Archives in Podcasts: Forest 404
Updated: Apr 16
[Spoiler warning for the Forest 404 podcast]
Back when I was researching what would eventually become my article on archives and archivists in horror podcasts, I had grand ambitions of doing an article that would cover all podcasts featuring archivist characters and/or archives as part of the main story. Obviously, I wised up because that would've taken way to much time and energy and I'd probably still be working on that piece right now given my proclivities towards perfectionism when it comes to these articles. It would have been a disservice to the variety of podcasts on my list if I lumped them all together without giving them the proper examination they deserved.
One of the first outliers that made me think about that separation was Forest 404. Produced by BBC Radio 4 in partnership with the University of Bristol, the University of Exeter, and Open University, Forest 404 is an environmentalist cyber-punk narrative examining the consequences of present-day climate change, the price of progress, revisionist history, and AI personhood. The nine-part series also features supplemental soundscapes and discussions with experts about specific themes within each episode.
The series is primarily narrated by Pan 3S Mimical (Pearl Mackie), a 23rd Century librarian/audio archivist primarily tasked with listening to sounds from the "ancient times" and making the decision as to whether the noise "lives" or "dies". The job is the job until she comes across the sound of a forest, of nature long forgotten, that she begins to question her worldview and the role she plays in maintaining the status quo.
Depending on which source you go to, Pan is either a librarian or an archivist. The podcast itself refers to her as a librarian, but the work she performs is far more archival in nature. She's curating data, culling audio for what is necessary and needed versus inconsequential noise. And we know it's serious business because one of the first things we hear her casually delete from the archive is a speech from President Obama about climate change - which is some heavy-handed foreshadowing, but there's only nine episodes so I'm not gonna fault them. She offhandedly mentions deleting music from Beyoncé and Queen because the "world doesn't need it" before talking about how good she is at throwing things away, bragging about clearing 40-50 terabytes a week.
Pan's position is that of a cog in a bigger machine - both literally and figuratively - that seeks to create a version of the world that was by weeding out what is no longer necessary to society. And who gets to make that call? In Forest 404 it's the Convocation, a group of faceless beings who're smartly dressed and have deemed themselves the arbiters of what the world should and should not remember. This is, sadly, not an unusual place for archivists. Whether by their own decisions or the decisions of people in power, archivists have been responsible for erasing people from history. Collecting policies of the past and current, unexamined practices prevent people and events from entering the historical/societal record because it's not "important". The silences and gaps in the archives are the direct result of those decisions and it's more important now than ever to look at who gets to make the call and why.
There are other mentions of archives and archiving throughout the series. While on the run from her boss/quasi-love interest, Daria (Tanya Moody), Pan finds herself the house guest of Theia (Pippa Haywood), a bitter human woman who saw the world around her crumble as "progress" destroyed the environment and "people" died out. Theia shows her ancient vinyl collection to Pan, telling her that vinyl was the best means of archiving information by avoiding magnets and hardware. Communication went analog as well as humans used radio frequencies and vinyl to pass information instead of the digital frequencies used by the rising population of androids.
There's a similar connection between sound, communication, and power in Archive 81, the podcast not the Netflix show. Whereas Archive 81 was about storytelling and sound, Forest 404 is about revelation through the discovery of sounds, of history, and the power it has over people. Think about the last time you shared an audio or video clip with a friend or on social media. How does sharing that clip, or having it shared with you, impact the way you think or feel about the subject matter? How easily can those clips be manipulated and alter those thoughts and feelings?
The trope of outdated technology saving the day in an advanced, futuristic society or during the robot apocalypse isn't new to science fiction or to this website, but Forest 404 isn't interested in how analog tech can defeat the villains - it can't, the damage has been done. Instead, the podcast wants the audience to understand that there is value in things that are outwardly viewed as obsolete. The sound of a forest, a single tree, a vinyl record, a human being, none of these are irrelevant. They are, in fact, the very reason Pan is able to give the natural world back to all who'd been made to forget.
In the end, Pan becomes a walking archive of the old world. She's come full circle from a drone who destroys the unnecessary to a repository of knowledge and memories carried over from the last 150 years. It puts us in that strange territory of women as vessels of knowledge, but that's an examination for another day. The symmetry of Pan's story is well worth the journey as she goes from weeding out the historical record to actual weeding to maintain and care for Theia's trees. Pan is - as her name suggests - everything in this moment: an android who lives in nature and an archive of the past and present.
She patiently waits for the sound of the forest to infect the rest of the world.
This would be a good place to talk about archives and climate change because it's a very real conversation that archivists are dealing with as extreme weather conditions escalate in frequency. Primarily, archivists are concerned with the preservation of materials in the wake of natural disasters like hurricanes and flooding, especially in cities like New Orleans where the foundations are below sea level. The harsher the conditions, the more at risk archival materials become and disaster relief efforts can only prioritize so much. I highly recommend reading anything by Eira Tansey, who's been at the forefront of the conversation since 2015.
Part of the conversation that ties into aspects of Forest 404 involve digitization efforts and demands that are actually contributing to greenhouse gases. The short story is this: digital files need to be housed on servers, servers need a lot of power to be maintained, many of those servers are physically located in states like West Virginia where coal is still used as a fuel source. See also the environmental impact of NFTs that amped the conversation up to a thousand when studies showed the "creation of an average NFT has a stunning environmental footprint of over 200 kilograms of planet-warming carbon, equivalent to driving 500 miles in a typical American gasoline-powered car."
As much as digitization has done wonders for accessibility and outreach, the tradeoff seems to be impacting the environment in ways we're still trying to reckon with in the midst of an on-going pandemic. It's not something that can be fixed immediately, but we can absolutely be more mindful of mitigating the damage.