Leaving Behind a Digital Life, Physically,

published at 11:09am on 09/02/11

“Do you remember when you cracked open that shoebox full of snapshots in your grandmother’s attic and discovered a past generation?”

I wrote that for my SXSW discussion proposal, and specifically I’ve been thinking about the benefits of physical memories versus the digital artifacts we create every day.

I produce a lot (a lot!) of work digitally in the form of these blog posts, in the form of photographs that go right from my digital camera to my computer to the web to your browser, in the form of pictures that I take with my phone that again, end up on the web, or nowhere else at all (the other night I turned to my neighbor at the bar the other night and excitedly exclaimed “A sloth! At the tar pits!” and flipped through the photos that I conveniently on my person at the time). This is great. Digital is great! It takes up very little room, it’s basically free to store, and its metadata makes it far more searchable than the numerous albums and notebooks that I have littering my apartment.

So I’m not thinking about reducing the amount of digital stuff I create. And I’m not even thinking about what archiving all that stuff looks like.

No, I’ve mostly been thinking about digital to analog conversion, or more specifically, printing shit out. Just the simple act of finding a photograph, a photograph with meaning and significance (either global, or personal), and reproducing it in a physical form, and freeing it from all of the baggage that comes with being trapped in a world of bits. Companies like Picplum, Postagram and Postcard on the Run are satisfying the base urge people have to tell stories with each other already, and I think that there is more to come.

While my Nexus One is probably not going to be around in 50 years (and lost with it, I’m sure, so many pictures of funny signs and meals eaten), it’s entirely possible that my kids pick up a copy of The Little Prince and out will pop a photo from a walk I took around the neighborhood after Hurricane Irene. There will be no context, but there will be a story. There will be the story of the kids walking by (and their clothes, look at those clothes), and there be the newspaper box and the car. This is what New York City looked like in 2011, they’ll muse, and laugh, but they’ll see it. And maybe they’ll be curious, and maybe they’ll seek out more photographs, and maybe they’ll ask me, as I sit on the porch, where that photo is from. I might not remember fully, but I might remember that moment, as I hold the photo in my hands, about how in Manhattan the streets were dry, while just up the coast entire towns were getting washed away.

A digital lifestyle really is ideal, for all of the reasons of simplicity and agility. The question is whether that translates into a digital history as well. There needs to be a way, selectively, to transfer our digital present into physical memories in order to fix them more stably in time. Especially when it comes to writing and captured images, the physical manifestations of the digital products are ideal as they do not require any more decoding than the two eyes in your head. Compare that to the perils of format migration (I swear I still have writing from college on floppy disks somewhere) and the default state of a printed photograph seems so much more appealing.

So should we transfer all of our digital stuff to physical? No, of course not. That would be costly, wasteful, and completely unmanageable. And it wouldn’t get at the essence of what I think is really important, which is the idea of leaving behind a trail.

Instead, can we select moments in time, solidify them, and leave them on the ground, in our wake, to say to the future “I was here, make of that what you will.”


Voting for my SXSW proposal ends tonight, September 2nd, at midnight. I would very much appreciate it if you would vote for me, and if you’d share your thoughts on this topic. Voting has ended for my SXSW proposal. Thanks to everyone who voted!

Filed under: Personal, Technology

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