We the Dead

Preserving Data at the End of the World

By Brian Michael Murphy

328 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 20 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-6828-4
    Published: August 2022
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-6830-7
    Published: May 2022
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-5684-5
    Published: May 2022

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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 denser and more durable 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.

About the Author

Brian Michael Murphy is dean of the college and director of the MFA in Public Action at Bennington College.
For more information about Brian Michael Murphy, visit the Author Page.


"Provocative...Murphy is a witty writer – and a “media archaeologist”! – who travels deep underground to see for himself the weirdest and most fanatical efforts to preserve records...an engaging tour of the crises that propelled each new wave of preservation anxiety and the attendant technological advancements – from time capsules to wax cylinders to DNA-based memory chips."—Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World

"This thought-provoking, often revelatory book is highly recommended for college and university libraries as well as for supplemental reading lists for graduate students in information science—and cultural studies, specifically cultural anthropology. It provides a context for the work of librarians that lends depth and—sometimes frightening—context to their work."—Jeffrey Garrett, College & Research Libraries

“Gas and glass, capsules and crypts, microfilm and mines and monuments: these are among the tools we’ve deployed to protect our data from a host of threats—from dust and vermin to demographic diversification and nuclear war. In We the Dead, Brian Michael Murphy takes us on a simultaneously breathtaking and explosive tour of the various archives and databases that hold our records, and the human subjects they document, in suspension between life and death.”—Shannon Mattern, author of Code and Clay, Data and Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media

“Well written, thoughtful, and provocative. We the Dead is intellectually engaging and fascinating—I can honestly think of very few books like it.”—Tung-Hui Hu, author of A Prehistory of the Cloud

We the Dead is the rare book that opens new lines of investigation while also entertaining and provoking the reader. Some of the historical case studies that Murphy unearthed (gas chambers for rare books! durable metal film strips! atomic bomb–tested filing cabinets!) were so outrageous and profound that I found myself laughing out loud while reading. It was a shock of recognition. . . . We are already the dead of the book’s title, whether we like it or not.”—Brian Hochman, author of The Listeners: A History of Wiretapping in the United States