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Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Persistence of Memory

Yes, I do know about Salvador Dali's painting. Now that we are past that issue, the real question here is whether or not our collective digital memories will persist or not? In response to a recent question, I realized that in the past, survival of a photograph, for example, depended on the preservation of that one fragile image. Think about it. How many of the world's physical photographs ever existed in more than one, single physical copy? I can recall making "extra" copies of some photos when we wanted to send them to relatives, but because of the time and cost involved, this was usually the exception rather than the rule.

Today, I cannot count the number of copies that might be available for any given photograph. With a click of an app, I can share a photo with my entire online family or even with the entire world. But this ease of sharing may also be an illusion of permanency. Is it possible that all of those digital copies could simply vanish in the blink of an eye?

If we move from the realm of images to those highly transitory messages sent by email or posted on social networks, how long to do those messages last and how can they be preserved into the future? But there is a more serious question, do we want to preserve the messages? Is documenting every minute of the life of every person even a desirable goal? My Great-grandfather left a one page handwritten autobiography. There is very little else in his handwriting. If he wrote letters, very few of them, if any, have survived. Many of my other ancestors left no personally, handwritten record at all. For other ancestors, I have extensive handwritten letter collections. In some cases, the number of letters and other correspondence is in the tens of thousands of pages. Is there really anyone who is interested in transcribing or even preserving that vast collection of day to day correspondence from a person who otherwise would be long forgotten? I think not.

While we wring our hands over the loss of our "digital" memories, I think the real issue is the interest in preserving anyone's information bundle, no matter what the format. I have been given extensive collections of personal letters, diaries, letters, photographs and memorabilia for the simple reason that no one else wanted to store or take care of the items.  Without my personal intervention, most of these items would have been consigned to the trash bin. How is that any different than the loss of digital "memories?"

Without the desire to preserve the lives of our ancestors, there is no motivation to capture the digital communications any more than there was historically to capture their handwritten letters and photographs. But I suspect, that our digital footprints will be larger, in most cases, than our paper ones were and are in the past. I suspect further, that individual's histories and communications will be preserved about at the same or even an increasing rate than they always have been. What is the difference between throwing away a paper letter and erasing a file?

Of course, I am not in any way normal in this area (and many other areas also) but I just did a Google search on my name and the word "mesa" and came up with over 40,000 entries. I assume that you could probably compile a rather long and boring biography of my entire life by simply looking through all of those thousands of entries and all the leads and links that were generated. Some of us are overly digitally preserved (including several obituaries, by the way). On the other hand, there are still millions (billions) of people who have no digital significant digital presence. Shouldn't we be more (or as much) worried about those people who lives are being lost digitally or otherwise in addition to worrying about how to preserve our digital heritage?

If I go back and look at the number of photos I took in my earlier years (B. D. or before digital), I might have taken 50 to 100 photos in any given year. Now that number is in the thousands. Do we really want to preserve all those photos? Is every one priceless and worthy of preservation? I just went to 4 Terabyte hard drives because my backup files are approaching 3 Terabytes. Seriously, is anyone ever going to even look at all that stuff?

I am not at all minimizing the challenge or the issue of digital preservation. It is a real issue and merit serious consideration and efforts at resolution. But how much of this stuff online on social networks is worth preserving? Do we start and finish by preserving every single paper produced by every one of our children from the time they first put crayon to paper? How many of us still have a stack of school papers from our children? How much of this is thrown away by those same children when we die? How much of this kind of stuff is it really necessary to preserve? Because we can preserve digital files, does that mean they must be preserved?

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