The Data Drive: A Paper Internet From an Alternate Universe

Many artists and scientists have considered printing the Internet on the requisite 136 billion pieces of standard (8″x11″) paper — few have tried. Still fewer have fed such sheets of paper into a printer, printed out the world’s most famous websites, cut them up, resized and reassembled them with original content before scanning the product back into a computer and posting it online. As far as we know, in fact, only a person named Daniel Kolitz has attempted to create a robustly microcosmic, hyperlinked Internet out of scanned cutouts.

For a couple of years, Kolitz ran a Tumblr called “The Printed Internet”. This Tumblr drew the attention of writer Adrian Chen, who, alongside Alix Rule and Sam Lavigne, is one of the editors of Useless Press, which is devoted to publishing “high-quality internet things.” Eventually, Chen and company helped Kolitz expand the project into an immersive, smartly story-damaged world that includes articles (from TimePitchfork, Vox, and many more outlets), weirdly hilarious ads, cross-referential status updates — it’s something you need to see for yourself.

Before long, as Kolitz points out in the below interview, the project moved beyond mere content parody and into a “nihilistic celebration” of our capitulation to Big Data. The hub of all this is the The Data Drive — a paper Facebook — which somehow tells the story of how a maniacal Mark Zuckerberg absconded with all of our private data.

Here is our conversation with Kolitz, who discusses the project with a laid back, almost reluctant surprise, as if the Paper Internet just popped out of him accidentally.

Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 3.05.45 PM

How did you come to create a paper version of the Internet?

I started a Tumblr in early 2013 — that’s something that I did for a year and half. It was a ridiculous thing to do, and it was also extremely labor intensive. I retired from doing the collaging in 2014. Then Adrian Chen contacted [me] for this project called Useless Press, the idea of which is to publish web projects instead of essays. This is the first one that they’re launching with, and they want to publish a series of unusual, more immersive type-things instead of the usual run of essays or whatever. [Chen] reached out and asked if I wanted to revamp the gimmick or the concept of that blog and make it a little more immersive. Then he put me in touch with a programmer. Very quickly I chose Facebook as the, well, the hub. The user feeds let me play around with people just posting whatever — you could click out from there.

So the expansion of the project eventually led to this figure of a Mark Zuckerberg who has lost his mind. Was the intention of the expanded project to merge world-building with a hilarious story?

I didn’t set out with any comprehensive plan. What actually happened — well, two things happened. The first: I would write a piece and the small elements of that piece would beget the next piece. I didn’t have any comprehensive narrative. One article would lead to another article. After writing twenty-five or thirty it cumulatively led to a narrative that I hadn’t intended to make in the beginning. But what also compelled me to maybe use formats as a mode of narrative storytelling — not that there is that much of a coherent narrative there — was realizing that the limits of content parody. I began to think that it might make more sense to tell a story than to just use your run of the mill content parody.

So you mentioned that the project is labor intensive. How long does it take you to make one of these sites? The project is so expansive that I’m struggling to break it into discrete units…

Far too long. Even a simple one will take take an hour and half. [There are many, many sites. — Ed.] I think there are graphic design terms for it, like sizing…If I’m going to use an image in there, or a header, I’ll print out like ten differently sized versions or examples and then just trial and error, figure it out. It’s funny because my mother — I actually just talked to her about this — went to graphic design school in the 1970s, and this is how things were assembled. I’m going 40 years back to put this stuff together.

Wait, so you don’t have a visual art background? What is your background?

No! That’s the funniest thing [about] it. I really primarily consider myself a writer. I have visual interest, but for the most part I spend my time reading and writing. I know many, many more authors than I do contemporary artists. I’m an English major, my room is full of books, etc. I do not have traditional art credentials.

Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 3.08.36 PM

There is a strong through line of critique. The Data Drive somehow makes me think of Facebook as some kind of weird God that we just offer up data to ritualistically. Was that a part of your original intention?

Oh, it definitely was. Let me think about how to word this properly because I’ve almost uniformly been terrible at explaining the critique embedded in this thing… It’s almost a nihilistic celebration of it. It’s kind of a defeatist thing. All that information is up there. They have it. There’s nothing I can do about it. This is almost like wish-fulfillment.

Have any of these sites hassled you?

No, actually. I’ve yet to hear anything.

On the Data Drive page, when you type in your “personal information” — is the page actually saving that?

Yeah, we’ve been keeping a backlog of the stuff people put in there. [Useless Press] sent me some samples. My favorite one so far is “this sucks.”

Are we going to find out what happens to Zuckerberg?

At a certain point I just had to stop the project. Obviously I’m not being paid to do this, although I really enjoyed doing it. We have talked about maybe doing a follow-up, but as of right now what is up there is the extent of it.

If not this, what are you working on now?

Well, all of my other projects are more straightforward writing projects. I’m researching the regulatory history of adderall, which is its own interesting story, but it has nothing to do with what I did here.