiety they promise, but instead provoke more preservation.

Media Coverage

Murphy Receives NEH Summer Stipend (Media Coverage)
Publication: Bennington College
Date: 5/4/2020
Abstract: Announcement of Brian Michael Murphy being awarded an NEH Summer Stipend.

Spring Forward (Media Coverage)
Author(s): Scott McLemee
Publication: Inside Higher Ed
Date: 11/12/2021
Abstract: Scott McLemee offers a preview of next spring’s university press offerings

Lit Hub Daily: August 22, 2022: THE BEST OF THE LITERARY INTERNET, EVERY DAY (Media Coverage)
Publication: Lit Hub
Date: 8/22/2022

Capital Alumnus Explores How Humans Plan to Live Forever Through Data (Media Coverage)
Author(s): Rebecca Mohr
Publication: Capital Stories
Date: 8/31/2022

Could New Storage Techniques Preserve the World’s Plethora of Data? (Media Coverage)
Author(s): Zoe Thomas
Publication: Wall Street Journal Tech News Briefing
Date: 8/30/2022

2022 in Review on Roundtable: The sixteen most read essays and excerpts on the Lapham’s Quarterly website this year (Media Coverage)
Publication: Lapham’s Quarterly
Date: 12/21/2022

Our mad quest for immortality and the return of the National Book Festival (Media Coverage)
Author(s): Ron Charles
Publication: Washington Post Book Club Newsletter
Date: 9/3/2022

Associated Products

We the Dead: Preserving Data at the End of the World (Book)
Title: We the Dead: Preserving Data at the End of the World
Author: Brian Michael Murphy
Abstract: Locked away in refrigerated vaults, sanitized by gas chambers, and secured within bombproof caverns deep under mountains are America’s most prized materials: the ever-expanding collection of records that now accompany each of us from birth to death. This data complex backs up and protects our most vital information against decay and destruction, and yet it binds us to corporate and government institutions whose power is also preserved in its bunkers, infrastructures, and sterilized spaces. We the Dead traces the emergence of the data complex in the early twentieth century and guides readers through its expansion in a series of moments when Americans thought they were living just before the end of the world. Depression-era eugenicists feared racial contamination and the downfall of the white American family, while contemporary technologists seek ever more durable and denser materials for storing data, from microetched metal discs to cryptocurrency keys encoded in synthetic DNA. Artfully written and packed with provocative ideas, this haunting book illuminates the dark places of the data complex and the ways it increasingly blurs the lines between human and machine, biological body and data body, life and digital afterlife.
Year: 2022
Primary URL:
Primary URL Description: University of North Carolina Press
Secondary URL:
Secondary URL Description:
Publisher: University of North Carolina Press
Type: Single author monograph
ISBN: 978-1469668284
Copy sent to NEH?: No

Panic at the Library (Article)
Title: Panic at the Library
Author: Brian Michael Murphy
Abstract: The sinister history of fumigating "foreign" books.
Year: 2022
Primary URL:
Access Model: Open Access
Format: Magazine
Periodical Title: Lapham's Quarterly
Publisher: Lapham's Quarterly

Data Storage Is Reaching the Limits of Physics (Article)
Title: Data Storage Is Reaching the Limits of Physics
Author: Brian Michael Murphy
Abstract: To improve hard drives, engineers are looking to new technologies and factories in orbit.
Year: 2022
Primary URL:
Format: Newspaper
Periodical Title: The Wall Street Journal
Publisher: The Wall Street Journal

We the Dead: Preserving Data at the End of the World (Book)
Title: We the Dead: Preserving Data at the End of the World
Author: Brian Michael Murphy
Year: 2022
Publisher: University of North Carolina Press
Type: Single author monograph