This Digital Life
Theoretical Perspectives on Interactivity
Over a week ago, a close friend of mine passed away. It was an exceptionally traumatic experience based on the realization that life itself is inherently more fragile and temporary than I had wished to believe. Earlier in the evening, before I learned of the tragic turn of events, I had watched “The Last Just Man“, a disturbing, yet moving documentary about the Rwandan Genocide. As I sat and watched the worst of human behavior and the lack of value that the United Nations placed on human life, I was angry. Moments after the film’s conclusion, I received word of my friend’s untimely passing.
In the coming hours I grappled with trying to comprehend and process the events of the evening. How was it possible that smart, educated people in the west could stand idly by and ignore the brutal and senseless extermination of over 800,000 people? Surely these people’s lives meant more than just a passing glance in a newspaper article, in a statistic, or even as the subject of a documentary.
I had just spoken to Tony ten days before. In an instant on the fateful morning of the 27th of February, lives were permanently changed. Suddenly my friend was gone and all that I had left to show for it were the images I had taken with my digital camera, the emails we had exchanged, and the im conversations I had saved. Aside from the memories in my head, these were the only “physical” things I had to mark our friendship. I had nothing to mark or represent our shared existence, and suddenly I found I was even more terrified about my own mortality.
The realization of life’s brevity was shocking. As I sat in my apartment that night, I furiously raced through my photo albums to see if I had a picture of us together. All of my pictures were over four years old, yet I couldn’t find any. I then raced to my computers and checked both of them for photos. On my old PC, I discovered again for the twentieth time, a nasty virus had taken hold of my PC and deleted all the pics I had. No gif’s, no jpg’s, nothing, they were all gone. I went to my Mac and discovered that while I had over 7000 pictures, I had nearly none of my friend.
Though I had bought my first digital camera in 2002, I was shocked and ashamed to discover that I had nothing to show of Tony. Of course this made sense as he had moved abroad in the Spring of 2001 and had just returned back to the states in the Summer of 2004. So there — it was alright, I wasn’t that bad of a friend. But still, I was angry that most of the pictures I did have from years back, had been scanned in by someone in our old company’s marketing department. But thinking too soon, I quickly remembered I lost these few pictures when my PC was infected by a malicious bug and they were lost. Of course I could try and track down former co-workers and pester them for the images, but what if they were lost completely?
Quickly I gathered myself and set out to create a remembrance site about my friend. I was able to email the network of former our coworkers and then the networks of friends and family. I gathered all of the images I could from Tony’s Yahoo! Photos page and some started trickling in from people. But again and again, I sat and wondered what does it mean to lose one’s digital self? In this case I was able to resurrect images because of the intense attention surrounding an awful tragedy; but what if there was no tragedy? What if I had lost everything on my hard drive? What if every digital “memory” I had was completely lost?
In the past ten years I’ve accumulated over 10,000 images of my family, friends, myself on trips, special events, etc, etc. I’ve posted countless images on Flickr, countless images on websites, thousands of emails to friends and family, hundreds of IM chats all of which merit being saved. Of course I may never go back to them to relive moments from days past, but in the case of my friend; I was glad they were there.
In this day and age, what does it mean to record and capture so many moments of life? Are we being narcissistic to think that someone out there on the internet will be so interested in our mundane daily activities made “exciting” by a funny expression? What good does it do to archive communications from email to im to photos to videos to phone messages? Do we really need to process and analyze every bit of this information?
Before the days of email and im, we used the medium of paper and pen. Written letters were a valued medium of communication. If we took the time to write a letter, usually thought went into its production. It was reasonable to think that the receiver would notice the subtitles of our penmanship and presentation, along with the content. The meaning of most of these letters faded over time, but what was not lost was the inherent value of the medium. We had a tangible piece to look upon and live as part of our memory. Nowadays anyone can record as many digital photos as they please, but how many people print them? The feeling of holding an actual photograph or looking through a roll of photos is now lost, much like holding an actual letter. Technology has heightened the new vulnerability of our memories as they become wholly digital and housed on our unpredictable computers.
Usually I’m a big proponent of technology. I welcome the digital information age, and the myriad ways we can communicate with people all over the world. But what does this say for our privacy? What are the implications of knowing the habits, likes, and dislikes of someone through their digital personality? And if we are all individually saving all of this information about ourselves and others in our association, then how will we ever protect this data?
Recently there was discussion on the ITP list serve about back ups. In another class we witnessed an artist display his works from the past ten years. Many of the computer projects were run created in Mac OS 7, 8, and 9. What happens when he can no longer run the computers and software he used to create such pieces of art? Are they lost forever in the ether of the internet? Or are the lost simply by being a victim of obsolescence?
If we are to preserve our memories of loved ones, projects, or the reality of the genocide in Rwanda, we must create a medium that will not decay over time. In my friend’s case, what happens if the digital files are lost? Does the memory of Tony fade away? Or are we just left with the sparse images on faded photographs? I believe we need to remember technology’s role in our lives, and live today! But if you are embracing technology and choose to record so much of your daily existence, then back it up. Back up your backup. Back up your digital life because nothing lasts forever, not even the images and memories of a dear departed friend.