Personal Archeology in the Digital Age

This past summer was all about different kinds of boxes. The theme began with a small box filled with the civilian clothes my eldest son wore the day he left for Navy boot camp; and that was followed immediately by a crescendo of corrugated forms preceding a family move after nearly a decade in our last home.  I thought I’d be done with boxes by mid-July when the sudden and near-simultaneous deaths of two loved ones extended the motif through the rest of the season.  One passing was my father, and the other a dear friend who was close enough to us that my kids called her “Grandma Nat.” Of course, death itself comes with its own grim boxes (full of ashes in these cases), but for those of us left in some custodial role for the deceased, there are even more boxes full of treasures and trash that demand their own forensic attention.

In particular, our friend Natalie saved a lot of things, and because she came from an old, Northeastern Yankee family, her collection of musty and decrepit boxes contained some incredible artifacts dating back to the turn of the 20th century.  As I watched her niece savor the discovery of a slightly brittle collection of 100-year-old sepia tone photos and color-tinted postcards, it dawned on me that our children’s children will almost certainly not have this experience.  Now that nearly all photos and written documents are digital, what exactly will our grandkids find in our attics and basements that tell these stories?  Old iPads? External drives that won’t run or interface with whatever systems are standard in 50 years?  Or will our kids’ Facebook or Instagram offerings serve as the only accessible legacy?  First, let’s hope not; and second, who says these sites will still be extant in a few decades?  Regardless, I think the point is not to solve the puzzle of one’s lineage so much as to make a connection with the individual pieces.

Naturally, there are the practical questions as to what will happen to many of the bits of our stories that might matter to our descendants.  I suspect most of us are only so good about storage and backup of our personal photos and documents while at the same time, digital technology tends to increase the volume of material we capture, produce, and store without having much time to cull the good stuff from the bad or repetitive.  I doubt that I am anomalous admitting that I probably have twenty thousand or more digital photos that have simply been dumped onto drives without editing.  Storing these things locally on technology that will be obsolete very soon, we run the risk that our grandkids might never see them.  Storing them on “the cloud” has other risks, including in some cases questions as to whose data they are.  Should social media really become the attic of the future?  What if Facebook fails?  What if Facebook wins the right to use your photos at will?  What if quite reasonably the selves we portray through social media are nothing like the selves we would share with our children and grandchildren?

For what it’s worth, I do hate clutter, and so I appreciate the pragmatic advantage of having an entire collection of family photos contained in a box that takes up less room than a pair of shoes. But the question of what will remain and in what form just one generation from now does make me wonder not only about the content itself, but also about the experiential difference for our descendants rummaging through our virtual boxes as it were.  What happens when we remove the tactile from this rite of personal archeology?  Most of us are gifted with five senses, and we are meant to experience the world through all five.  Our fingertips and noses take in a great deal of information when, for instance Nat’s niece and I examined a postcard from 1913 with a fading image of the Woolworth Building and the embossed print boasting, “Tallest building in the world.”  Yes, this same knowledge about the building itself is just a mouse-click away, but information acquired in this manner is cold and reductive; it is only information, and it is absorbed through a single sense — unless you count the mouse click, in which case the whole world feels like a small piece of plastic.  In this manner might “the information age” actually limit the sciodiversity of human intelligence in much the same way medical researchers are now concerned that modern food production is wrecking the biodiversity of the western gut?

On a related note, I heard this story recently on NPR about poet Henry Goldkamp setting up typewriters in various spots around St. Louis asking “What the hell is St. Louis thinking?” The story caught my attention because Goldkamp is asking people to engage in social media in a wholly non-digital experience — not only the unfamiliar, physical banging on a manual typewriter, but also the finite, slow, and geographically restricted nature of sharing among fellow citizens (although Goldkamp is tweeting highlights). In the NPR story cited, more than one person describes the experience as “more human” than using a computer, and again I would argue that this is because using a manual typewriter feeds more senses and, therefore, excites more receptors in the brain.  Additionally, as one guy points out, it’s physically harder to write a sentence with the old machine, which forces one to pause and choose words and construction more carefully.

This observation reminds me of the transition to digital, non-linear video editing. I was likely among the first couple hundred people in the New York market to use an AVID Media Composer, and I loved the technology.  (This was especially true because there has never been anything satisfying or productive about the old tape-to-tape method of editing video.) The convenience and speed were transformative, and I was an early evangelist to producers wary of the new system.  But digital editing may also have contributed to the loss of a “more human” experience in some cinema and television.  The individual, physical rhythm with which an editor manipulated celluloid, rewinds, grease pencils, splicers, tape, and razor blades affected the way he or she edited a motion picture. A film can literally breathe as its editors breathe, which in turn tells the audience how to breathe and unconsciously synch with the rhythm of the story.  As digital, non-linear became standard practice, especially early on and especially for television, editorial aesthetics seemed to become somewhat homogenized in a trend toward a hyperactive insistence on speed no matter what story was being told.  I often think the legacy of this trend are the complex and intricate sequences in many action films today that use digital magic to defy the laws of physics but are in every sense bloodless in contrast to an old-school action sequence using stunt people.  For all that technology can do, and some of it is wonderful, it’s still hard to compete with a visceral experience like the iconic car chase in Bullit.

I think Goldkamp is onto something with his confrontation of the residents of St. Louis.  It seems to me that humans have a tendency to rebel against regimes that make them feel less human, that the more we must coexist with technology, the more we seek to replenish the nourishment technology cannot provide.  Still, it’s hard to imagine what kind of boxes my grandchildren will find and what their experience will be.  Because my wife and I have kids whose births span between 1993 and 2006, the kids of our eldest child would find boxes of paper photographs of their father, but the kids of our younger two children will find very little they can hold in their hands, and we can only hope they’ll still be able to access the digital files.  I also hope those kids don’t feel cheated out of something they can’t quite explain.

© 2013, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • My son was born in 97, well after the the tactile element had been divorced from our family photo experience. For a few years, he wanted me to hold onto an old desk that belonged to my great-grandmother, but even that interest in connection to the past has waned. I’m wondering if his generation can come to miss something they have never had. Presumably, their lack of attachment to the past means they’ll age more gracefully than their forebears.

  • Why dont’t you print what you consider really worth keeping?

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