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Digital artifacts: how the meaning of photos has changed

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.

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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.

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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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When the avatar outlives the human behind it

What happens to our digital existence when our physical existence is gone? I don’t mean this as a morbid topic but rather one that is increasingly important to consider and growing more broad all the time.  I began thinking about online memorials and quickly found myself falling down the rabbit hole into a huge mess of intertwined ideas. Frozen Facebook profiles. Digital estate planning. Gravestones with embedded media. Online obituary guestbooks. Friends who vanish from virtual worlds and MMORPGs. The dilemma of sorting through digital files that have been left behind.

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Second Life memorial for “The Sojourner”, who died in 2008.

Of course, these aren’t new topics by any means.  It was 1997 when I first received a bulk email from someone I had never met, addressing the people whose names she had found in her husband’s email address book, informing us of the tragic accident which took his life.  He had been a college friend of mine but I had never met his wife. The next year I worked briefly for a start-up that wanted to build memorial websites so that families and friends could have a place online to share stories and photos in perpetuity.  A couple years later, I had the shock of seeing a name appear in my AIM Buddy List: a friend whose funeral I had attended the week before. His girlfriend had turned on his computer and AIM had launched automatically.

I’d like to think and write about many aspects of this, but I’ll start with memorials in virtual worlds. I’ve come across many of these in Second Life. Some are versions of offline memorials for groups of people who were never part of SL: memorials for victims of the Holocaust, Cold War, 9/11 attacks, etc. Others are general memorials for everyone who has died of a specific cause, from cancer to heart disease to suicide. I’ve seen individuals erect memorials for relatives they’ve lost in the real world, like one clothing designer who made a little garden in her store courtyard to honor her mother. Then there are some, like the image above, that remember the online existence of a person who has died. These aren’t limited to virtual worlds; in the MMORPG I played, when a friend died we convinced the game creators to rename an NPC (non-player character) after his avatar.

We may not know all the personal details about our online friends, but that doesn’t mean that our feelings toward them are insincere. Sometimes that incompleteness can make a death even more poignant: there can be a confusing absence before we find out why our friend hasn’t been around.  (I’ll admit that I’ve done nervous web searches when online friends who were sick or in dangerous jobs disappeared for a week or more without warning.) We grieve as honestly as those who knew the offline person, but our opportunity to participate in the rituals of death is not the same. Distance can be a factor, or by the time we find out what happened, the funeral may be long past.  So, we create new rituals, new ways of remembering our friend’s life as we knew it, honoring that existence, and finding closure.

How lovely is that? Of course it’s sad, but it’s also a testament to the relationships we build without necessarily exchanging a physical handshake or hug.

Update: I just noticed that io9 had a post this morning on a related topic.  It’s a good read.  What Should We Do with the Online Undead?

 
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Posted by on May 21, 2014 in Culture, Health - Mental & Physical

 

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Digital storage for the elderly

It’s a theme that turns up now and then in science fiction: uploading the elderly to preserve their memories and save resources in meatspace. The short film Life Begins at Rewirement by Trevin Matcek takes another look:

There are a lot of directions we could take in critiquing the film; we could spend hours on the concepts of self and consciousness alone. I won’t step outside the reality of the film, but will comment on one small thing. If I were told that I’d have to relive my memories over and over again, even if they were exquisitely happy ones, I’d rather they just pull the plug. To make a storage option like this compelling to the people entering it, it should be more Matrix-like, with the opportunity to keep learning and developing.  A virtual world. On the other hand, I’ve often said that funerals and graves are for the living, not the dead. If the point is to make a time capsule the grandkids can visit, while getting rid of the inconvenience of the elderly relative’s physical presence, that’s a completely different angle and memories would suffice.

 
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Posted by on June 4, 2013 in Embodied Experience, Video

 

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