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Beyoncé and her digital archive — harbingers of the superhuman intelligence we will all one day become

All the Singularities



"Before you get to see Beyoncé," Amy Wallace writes in a GQ profile published earlier this year, "you must first agree to live forever in her archive, too." As described by Wallace, the collection is housed in "a temperature-controlled digital-storage facility that contains virtually every existing photograph of her, starting with the very first frames taken of Destiny's Child."

If you've ever backed up your blog to a hard drive, this is that, writ very, very large. You may never have this much footage of yourself — Beyoncé can afford to keep a "visual director" on her payroll — but the more we can record our lives digitally, it seems, the more we do. Take Kayleigh Hill, a Nebraska teenager who ran onto the field during a College World Series game holding her smartphone up to her face and recording a video of herself, even as she was being wrestled away by security. She and her friends soon took down the photos and video they posted online, but bloggers mined the Internet's back channels and put them back on display inside the collective digital memory. "The Internet never forgets," cache-diggers are fond of saying.

When news of what Beyoncé called her "crazy archive" got out, Library Journal posted an old job listing its staff had found: Wanted for the iconic pop star was a personal archivist whose duties would include "starting with approximately 130 TB of footage with an eye to expanding further in the future." Starting, that is, with a lode of data equivalent in size to about 28.6 billion pages of text. "Candidates," the ad continued, "should have experience with servers and enterprise class storage and be able to recommend hardware solutions." In other words: Beyoncé hired someone to start building the Bey-trix.

Because Beyoncé projects a persona that seems larger than life — fiercer, more driven, more successful, more bootylicious — it makes sense that she would amass a staggering and exhaustive digital legacy. And yet the Scene will not be allowed to take photographs of her performance at Bridgestone Arena this Saturday. While stars of a certain stature regularly put restrictions on professional photographers — first three songs only (no flash), only photos taken from behind the sound board or from the balcony, no photos unless Lady Gaga retains copyright, etc. — Beyoncé has forbidden them altogether. (This is one thing Mrs. Knowles-Carter has in common with Glenn Danzig.)

For someone who has chosen to have herself filmed nearly every waking moment, "up to 16 hours a day since 2005," as Wallace reports, this spell of camera shyness seems untoward. But privacy, ladies and gentlemen, is not today what privacy was. This is a story about control. And Beyoncé's obsessive self-documentation is simply an outsize version of our own. While the line between private and public has been smudged, and has crept ever further into the digital ether, we still want to believe that line exists.

Standing outside Beyoncé's archive, Wallace writes in GQ, "the product that is Beyoncé is safe and sound and ready to be summoned — and monetized — at the push of a button."

For the rest of us, the product that is our digital lives most likely will be monetized by someone else — someone who owns the machines on which our own "crazy archives," our proliferating constellations of statuses, photos and personal data points, are stored. (Machines on which, as recent revelations about the National Security Agency's use of PRISM indicate, that data has been accessed and sifted by our government without our knowledge or consent.)

As we inch closer to 2045 — the year futurist Ray Kurzweil has predicted will bring the "technological singularity," or the moment when technology reaches a point beyond human understanding and "will allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains," merging into a sort of post-human collective intelligence — the supercomputer Watson has outperformed Jeopardy! champions and doctors alike in its game-show and medical diagnostic abilities, and a holographic version of Tupac has already performed to festival crowds. Kurzweil predicts "there will be no distinction, post-singularity, between human and machine." So the pop star best positioned to transform herself, not into Sasha Fierce, but something we can't even comprehend, will be the one whose crazy archive can be read as an outsize hedge against the forgetfulness of flesh.

"I will leave my mark," Beyoncé sings on "I Was Here." We already know she's ready to be summoned.



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