Awards and Honors, Faculty News

Murphy Receives NEH Summer Stipend

Brian Michael Murphy has been awarded a $6,000 summer stipend from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Photo of Brian Michael Murphy

Murphy's stipend is offered in support of his project “Preserving Data in America, from the Depression to the Digital Age.”

This award will support Murphy as he finishes his book, We the Dead: Preserving Data at the End of the World, which is under contract with the University of North Carolina Press.

In We the Dead, Murphy narrates the development of the “data complex” in the United States—the sprawling network of time capsules stuffed with microfilm, bombproof bunkers for corporate records, and massive server farms giving life to what is often misleadingly called “the cloud.” Murphy also dissects the psychological aspects of the data complex in America and explains how every generation’s fear about the end of the world intensifies its desire to create permanent traces of humans’ existence on earth.

His research led him to archives and bunkers all across the country, including the Library of Congress, UCLA’s Young Research Library, the National Archives, the Westinghouse Archives, the Bunker at Greenbrier, and the heavily securitized Corbis Film Preservation Facility at Iron Mountain. A number of the courses he teaches at Bennington, such as Immortal Media and Digital Materiality, grew directly out of these experiences. Students in these courses can explore both historical and current examples of media technologies, infrastructures, and works of art that reflect the growth of the data complex. For instance, data preservation projects are now expanding into outer space, as well as inner space—many biotechnologists now predict that synthetic DNA will soon become the next dominant format for information storage.

Murphy hopes that We the Dead will provide a critical framework for better understanding this ongoing blurring of the biological body and the “data body”—the total collection of data about a human life, from the birth certificate to browsing histories. But the data complex, according to Murphy, continues to produce and preserve data through human lives, even after those lives have ended. One company has already made “memorial bots” that replicate one’s personality based on social media posts and text messages, so that mourners can text or chat with a deceased loved one’s digital replicant. We the Dead explains how such transformations are fundamentally reshaping not only the role of technology in society, but also our understandings of what it means to be human.

About Brian Michael Murphy

Murphy’s writings have appeared or are forthcoming in the Kenyon Review, Narrative, Waxwing, Queen Mob’s Tea House, Media-N, and in Italian translation in Ácoma. He blogs about film, music, and media technology for the Kenyon Review, and is a Workshop Instructor in the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop. Murphy's research and teaching interests span media preservation, race theory, visual culture, digitization, and hip hop studies. Murphy holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Comparative Studies from The Ohio State University, where he received the Presidential Fellowship and the Margaret Lynd Teaching Award. Previously, Murphy taught in the American Studies Program at Miami University (OH), where he was nominated for the Outstanding Professor Award and received a commendation from the Center for Teaching Excellence. Prior to becoming a professor, he co-produced and released two hip hop albums, Manifest Destiny and Black Fire. Murphy joined the Bennington faculty in Fall 2018.