Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Is technology just another black hole?

Some time ago I blogged about digital imaging and what it might mean for the sharing of information about our lives with future generations. You can check out the blog post here, but basically I was saying that with the advent of digital photography we now store our photographic life stories on hard drives or other electronic storage devices that will not get passed on to future generations in the way the ubiquitous shoebox full of old family photos is now.
I was reminded of this the other day when listening to a radio discussion about the growing popularity of e-readers and the projected demise of the physical book as we know it. When that happens (and it’s already well on the way to becoming reality) what will become of the family Bible, passed on from generation to generation and carefully annotated with important dates and life events? And what about the collections of significant, or even rare, books so carefully built up over a lifetime that provide an insight into the person who valued the ideas communicated by the authors? They will simply no longer exist.
When you add letters (replaced by email) and postcards (replaced by texting, messaging, or tweeting) to the list it becomes apparent that we will be leaving less and less to our children and grandchildren by way of artefacts that can be used to understand our time and how we lived as individuals, couples, and families.
It’s not the same at the societal level. Technology has long since outstripped Gutenberg when it comes to the collection and sharing of information. Entire libraries, art collections, music collections are now online, stored forever in some great repository in the sky for us and future generations to study and enjoy. Those collections are maintained by corporations and trusts with the financial and technical wherewithal to do so. But they don’t include the technological equivalent of the family photo shoebox or letters traded between your parents during the war. Those and their equivalents will be lost forever to future generations, having been seized by the vortex only to disappear into the electronic black hole.
Perhaps for future generations the most highly anticipated and sought after bequest will be a master password that will open up the vault containing our electronic lives. (Everything but Facebook one would hope.)  But until then I’m afraid that the pickings will be quite slim for the next couple of generations. Too bad really.

10 comments:

  1. And, Canajun ... sadder than the lost shoe box, according to Richard, is that those images stored on our hard drives, CDs and flash drives are all disintigrating as time passes. No doubt by the time someone wants to look back, even with the password, they will be gone. (But take it from me, a 16G flashdrive is a lot easier to store than the 20 lb. family bible - which, believe it or not, I manage to misplace continually!)

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    1. Karen: Longevity is one issue (although old photos deteriorate too) and technical compatability is another. But I just don't think we're ready for "and Grandpa leaves his hard drive to you...". I fully expect when I go my PCs, with all the data they contain, will become so much recycled material.

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  2. In the days of film I may have taken dozens of photos where now I may take 100. Every photo I take is published, not n paper, but on Picasa or Facebook. And there may be multiple copies! And when I buy a new computer, everything from the old one gets transferred. I really think there will be many, many more records of our lives for future generations to remember and know us by.

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    1. Alan: I have no doubt the records will be out there in the ether; what I question is whether anyone will be able to get at it in any meaningful way. (See reply to VStar Lady above). Perhaps I'm wrong and today's generation will embrace the idea of the "electronic life", but I'm not so sure.

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    2. Canajun:

      there is no storage medium today that will stand the test of time, all forms of media deteriorate the moment they are produced. Plus changing technology may not be able to read our current formats.

      I still have images saved on 5-1/4" floppies from old 1 mp cameras, and a pile of 3" floppies on DOS 2.0, they may be on Apple II format, I can't remember but I can't throw them out and I can't read what is on them.

      bob
      Riding the Wet Coast
      My Flickr // My YouTube

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    3. Bob: I agree. I have managed to keep most of my photos at least on current media, but letters and emails - long gone.

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  3. I know I cherish the old letters my dad wrote home from Europe during WWII and his love letters to my mom. My son will have some stuff from his mom and me from our early years, but not much else other than cards from our later years. I do keep our photos on a cloud and a flash drive.

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    1. Thomas: Letter writing has really become a lost art - even before the internet drove us to 140-character sound bites. It's been a long time since people wrote letters the way our parents did when it was really the only way to communicate over long distances.

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  4. Funny, I worry about there being too much information left behind. In its own way the shoebox of saved letters and photos were edited. I'm not at all sure I have a clue what I'm leaving on my hard drive let alone out in the "cloud".
    ~Keith

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    1. Keith - There's no doubt we are leaving a trail a mile wide, but will anyone have the ability, and time, to recognize it for what it is and follow it?

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