Digital artifacts: how the meaning of photos has changed

02 Dec

I’ve been thinking about digital artifacts lately. There are the digitized remnants of our lives that we choose to keep — old files, emails, photos, videos — backed up and moved from one storage device to another. But there are also traces of our existence that spread in ways that they never might have before. It’s a challenge for future historians and anthropologists. Consider: If you found a photo of a girl in a pile of old papers, in a musty envelope inside a trunk in your grandfather’s attic, you could reasonably assume that girl was someone important to him. She was probably a family member. Could you make the same assumption about a photo that you find in an unsorted Pictures folder on a hard drive?

We lose track of pieces of ourselves that we release into the ether. The recent celebrity personal photo hack was one example; a couple of the victims claimed they didn’t know their photo cloud backups existed. I’ve exchanged thousands of personal photos online in the past 20 years and I have no idea how many of them still exist on hard drives or web servers. Though I assume most have been lost or deleted, there are probably more photos of me in the forgotten files of near-strangers than I have myself.


Me at age 2, rocking some pink polka dots. Go ahead: save it and confuse your heirs.


In my backup files, I have photos of countless people whose names I can’t recall. I have pictures of their kids, of family events, of vacations. There are photos of strangers too: perhaps someone from a personal fashion blog wearing an outfit I liked or a picture from Flickr that caught my eye. Unlike my husband, who is an organized and complete digital packrat, my files are a mess and there are few clues. Is that a photo of my brother, a friend, or a stranger? Sometimes even I’m not sure.

Of course, this is not entirely new. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I looked at some old photos of my grandmother as a girl. Some of them had labels identifying siblings or friends in the pictures, but there were also a few question marks and images that were completely blank. My grandmother is 98 years old; if she doesn’t fill in the information soon, it will never be done. However, an unknown childhood friend in a photo from 1926 is different from today’s situation. The number of photos almost unrelated to our lives that we keep has increased beyond measure with the ease of digital photography and nearly unlimited storage space.

I’ve done some amateur genealogy and I’m always excited when I can find an image related to long-lost ancestors. I have a scanned photo of my great-great-great grandparents who left France in the 1840s. It’s fascinating to me to examine their faces, look for traits that have passed down, and wonder about their lives. Since I have no children of my own, however, I feel freed from the burden of future generations. Who will give a damn what Great-Aunt Kay looked like? I don’t worry much about curating my own collection of images. Maybe some future owner of my archives will imagine a much more exciting story based on the variety of things I’ve saved. More likely, they’ll end up as a scramble of bytes on a dead hard drive in a landfill. I’m not sure if it’s amusing, reassuring, or a bit ghastly to think that even then, somewhere, in someone else’s more carefully kept storage, I’ll live on.


A tangential side note: This morning, an automated mail from networking site LinkedIn encouraged me to congratulate a former colleague on his work anniversary. I suspect that Philip, who always had a hearty laugh and a joke at hand, would be annoyed to find he’s still working after dying earlier this year. Unless someone is still sending him a paycheck and signing off on an ample expense account, that is. Philip’s family archived his Facebook account but probably didn’t consider, or couldn’t access, other social media and online accounts. Ironically, Philip’s work life has outlived his social or physical lives.

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Posted by on December 2, 2014 in Culture, Relationships


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