Bomb-proofing the Digital Image: An Archaeology of Media Preservation Infrastructure

Brian Michael Murphy

Ph.D. Candidate and Presidential Fellow, Comparative Studies, The Ohio State University

The Corbis Film Preservation Facility (CFPF) houses tens of millions of paper photographs, film negatives, glass plate negatives, historical newspapers, and other media in a refrigerated vault, located 220 feet underground in a former limestone mine. Corbis is one of the two largest image resource companies in the world (rivaled only by Getty Images), and globally distributes digital content for advertising, book illustrations, documentaries, and other audiovisual products. The CFPF is one of many vaults within the larger Iron Mountain secure records and data storage facility in Boyers, PA. Both the CFPF and Iron Mountain reflect a broader network of securitized facilities built in the United States since the beginning of the Cold War, which collectively comprise the nation’s media preservation infrastructure. In this essay, I use a media archaeological approach to examine the emergence of this infrastructure in the early 1950s and to contextualize the CFPF’s preservation and distribution of digital images. I argue that the material constituents of the media preservation infrastructure – the Cold War bomb shelters converted into secure data storage vaults, the former iron ore mines that house fine art as well as microfilm records of banks and insurance companies – are important sites for contextualizing the digital images that now circulate seemingly fluidly, effortlessly, ‘immaterially,’ and perpetually in the global image environment.

The reliable transmission of digitized imagery relies not only upon fiber-optic cables, servers, and wireless transmitters, but also the stone caverns and reinforced steel-and-concrete vaults in which those networks of hardware are embedded and secured. Thus, the CFPF, and similar facilities, reveal the way in which digital images are emphatically material. This materiality is comprised of hard drives and other recently developed information technologies, and the ruins, remnants, and residual architectures of previous modes of resource extraction, production, and national security regimes that continue to shape media preservation practice today.

Fig. 1. Corbis Film Preservation Facility Office, 2013, Brian Michael Murphy, digital photograph, © Brian Michael Murphy

Fig. 1. Corbis Film Preservation Facility Office, 2013, Brian Michael Murphy, digital photograph, © Brian Michael Murphy

I visited the CFPF in October 2013, and spent a week in the underground office. I looked through thousands of archival photographs, shattered and taped glass negatives, pristine clippings from Civil War editions of Harper’s Weekly, and also took a tour of the larger Iron Mountain facility. In order to visit the CFPF, I had to pre-arrange a day and time with a Corbis employee, who then added my name to Iron Mountain’s list of approved guests. As instructed by my host at Corbis, I arrived at Iron Mountain, pulled off of the main road and parked my car on the left, entered the front office, and traded my ID for a badge, which I was to turn in at the end of the day. Behind the glass of the security office sat an attendant, and behind her was a row of very large, semi-automatic rifles – Iron Mountain has a security rating of 4 (the White House and the Pentagon are rated at 5). [1] Once I had acquired my badge, I returned to my car to wait for my host to drive out of the facility. I then followed her through security, where an armed guard searched her car, then mine, and directed me to proceed to the next gate, where the tire-flattening spikes were laid flat and, one car at a time, the arm of the security gate raised to let us through. The entrance into the belly of the mountain is only wide enough for one vehicle, so a traffic light system prevents cars from exiting and entering at the same time. After about six minutes of winding slowly through the caverns of the former limestone mine, passing vaults containing Warner Brothers classics, the backup archive of everything HBO has produced, all of Stephen Spielberg’s interviews with Holocaust survivors, the records of the U.S. Patent Office, and plenty of unmarked vaults, we reached the parking spaces outside the CFPF. No pictures are allowed until you are inside the CFPF office, thus I do not have photographs of the outside or the inside of the Iron Mountain facility, only the CFPF office, with its stone walls, temperature-controlled caverns, its heavily securitized underground space where thousands of images are digitized.

I draw my understanding of infrastructure from the recent work of Lisa Parks, and other insights from the diverse field of media archaeology. In her essay, “Stuff You Can Kick: Toward a Theory of Media Infrastructures,” she defines physical infrastructure as “the material sites and objects that are organized to produce a larger, dispersed yet integrated system for distributing material of value, whether water, electrical currents, or audiovisual signals.” [2] She develops a “critical methodology for analyzing the significance of specific infrastructural sites and objects in relation to surrounding environmental, socio-economic, and geopolitical conditions.” [3] The term infrastructure, as opposed to network, “emphasizes materiality and physicality and as such challenges us to consider the specific locations, installations, hardware, and processes through which audiovisual signals are trafficked.” Parks’s infrastructural approach applies readily to my consideration of Cold War preservation infrastructure, where paper and microfilm vital records traveled in armored trucks along the infrastructural paths of highways to infrastructural locations like CFPF. In the body of her essay, Parks analyzes not only contemporary cases, such the underground economy of DIY digital satellite dishes in Tehran, but historical ones, such as a mail-bag sorting room operated by the U.S. Postal Service, to address the complexity of media infrastructures. Just as the mail-bag sorting room is an “infrastructural object” that is part of a “media infrastructure” (the postal system), the CFPF is an infrastructural object that is part of the media preservation infrastructure. [4]

To contextualize digital images it is important to consider the infrastructural spaces of preservation that preserve not only digital images stored on servers, but the fiber-optic cables, electrical wiring and wireless transmitters used to distribute them throughout the global image environment. The CFPF preserves, digitizes, and distributes several important archives of 20th century photography and art, including the Bettmann Archive, the archives of United Press International (including predecessors Acme and International News Photos), Outline celebrity photography, the John Springer collection and the work of many other photographers, such as William Rau, the Pach Brothers, and Lynn Goldsmith. In her book, The Cinematic Footprint: Lights, Camera, Natural Resources, Cynthia Bozak challenges the “notion that digital images are immaterial; like analog forms, digital is industrial and each image consumed bears a material life.” [5] Bozak pushes beyond debates about the truth-value of digital images, their difference from analog photographs in terms of ontology or (im)materiality, to assert the “ecological difference between analog and digital forms of images,” differences that “exist primarily in the physical infrastructure and residual lives of each.” [6] She also locates a key difference between analog and digital in “the machinery or support systems” which include not only the camera, but also “the computer, its software and hardware.” [7]

Where Bozak’s work is centrally focused on the environmental stakes of film production and the natural resources consumed to produce filmic images, whether analog or digital, I am concerned with the historical development of the media preservation infrastructure that enables the distribution of digital imagery, and the media archaeological layers materially embedded in the spaces of preservation that comprise this infrastructure. Parks, who also draws upon Bozak’s work, writes that media infrastructures are difficult to analyze because they are “difficult to visualize in [their] entirety within a single frame” and because they are densely layered. Parks writes that “[m]edia infrastructures are not just a product of the most contemporary technological formations of the digital age; they should be thought about in an historical and intermedial sense. That is, media infrastructures demand a consideration of the ways that distribution processes have emerged, changed, and been layered upon one another over time, how they are part of a media archaeology.” [8] The iconic digital images generated by and distributed from CFPF rely upon the bombproof, underground, securitized, refrigerated spaces of preservation that constitute critical nodes in the media preservation infrastructure. Thus, the stone caverns, fireproof vaults, reinforced steel and concrete construction of these spaces are understudied material constituents of digital images. Much of the media preservation infrastructure is underground – the refrigerated spaces and their tentacular cables buried, fireproof vaults often inaccessible to researchers – but examples like the CFPF are exceptions that provide opportunities to visualize this otherwise vastly invisible media preservation infrastructure.

Fig. 2. #3 (Corbis Film Preservation Facility), 2009, Christian Andersson, MDF board, glass, plastic, paper, paint, electric lights, 90 x 42 x 25 cm. Installation: Christian Andersson, Galerie Nordenhake Stockholm, Sweden, 2009. Photo ©Terje Östling (Used with permission, Courtesy of Christian Andersson and Galerie Nordenhake Berlin / Stockholm.)

Fig. 2. #3 (Corbis Film Preservation Facility), 2009, Christian Andersson, MDF board, glass, plastic, paper, paint, electric lights, 90 x 42 x 25 cm. Installation: Christian Andersson, Galerie Nordenhake Stockholm, Sweden, 2009. Photo ©Terje Östling (Used with permission, Courtesy of Christian Andersson and Galerie Nordenhake Berlin / Stockholm.)

Christian Andersson’s sculpture/installation #3 (Corbis Film Preservation Facility) (2009) invokes the invisibility of much of the media preservation infrastructure with a black box protruding from the wall, through which the viewer can gaze upon a miniature scene within the CFPF – rows of file cabinets flanked by the whitish gray stone walls of the underground space. The CFPF in this work is literally a miniature component of a much larger space of media preservation, much of it secret, not appearing on most maps, including a growing number of spaces that are literally dark. On my tour of Iron Mountain, my guide pointed out a number of vaults for energy-saving “lights-out” server rooms, where hard drives store information in dark, unstaffed vaults. In the event of data loss or the crash of, say, Marriott Hotels’s local servers, these backup resources would restore the corporation’s files to ensure business continuity.

Fig. 3. #3 (Corbis Film Preservation Facility), 2009, Christian Andersson, MDF board, glass, plastic, paper, paint, electric lights, 90 x 42 x 25 cm. Installation: Christian Andersson, Galerie Nordenhake Stockholm, Sweden, 2009.  Photo ©Federico Baronello (Used with permission, Courtesy of Christian Andersson and Galerie Nordenhake Berlin / Stockholm.)

Fig. 3. #3 (Corbis Film Preservation Facility), 2009, Christian Andersson, MDF board, glass, plastic, paper, paint, electric lights, 90 x 42 x 25 cm. Installation: Christian Andersson, Galerie Nordenhake Stockholm, Sweden, 2009. Photo ©Federico Baronello (Used with permission, Courtesy of Christian Andersson and Galerie Nordenhake Berlin / Stockholm.)

In Andersson’s Corbis, the image of the CFPF is technically a kind of diorama, but the positioning of a single viewer in front of the black box recalls the voyeuristic experiences of engaging early film technology, such as the Kinetoscope. Instead of a peep show flashing the exposed flesh of a dancer, the viewer sees a solid block of file cabinets that withhold their imagery from view. Behind the cabinets looms an impenetrable wall of rock that preserves the images by making them both inaccessible and bombproof, freezing them in the refrigerated space of the archive in order to freeze them in time. If photographs were truly stable slices of frozen reality, we would not need sites like the CFPF and the broader media preservation infrastructure. Such sites, like Andersson’s Corbis, highlights the vulnerability of images that require such preservation efforts. Corbis positions the ostensible viewer not as a powerful gaze dominating the small scene, but as a powerless spectator standing outside, and unable to enter, the fortified space that contains the visual archive of much recent history. Corbis is emblematic of the cold, formidable spaces of the media preservation infrastructure that now house many photographic archives, both analog and digital, and provide the material conditions of possibility for the massive digitization of historical images. Bill Gates, Microsoft founder and the sole owner of Corbis, built the CFPF when he realized that digitizing the Bettmann Archive alone would take decades, and that many of the images would deteriorate by then, unless refrigerated and protected. [9] The images in the Bettmann Archive are, thus, both private and corporate property – members of the public must be granted permission to view them.

Fig. 4. #3 (Corbis Film Preservation Facility), 2009, Christian Andersson, MDF board, glass, plastic, paper, paint, electric lights, 90 x 42 x 25 cm. Installation: Christian Andersson, Galerie Nordenhake Stockholm, Sweden, 2009. Photo ©Terje Östling (Used with permission, Courtesy of Christian Andersson and Galerie Nordenhake Berlin / Stockholm.)

Fig. 4. #3 (Corbis Film Preservation Facility), 2009, Christian Andersson, MDF board, glass, plastic, paper, paint, electric lights, 90 x 42 x 25 cm. Installation: Christian Andersson, Galerie Nordenhake Stockholm, Sweden, 2009. Photo ©Terje Östling (Used with permission, Courtesy of Christian Andersson and Galerie Nordenhake Berlin / Stockholm.)

The digital images generated by the CFPF issue from a space that is highly surveilled, securitized, and difficult to access, one that is both a product of Cold War infrastructure and digital age technology. The media preservation infrastructure emerged in the early Cold War through repurposing remnants and ruins of previous modes of production. For instance, the first facility of Iron Mountain, Inc. was located in upstate New York, in a former iron ore mine, once used to produce horseshoes, cannons, cannonballs and bullets for the Union Army during the Civil War. Herman Knaust founded the company, originally called Iron Mountain Atomic Storage Corporation (IMASC), when he built a secure records storage facility in the mine in the Catskills, 125 miles from New York City. The facility housed vital records and microfilm duplicates for banks, insurance companies, and other corporations, and also included underground living facilities for executives of large companies like Standard Oil. One atomic bomb expert called the facility “the safest place in the world.” [11] Its high level of safety derived from three factors: 1) its distance from a target city that would likely be bombed in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack 2) its underground location, reinforced steel and concrete construction, and fireproof vaults 3) its heavily securitized operation, which included 24-hour surveillance and a team of guards armed with .45 caliber pistols and tommy guns. IMASC met a major need of corporations during the Cold War, the need to preserve their vital records in impervious spaces of preservation to ensure their business continuity – the reconstruction of their business history, the re-building of their facilities and equipment, and the resumption of production as soon as possible after a nuclear attack.

Since its founding, IMASC expanded to other facilities, eventually changed hands, was re-named Iron Mountain, Inc., and has now acquired many of its largest competitors. The Iron Mountain facility in Boyers, PA, where the CFPF is located, was originally a limestone mine for U.S. Steel, and was converted into a secure, bombproof records storage center by National Underground Storage in the late 1950s. Iron Mountain purchased it in 1998. The dense historical layers of the Iron Mountain facility pose a challenge to contextualization, as the Cold War architecture of the past is as present in its underground spaces of preservation as the digital age technology of servers and fiber optic cables that now fill these spaces. These mutually embedded layers from seemingly distinct historical eras now constitute, equally and coevally, the materiality of digital images. Media archaeologist Wolfgang Ernst, discusses how a specific media object – a radio manufactured under the Nazi regime – can be so densely layered that historical divisions between the object’s past and present dissolve:

“From the media-archaeological viewpoint…the cultural life span of a medium is not the same as its operational life span: a radio built in Germany during the National Socialist regime…receives radio programs when operated today, since the stable technological infrastructure of broadcasting media is still in operation. There is no ‘historical’ difference in the functioning of the apparatus now and then (and there will not be, until analogue radio is, finally, completely replaced by the digitized transmission of signals); rather, there is a media-archaeological short circuit between otherwise historically clearly separated times.” [10]

In a parallel fashion, infrastructural sites like Iron Mountain in Boyers, which was used during the Cold War to house microfilm and paper records and is now used to preserve and distribute digital data, “short-circuit” the separation between their Cold War past and their digital present.

The media preservation infrastructure that emerged during the Cold War expanded not only through re-purposing abandoned mines and railway tunnels, but through the construction of new spaces meant to ensure the continuity of business and the continuity of government in the event of an atomic attack. The Bunker at The Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, WV (which I will refer to hereafter as The Bunker) was an underground fallout shelter for all members of Congress, built with reinforced concrete and steel, stocked with preserved food and water, and equipped with air conditioning and purification systems. Similar to the original Iron Mountain facility, as well as the one in Boyers, The Bunker had diesel generators to backup its electrical supply, as well as a communications center so statesmen could deliver messages to the American public, and a large open room that would be filled with desks and chairs and become a workspace for Congressional aides in the event of a nuclear attack. [12] The federal government was a major force in the emergence of preservation infrastructure, both through its construction of a number of facilities like The Bunker for sheltering the President and military leaders – a network known as the Federal Arc – as well as through its ideological commitment to, and financial incentivization of, the construction of similar facilities for state, county, and local authorities. The federal government offered these authorities matching funds for the construction of Emergency Operating Centers – securitized locations from which officials would continue to rule their constituencies, allocate scarce resources, and enforce the social order in the wake of a nuclear attack. [13]

The Bunker is emblematic not only of the emergence of preservation infrastructure during the Cold War, but also of transformations in preservation infrastructure in the digital age. The federal government decommissioned the Bunker in 1996, four years after investigative journalist Ted Gup exposed it through an article in The Washington Post, [14] and complete control of the Bunker reverted to CSX, the railroad corporation that owned The Greenbrier Resort and The Bunker (the government had always leased it from CSX). The Bunker was never activated and used during the Cold War, and it is only in the digital age that its reinforced rooms have found a purpose integral to the daily operations of American life. Beyond now being a tourist attraction, the Bunker is also a secure data center owned by railroad giant CSX, where a number of Fortune 500 companies store digital records on servers in underground spaces originally meant to protect the bodies of Congressmen from radioactive contamination and the social disorder that Americans imagined would reign on the ground after an atomic attack. Cold War bunkers, in their digital afterlives as data centers, have proven to be far more crucial to ensuring the continuity of government and business than in their rather eventless operations during the hottest moments of the Cold War. As a 2008 article in The Economist made clear, “Data centers are essential to nearly every industry and have become as vital to the functions of society as power stations are.” [15]

Fig. 5. Bunker Receipt for Electronic Devices, 2012, Brian Michael Murphy, digital photograph ©Brian Michael Murphy.

Fig. 5. Bunker Receipt for Electronic Devices, 2012, Brian Michael Murphy, digital photograph ©Brian Michael Murphy.

I visited The Greenbrier Resort in March 2012 and took a tour of The Bunker. No photographs of The Bunker are allowed. Before I could join the tour, I had to turn in my cell phone, for which I received a receipt, so that I could retrieve it when the tour was over. According to my guide, the servers in the data center receive much of their information from satellite transmissions, and cell phones must be surrendered before entering the facility so that they do not interfere with these transmissions. The doors to the server rooms are not marked with signage, only numbers that are meaningless to tourists, though I assume they are codes for various corporate clients. The Fortune 500 companies create billions of digital images per day in the form of pdfs, and federal legislation requires corporations to preserve a larger amount of their records and internal correspondence than ever before. The Bunker still has its 27-ton “blast door,” but where endless stacks of C-rations once filled a long tunnel, only empty boxes and styrofoam padding for servers and monitors now litter the ground. The two decontamination showers still sit unused at the entrance, once stocked with medicated soap to remove radioactive particles, as does the “pathological waste incinerator,” an oven with the heating power to transform garbage to vapor and ash, and to cremate a corpse, if necessary. [16]

Many other decommissioned, underground, Cold War bunkers have been recently re-purposed by state agencies and corporations. During the Cold War, Mount Pony in Culpeper, Virginia, was a Federal Reserve facility that housed $3 billion dollars in U.S. currency in shrink-wrapped cubes on wooden pallets, intended to replenish money supplies in the event that a large-scale nuclear attack destroyed a significant amount of currency. [17] Mount Pony no longer stores currency, but is now the site of the Library of Congress National Audiovisual Conservation Center (NAVCC), which serves as the nerve center of the Library’s digitization and digital distribution activities, as well as the site where it stores the bulk of its audiovisual collections. Journalistic accounts of visits to the facility emphasize the scale of its collections and preservation efforts, as well as the infrastructural components that make such activities possible, the “miles of cable, which will send digital information” to a “separate backup in Manassas, Virginia” and “pipe different varieties of electronic media back to D.C. for public access”; an “electronic hub” that required “27,000 cables”; and “something like the worlds largest TiVo”: 100 DVRs recording and archiving television shows. [18] Originally, when Hewlett-Packard heir David Packard approached Librarian of Congress James Billington about creating the National Audiovisual Conservation Center, they settled on a facility that had previously served as “an outpost for intercepting atomic attack.” However, the discovery of a rare bird nesting in the ruins of the facility led to a group of environmentally-aware third graders to successfully lobby Billington not to use the facility, in order to preserve the bird. Similar to this atomic “outpost,” Mount Pony, according to Billington, “was deserted when we got it.” [19]

Digitization requires infrastructure, and, specifically, it requires spaces of preservation like the CFPF and NAVCC that securitize and preserve analog collections, much of which will likely never be digitized due to the infrastructural burden that comprehensive digitization projects would create. CFPF has only digitized approximately 250,000 of the over 10 million images in the Bettmann Archive, not to mention the other several million analog images preserved there. [20] The NAVCC must be selective about what it digitizes, and even so, it already generates 3 to 5 petabytes of data per year. In a recent article, Ken Weissman, Supervisor of the Film Preservation Laboratory at the Library of Congress, contemplated the possible consequences of moving entirely to digitization as the means of preserving film, rather than continuing to perform film-to-film transfers. [21] In a series of calculations he calls “really, really scary,” Weissman estimates that a typical archival scan of a color film results in about 128 MB per frame; with digital restoration data included, along with initial scans, each film comprises 48 TB. To digitize the 30,000 titles in the nitrate film collection alone would generate 1.44 exabytes of data. In order to protect the digitized images in a “deep archive,” much of this data would need to be offloaded in a SAN or Storage Area Network. While pulling data out of the deep archive “depends upon the speed of the digital infrastructure,” Weissman wrote that in 2011 moving even a single terabyte into the deep archive for post-processing would take between 3 to 5 hours. He deeply questions the feasibility of then migrating that data every five years (which would be required in order to prevent data loss through format obsolescence), and is astounded by the unsustainability of the general wisdom he’s heard “at several conferences and meetings in the last couple of years where people are saying, ‘No, no, no, no you want to have at least TWO backup copies.’ On separate servers, separate geographic locations, the whole bit, because a single backup that you make might not be able to be restored. You want the second backup, just in case.”

As difficult as it may be to fathom, facilities like the CFPF and NAVCC are actually rather modest sites within the broader media preservation infrastructure that stores and distributes digital images, a network that includes the data centers of large corporations like Facebook and Google. In the course of his attempt to estimate how many photos have ever been taken, Jonathan Good reported in 2011 that Facebook already had 140 billion photos in its collection, which is “over 10,000 times larger than the Library of Congress.” [22] Of course, the clandestine digital image collections of the National Security Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Central Intelligence Agency, likely dwarf even Facebook’s massive holdings, though it is impossible to precisely assess these rather significant sites in the media preservation infrastructure. [23] What is certain is that the vast majority of digital images reside in data centers, which, even though many do not reside in the ruins of Cold War bunkers, still bear the legacy of the Cold War in that they are often located in remote, ‘non-target areas,’ originally demarcated as such by civil defense planners trying to predict where Soviet bombs would strike and to pre-emptively disperse key industries and distribute infrastructure so as to render the nation less vulnerable to incapacitation.

In his book Survival City, Tom Vanderbilt illuminates the ways in which the digital age inherits and makes use of preservation infrastructure from the Cold War. He characterizes data centers as “contemporary incarnation[s] of the Cold War architectural ethos”; they are the “physical housing of websites” and provide “security, redundancy, and anonymity.” [24] In Galison’s view, the internet that relies upon these data centers for its existence “grew directly out of fifteen years of longing for a world still standing after thermonuclear war.” [25] It is now commonplace to point out the roots of internet technology in the military-industrial complex, but Galison is saying more than that: the internet, its imaginary and material infrastructures, grow out of longing, out of a desire to preserve what is. The preservation infrastructure of the Cold War (which was meant to preserve not only media and vital records, but bodies, communications technology, currency, pharmaceuticals, gold, and national art treasures) is now being integrated into the media preservation infrastructure of the digital age, and thus provides key conditions of possibility for the deluge of digital images that saturate the global visual environment.

The CFPF, like other spaces of preservation, in its reinforced construction, securitization, and secrecy evokes the existence of a formidable set of threats. This is the magic of preservation infrastructure: during the Cold War, its reinforced, bombproof spaces seemed to certify their own necessity; during the digital age, that preservation infrastructure now is necessary to the corporate, political, and social continuity of American life. The fireproof steel-and-concrete vaults of Iron Mountain and the Bunker were never actually necessary during the Cold War that produced them – they prepared America against the threat of Soviet bombs that never arrived. Now, in the digital age, nearly every transaction – whether political, financial, or social – relies upon media preservation infrastructure, upon the data centers and related elements embedded in the material and imaginary remnants and ruins of the Cold War. The so-called ‘cloud’ does not exist immaterially in the air above our heads but resides very materially in these remote, reinforced, underground, transcendent spaces of preservation within a vast media preservation infrastructure that grew out of hauntings of destruction, fears of radioactive contamination, and has now been re-purposed to reflect our current fears, hopes, and persistent, impossible desires for permanent media invulnerable to the forces of (cyber)terrorism, natural disasters, and the indomitable force of decay that inheres in all media. [27]

The media preservation infrastructure will continue to expand into the hollow underground caverns and abandoned bunkers of previous modes of production and national security regimes as long as digital information is generated as prolifically and exponentially as is currently the case. A recent article that commends the NAVCC on its “green” architectural principles forecasts a haunting direction for this seemingly inevitable expansion: “With the recent announcement that the detention center at Guantanamo Bay and various related ‘black areas’ will close imminently, perhaps these mistaken monuments can find similarly hopeful uses as the [NAVCC]’s former bunker – and be adapted with equal skill.” [28] Such a conversion would not be entirely unprecedented, at least in the realm of the American cultural imaginary in the Cold War and War on Terror, two periods increasingly blending and short-circuiting their historical separation through their material embeddedness in media preservation infrastructure. For instance, in Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler’s 1962 novel, Fail-Safe, a character predicts that the most likely survivors of a nuclear apocalypse would be insurance file clerks in fireproof vaults and “the most hardened of convicts, those in solitary confinement.” [29]

In the conversion of Guantánamo into a media preservation site, the mediating function of the penal architecture would no longer contain the threat of terrorists but instead keep that threat on the outside of the fortified space. This flexibility of sites within the media preservation infrastructure – their ability to mediate threats from inside and/or outside their securitized spaces – facilitates their continual repurposing according to new media preservation requirements, against new threats, within a shifting set of geopolitical tensions. If the cells of Guantánamo Bay ever do become the vaults of a data center, we will be witnessing not a radically unprecedented development, but a continuation and intensification of an ongoing process that converts residual spaces – left behind by previous modes of production and abandoned by previous national security regimes – originally meant to preserve bodies into spaces that preserve data. The stone walls, underground roadways, blast doors, and observation towers of the media preservation infrastructure are indifferent to what they protect, and what threats they protect those contents from. The iconic images digitized and distributed by the CFPF – Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue at the camera, Marilyn Monroe struggling to hold down her up-blown skirt, Rosa Parks seated on a Birmingham bus – come into existence in and through materials that include not only hard drives and cables where ones and zeroes flicker and pulse, but also the bombproof architectures that house this hardware, the ruined monuments of Cold War bunkers that shelter the flickering image-worlds of the digital age.


1. On a tour of Iron Mountain, my guide informed me about the security rating of the facility.
2. Lisa Parks, “‘Stuff You Can Kick’: Toward a Theory of Media Infrastructures,” Humanities and the Digital, eds. David Theo Goldberg and Patrik Svensson (Cambridge: MIT Press, forthcoming), 1.
3. Parks, 1-2.
4. Parks, 4.
5. Nadia Bozak, The Cinematic Footprint: Lights, Camera, Natural Resources (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2012), 12. Also cited in Parks, “Stuff.”
6. Bozak, 18-19. Bozak engages most directly with William J. Mitchell’s seminal book, The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992). For more on the scholarly debates about various issues surrounding digital images, see The Photography Reader, ed. Liz Wells (London: Routledge, 2003), especially the essays: Sarah Kember, “‘The Shadow of the Object’: Photography and Realism”; Geoffrey Batchen, “Photogenics”; and Lev Manovich, “The Paradoxes of Digital Photography.”
7. Bozak, 19.
8. Parks, 5.
9. Sarah Boxer “A Century’s Photo History Destined for Life in a Mine,” The New York Times, April 15, 2001, accessed April 15, 2014,
10. Wolfgang Ernst, “Media Archaeography: Method and Machine versus History and Narrative of Media,” in Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications, eds. Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka (Berkeley, LA, London: University of California Press, 2011), 240. I am not as focused on the microphysical technological and mathematical processes as Ernst; my tendency is to trace continuities and ruptures within the development of media preservation technology and infrastructure. I think that media history and media archaeology can be more compatible than he suggests, even if they are somewhat paradoxical, or even contradictory approaches. For more on Ernst’s approach, see his essays in his collection Digital Memory and the Archive, ed. Jussi Parikka (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012). See especially “Archives in Transition: Dynamic Media Memories”; “Discontinuities: Does the Archive Become Metaphorical in Multimedia Space?”; as well as Jussi Parikka’s introduction to the volume, “Archival Media Theory: An Introduction to Wolfgang Ernst’s Media Archaeology.”
11. Don Wharton, “The Safest Place in the World,” The Saturday Evening Post. March 22, 1952. pp. 138-140.
12. Beyond Robert S. Conte’s history of the Greenbrier, I draw much information on The Bunker from the guided tour as well as souvenirs I received as a part of the tour, including a brochure called Project Greek Island, which summarized a large amount of the information presented on the tour.
13. David Monteyne, Fallout Shelter: Designing for Civil Defense in the Cold War (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 211-212.
14. Ted Gup, “The Ultimate Congressional Hideaway.” The Washington Post. May 31, 1992.
15. “Down on the server farm.” The Economist. May 22, 2008.
16. Gup, “Ultimate.”
17. David Sokol, “Coming Out of the Dark: A former Federal Reserve bunker protects a different kind of currency,” Greensource, March 2009, accessed April 15, 2014,
18. Richard von Busack, Cinema Saver: David Packard of Stanford Theatre gives millions to national film-preservation effort,” metroactive, September 5, 2007, accessed April 15, 2014,; Jacqueline Trescott “A Sound Investment: Packard Heir Gives Library of Congress Va. Facility for Audio and Film Treasures,” The Washington Post, July 27, 2007, accessed April 15, 2014,
19. von Busack, “Cinema.”
20. “Corbis’ Film Preservation Facility at Iron Mountain & the Bettmann Archive: Frequently Asked Questions, Updated April 2013.” When I arranged my visit to CFPF, I received this document from an administrator at the CFPF.
21. Ken Weissman, “Film Preservation at the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation,” AMIA Tech Review 2, (October 2010).
22. Jonathan Good, “1000memories blog”
23. Peter Galison suggested in 2004 that “about five times as many pages are being added to the classified universe than are being brought to the storehouses of human learning, including all the books and journals on any subject in any language collected in the largest repositories on the planet.” See his article, “Removing Knowledge,” Critical Inquiry 31, No 1 (Autumn 2004): 229-243.
24. Tom Vanderbilt, Survival City: Adventures among the Ruins of Atomic America. (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002), 203. Writing of other locations, he says that “If Cold War facilities such as Site R and Mount Weather were meant to protect the enduring survival of a network of command and control–providing a redundant ‘back-up’ if another element was destroyed–the data centers are similarly quasi-visible fortresses protecting a network that itself has no physical expression.” 198-199.
25. Peter Galison, “War against the Center,” Grey Room 4 (Summer 2001): 5-33. 28. 26. For more on industrial dispersion that imagined target areas and non-target areas within the national space, see Galison, “War,” as well as Kenneth Rose, One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture (New York and London: NYU Press, 2001), especially “Chapter 2: The Nuclear Apocalyptic,” pp. 38-77. 27. For more on the materiality of the cloud and its physical location in a proliferating network of data centers, see Paul T. Jaeger, Jimmy Lin, Justin M. Grimes, and Shannon N. Simmons. “Where is the cloud? Geography, economics, environment, and jurisdiction in cloud computing,” First Monday 14, No 5, May 4 2009, accessed April 15, 2014, Also cited in Parks, “Stuff.”
28. Sokol.
29. Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, Fail-Safe (Hopewell: ECCO, 1999, reprint edition; originally published 1962), 122.


Brian Michael Murphy is a Ph.D. Candidate and Presidential Fellow in Comparative Studies at The Ohio State University. His research focuses on time capsules created during the Depression; bombproof records storage facilities built in the Cold War; digital preservation efforts in the contemporary moment, and how preservation practices develop in relation to broader national, cultural, and racial anxieties. He is also a poet, and his work has been published in the Birmingham Poetry Review, SLAB, Kenning Journal, and CHEST, among other publications. He blogs for the Kenyon Review Online, and in the summers, he teaches creative writing in The Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop. In 2013, he founded an online magazine and blog, 20 LENSES, which features writing on film, books, and other media, all of it around 20 years old.