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kottke.org posts about scale

How can we save the digital pieces of our hybrid lives?

posted by Tim Carmody   Apr 20, 2017

My friend Brian McCullough is an internet historian and podcaster. In this blog post, he takes my idea of a time capsule for the World Wide Web containing the best examples in different forms and flips it on its head.

When I go to Google Maps and look up my old block, if I go to street view, I can see what feels like a nostalgia miracle now: a picture of me and my now-deceased dog walking into Prospect Park, like we did a thousand times. I remember the day it happened. Noticing the Google Street View car just as it passed us. Wondering if it captured us.

It felt like a lark at the time. Now it feels powerfully meaningful. Proof, somehow, in the vast historical Matrix of the Internet, that Winston was my dog. And we went for walks in the park in the afternoon. And he was a good dog. And they were GOOD, those walks. I miss those walks.

We all know that, more and more, Internet life IS real life. The important, consequential, meaningful things that happen to us increasingly have a digital record; and that’s if they haven’t, in fact, ACTUALLY happened online! So you, reading this right now, probably have 3-4 things that are treasured heirlooms from your digital life that you would save from a digital fire.

And he ends it with this amended version of the time capsule challenge:

Ask your readers to submit some of the most profound, history-changing, this-is-when-my-life-changed PERSONAL moments that are on the web. That upload. That status update. That selfie. The digital, “personal effects,” as it were, that they would save from a fire.

And this is true. If your house was on fire, you wouldn’t save your copy of the collected works of Shakespeare. (Maybe if, for some reason, you have a copy of the First Folio in your house.) You’d save your printed photo albums. You’d save your phone and laptop, the devices that (even if they’re backed up to the cloud) hold the irreplaceable pieces of your life.

It reminds me of this old episode of Radiolab, where Ann Druyan talks about recording the Voyager Golden Record. Along with Mozart and Bach and Chuck Berry, and audio recordings of the major human languages, it includes a recording of her brainwaves, right at the time that she and Carl Sagan were falling in love.

The difficulty, as Brian points out, is that so much (not so little) of our personal data is recorded and stored forever, and stored in huge data silos where we have little access to it, and few ways to curate and preserve it and pass it on ourselves.

I don’t have a solution, to either problem. I know that both problems are at a new scale, even for the World Wide Web. When we first began to blog and scan and document our lives, we weren’t quite capable of imagining how different the collection, storage, and recall of data were going to become. It’s like moving from (slow) Newtonian to (fast) non-Newtonian speeds: the regular laws of physics no longer apply.

And this means that the regular laws of history no longer apply, either. We might have relatively limited insight into individual lives or works, no matter how noteworthy those individuals might be, compared to the massive databanks of all lives and all information sources stored by Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple. If only we could get our hands on it.

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