The rabid reviewer

Piero Scaruffi shares his insights about everything from the history of Rock and Roll to Sri Lankan politics.

by Susanna Marchini

Culture 17 September 2020

At first sight, looks like a time machine, a weird journey through the story of the Internet, and humanity in general. It’s a utopian dream of mapping the knowledge a person acquires during a lifetime, a modern, online version of the Library of Babel. It’s a difficult job, achievable by a compulsive and dedicated mind, working with patience and passion.

As a digital copy of an obsession, this massive catalog looks surprisingly the same as it did when it first launched in 1995, and navigating it is like going through the synapses of its creator, a freelance software consultant and university lecturer. Piero Scaruffi started the website that bears his name at the dawn of the Internet, for practical reasons: he’s always had a lousy memory and wanted to keep a record of all the things that he had watched, read, and listened to, as well as to have a place for his thoughts. “The goal is not to attract a lot of people or make a lot of money. The moment a website becomes very fancy, it dies.” Twenty-five years later, is not only a vast knowledge base of science, art, history, philosophy, music, literature, politics, cinema, and travel — it’s also one of the longest-running, and most visited URLs on the Internet.

For an intellectual, Scaruffi’s site is a version of heaven — it’s easy to spend hours in the wormhole of his facts, dates, and opinions on nearly everything. You could peruse his review of a Brief History of Serbian, Croatian, and Slovenian Literature, dating from the 1400s to 1998; read a philosophical essay about how speaking gave us a symbolic mind; get to know the history of rap music, or take a look at the rated filmography of Edward Yang. “I know it may not be the most pleasing-to-the-eye website,” Scaruffi said. “But the truth is, I’m more interested in the content than the appearance.” After all, it would be a nearly impossible feat to transfer all of its content to a new format. But the beauty of the website comes from its functionality: probably, that’s why its early-internet design is seen as a gem rather than a flaw by its visitors.

The act of archiving comes from the deeply human need to rationalize everything we see, giving it an order, a role within a context, a place to store it: it’s not by chance that the word “archiving” derives from the ancient Greek archo, “to begin, rule, govern.” To be in control of the world around us. But since archiving is an exercise that never ends, it is more a leap of faith than anything else. Said Scaruffi: “We can’t, no matter the effort, archive everything that exists, or whose existence we perceive. There will always be something waiting to be archived.”

As a testament to the site’s mass, Scaruffi confessed that he has more than 800 CDs at home waiting for his review — all sent to him by musicians. An expert in computers and artificial intelligence, who studied mathematics and physics at the University of Turin and moved to California in 1983 to work for Italian information technology company Olivetti, Scaruffi fell into this endless encyclopedic task of updating his website at first driven by his passion for music.

“I had no idea that this Silicon Valley would become so famous; my first project was to make two computers communicate through something that now is called the Internet,” he admitted. The main goal of being in California was just that it sounded fun, interesting. There was a lot of crazy music going on. I was much more interested in the music, honestly.”

Scaruffi, who has written nine books about cognitive science and artificial intelligence, in addition to more than a dozen music tomes, and half a dozen history titles, started using an old Apple program to record his writings about his interests when he was still in Italy. He later migrated his notes to Olivetti’s server and then created his site using basic HTML — the same code that he writes to update the site at least once a day. The fresh content might be notes about visiting Mali, one of the top jazz albums of 2019, or politics — like Sri Lanka’s presidential election. Scaruffi, who is a former visiting scholar at Harvard and Stanford, and lecturer at University of California, Berkeley, gets his information mainly from magazines, newspapers, and friends from all over the world, who are experts in science and politics, but he remains the music expert.

Illustration by Marta Signori

He has a particular way of summarizing facts based on historical context. For example, he notes that 1955 was the year that the terms rock and roll and artificial intelligence were born — the same one when Albert Einstein died. When he listens to something, or reads something, or watches a movie, he said that in the back of his mind, he is “influenced by, how does this thing fit into history? Do these things have anything in common? Is there a pattern?”

With his perspective — of seeing the birth of the Internet and the explosion of startups and ridiculous amounts of venture capital money in Silicon Valley less than 20 years later — from a time when having a website with your name on it was novel (even for companies), Scaruffi has strong views about what it means to be a startup in what seems to be a Californian utopia where anything is possible, where million-dollar homes are the norm, and Teslas are the most common vehicle you see cruising down scenic Highway 1.

“In the ‘80s, people with an idea were heroes, and now I see them more as just employees, following rules or regulations,” said Scaruffi. “I don’t believe in startups because you don’t have to sacrifice much. The risk was important; in the old days, if you were willing to take a risk it meant you really believed in what you were doing. Now, if you fail, you just start another one. People think that the Internet will give us immortality, what I’ve seen is the opposite — on the Internet things are very ephemeral.” Ephemeral, except for

While startups in Silicon Valley are a dime a dozen, and automated tasks are moving toward replacing humans with machines, Scaruffi seems to be saying that there is still room for people like him, and computer pioneers like Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, who started creating because of a desire to invent and share a breakthrough with the world. As Scaruffi said: “I believe more in the people who write free software on Open source platforms because those people do it for a passion.”