The Evolution of “Data Graves”: a poem about a world after the internet collapses

Last November, I released a book of poems, short stories, and scenes called The Bronze Age.

It contains more than 100 pieces, split into six major parts, sequenced to flow into one another to form a larger narrative experience that emulates the way internet-users can form narratives through the lateral and ongoing consumption of digital media like emails, articles, listicles, forum posts, status updates, snaps, tweets, and texts.

The subject matter ranges from commuting by train, human-computer interaction, a big mysterious world full of unique characters, a dark personal crisis, and human passions both simple and complex, advanced and primitive.

The second part, Formal Tongues, focuses on how we interact with computers, both in a human-to-computer way in the case of coding and programming, and in a human-to-human way with the support of computers in the case of broadcasting, calling, and messaging.

One of my favorite pieces, and one that I believe best captures the spirit of The Bronze Age, is “Data Graves.”

I wanted to share the piece, along with some of my comments about the piece, AND the earlier versions of this piece so readers can gain some insight into my writing process.

Data Graves

It’s 2032
Most network connections have faded away
But our data remains
Buried in plain sight
Our bits are mummified within the tombs
of blinking, purring servers
In the soft aftermath of a classified digital nuke

These so-called “data graves”
Are invisible yards
containing plots of you and I, scattered around the world
Our half-assed entries growing mold

There’s a kabooming
distribution of deceased names, emails, street addresses
Outdated preferences and quantitative messes
Alphanumerical advice that proves useless
It’s just junk that spontaneously combusted
Data that’s consuming and corrupted
A disturbing terminal corruption
No more manipulating commands
No more metaphors for metadata

The robotic recipes that used to feed us have turned to ghosts
Former inhabitants stuck in barren machines
Looking to scare what’s left of us on these arid lands
But their algorithmic hauntings are predictable and rather easy to avoid


What would the world look like if every server and computer making up the internet was destroyed?

This was the central question behind “Data Graves.” Gauging the public reactions to times when Facebook or Gmail’s servers go down, there would probably be mass hysteria that would be hard to detect without the aid of outlets to share the hysteria.

The picture I had in my mind was one of a deserted area, with some survivors walking past servers stuck in mounds of sand like overturned obelisks. I related this “ruins of the internet” to Egyptian tombs that contain the remains of pharaohs, except instead of physical remains concentrated in one spot, our remains would be spread across a multitude of different databases around the world. We also see the internet as something a bit more ancient instead of advanced.

Identity is a subject I enjoy exploring in my creative work. “Data Graves” allows us to see: if identity in the modern world can be largely defined by aggregating personal data (though this misses essential components of what makes us, us), what will happen when the infrastructure storing that data collapses? Part of us would be like mummified pharaohs.

There’s a more sinister interpretation, as there’s an underlying feeling that something that could collapse such a large infrastructure at one time would also likely annihilate most of mankind…

My biggest joy: getting to use and mix language for deserted ruins, computer technology, identity, programming, data science, and ghosts.

My biggest regret: I’ll be 41 in 2032, so I really hope my projection is off…

Previous Versions

You Are a Statistic

Don’t become
A fucking
statistic
Don’t become
A fucking
Statistic
But no matter what you do
You’re a stat from now until you’re blue
No matter what you fuckin do
You’re a stat from now until you’re blue
Don’t become
A fucking
statistic
Don’t become
A fucking
Statistic
You’re measured
You’re valued
You’re sold
You’re studied
Don’t become
A fucking
statistic
Don’t become
A fucking
Statistic
But no matter what you do
You’re a stat from now until you’re blue
No matter what you fuckin do
You’re a stat from now until you’re blue


This was the first incarnation of “Data Graves.”

“Don’t be a statistic” is a form of rhetoric that prompts people to behave responsibly and avoid dangerous activities like drunk driving or smoking cigarettes. I was also showing a jaded view on we are often treated in the eyes of data-hungry companies and organizations.

I was kind of saying: don’t act like an idiot and become a brief story in a newspaper, you can do more with yourself and your life, but even if you can avoid doing that, you’ll still be viewed as a number and nothing more to many, many people.

Kind of disheartening.

A Piece of Data Pie (Version 1)

No matter what you do
You’re a stat from now until you’re blue
You’re measured, valued, prodded, dissected, surveyed, interrogated, filleted, instigated, renovated, and sold

If someone can make money from you
They won’t be satisfied with making some
They will maximize their gains

They will squeeze, study, compare, calculate, crunch

But you won’t be a flaccid used-up piece of skin
You’ll just be exploited
Like the land you live on
For your finite resources
For what you can give until you can give no more
Then you’ll be tossed out like an old coffee cup

You’re a piece of data
You are nothing special, not the sum of your parts
You are what you spend and consume and subsume and pause and resume


This was the second incarnation of “Data Graves.”

In this version, I took the idea that we are a number and nothing more, and brought it to a greater extreme. I used many words that show what can be “done” to you in a way, almost like torture, but with your information instead of your body.

A Piece of Data Pie (Version 2)

No matter what you do
You’re a stat from here to the clear until you’re blue
You’re measured, valued, prodded,
Dissected, surveyed, charted
Spreadsheet-loggered and skewless scatter-plotted

You’re join your friends in a line, you’re visualized

You’re fed with robotic recipes
That take the data points that make you up, you slice
You slice of numerical advice

You’re the recipient
Of everything you want
We know how to target and we know how to do it well

You’re calculated and compared
And put into bases
But don’t be scared

You’re a sweet old piece of pie
Isn’t that nice?
A scrumptious piece of pie


This was the third incarnation of “Data Graves.” I was having more fun with the language of data and statistical analysis, and adding in points about targeted ads, and how the data you provide on the internet will inform algorithms that serve you information and ads. I was reshaping the jaded perspectives into one that was more from the perspective of those who exploit you from your data, of how being used means you’re wanted and special.

Data mining means you’re valuable.

A Piece of Data Pie (Version 3)

No matter what you do
You’re a stat in someone’s eyes from here to the clearing until you’re blue
You’re measured, valued, prodded,
Dissected, surveyed, charted
Spreadsheet-logg-ed and skewless scatter-plotted

You join your friends in a line, you’re visualized
You’re stored in a base, just in case

You feed the robotic recipes that feed you back
Your actions becomes the data points that become your ingredients, you slice
You slice of numerical advice

You’re the recipient
Of everything you want
We know how to target and we know how to do it well

You’re calculated and compared
But this shouldn’t make you scared
You should be aware of how wanted you are
You’re a sweet old piece of pie
People want you
Isn’t that nice?
You’re a scrumptious piece of pie
And people want you


This was the fourth incarnation of “Data Graves.”

It’s very similar to the previous version, but in here I was adding more language connected the idea of a pie chart and a delicious piece of pie, and how people are delicious because their data forms the piece of a pie for many organizations and data miners.

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