You are being erased

Pac Man eating memory

Chewing through memory, daily

Your biographer is screwed. You are leaving nearly nothing behind.

While you pour your energies and thoughts into the machine sitting in front of you, you are leaving nearly nothing about you that your descendants will be able to find.

You know it’s true. Compared to your parents, or your grandparents, what are you handing down besides possessions? Most of us have trouble locating email folders that are just five years old. Yet thanks to old-fashioned pen and ink, historians can still account for the day-to-day activities of everything from the backstage staff at Ziegfeld’s New Amsterdam to the most lowly privates marching in the Civil War to the art acquisitions of the Kings of England.

Impermanence abounds. You write no letters, preferring email. You send no cards, choosing instead a quick Facebook wall post. There are no romantic proclamations, wrapped in ribbon at the back of a drawer, to be burned upon your death. You have left nothing like that behind.

My own journal writing tapered off neatly as the Web rose. That’s how most of us use our free time now, not by collecting and sorting our thoughts and feelings. Most of us journal only via status updates. Set aside the fact you watch too much TV and surf the Web too much. It’s doubtful that you kept a journal anyway. You will probably say that life is too busy.

We read books by Kindle, accumulating no libraries. We cannot make notes in the margin to edify their future owners of our books or reignite ideas in ourselves later. We cannot write meaningful inscriptions or dedications when we share books that offer ideas friends will love. Amazon has even decided to take back some of the books we buy. Our personal libraries are becoming merely borrowed information, never rendered truly ours or integrated with the contours of our lives. Our public libraries cease to exist altogether, or have halted in their development.

Today, Borders bookstore announced the total liquidation of all its stores, further forcing more Americans to buy their reading material digitally. Digital media, or the failure to harness it, are being blamed, but we all know that people are reading less and watching more. Rented intelligence, rented experiences.

The songs we buy are a forgotten password away from oblivion. We no longer even purchase movies much; instead, we scrub through our entertainment by remote control, skipping through entertainment episodes. We live and die by what can be related over the water cooler, which is often the program that was on last night but will be forgotten in a month.

The great influencers of our time shout into microphones. They don’t pour their thoughts onto paper where they can be debated for years into the future. All of our fine thinking is gone with our hot air.

At Luxor, Egypt, where they know how to leave stuff behind, in 1998

Your photographs don’t exist. Almost none of them have been printed. They are merely a temporary collaboration between light and data. The very memory of you is being stalked by a 404. In fact, every digit on our computers, which contain nearly every detail a biographer would find interesting, can vanish into the memory hole with the wave of a single magnet.

Stop and think how much you’re leaving behind. If someone were to write a biography of you in 100 years, what would they be able to use? Do you keep papers? Do you write notes? Without an electrical outlet, will there be any evidence that you existed?

No librarian has yet solved the problem. Just as every American over 30 occasionally runs across a plastic floppy disk from the past yet has no way to read it in the present, the historians in charge of maintaining our very history are finding the rapid turnover of technologies and the uncertain degradation rates of digital storage media to be no match for the dwindling government funding allotted to making sure we don’t lose it all. The Library of Congress has an entire Preservation department dedicated to placing bets on emerging media and making sure the stuff used just a decade ago doesn’t becoming inaccessible forever.

Trying to get ahold of our impermanent artifacts is why, last year, the Library of Congress acquired all the public tweets ever sent. The chatterboxes of the bloggerati scoffed, but in fact, the staff there is concerned about how we are becoming historical ghosts. They are desperate to find a way to preserve the details of our day-to-day lives, now that quill and pen and Bic have all become only occasional tools. Just when they find a disk method that works, technology “improves,” and evolves the holdings right into obsolescence. There isn’t enough tax money to make sure we keep our archives current. So with every warped analog tape or time-damaged disk, our history is at risk, too.

Corporations collect purchasing information about us daily, but chances are none of it will be available to anyone once it’s no longer useful for selling us stuff. In an ignored but urgent issue I covered last year, creditors pull the plug on servers containing local newspaper archives the minute they go bankrupt. Your fears, your dreams, your challenges, your perceptions — what’s being recorded in a way that can be read, and most importantly felt, years from now?

Genealogists get frustrated because can’t learn much of our early American ancestors. Baptism records, marriage records, census entries, death notices. That’s because many of our ancestors were unremarkable, historically speaking. Because few left papers behind, their legacy of proof extends mostly through what the government or the church collected from them — provided it wasn’t burned or lost since.

Now we have great recording and cataloging tools available to us. Our fingers are touching the buttons of these tools every single day, including right now at this very second. Yet we are leaving nothing more behind than our indigent farmer and immigrant progenitors did. Will you be as mystifying and faceless to your future family as your 1820s ancestors are you to? If you are, will it be your fault?

Because I now end this post with a stroke of my keyboard, using a period that doesn’t truly exist on a disk that can be wiped out by enemies ranging from solar flares to Breakfast Blend coffee (please print this post for me), I prove my point.

Connect the dots

Leave behind no evidence and there can be no true conclusion

6 Responses to “You are being erased”

  1. Jeanne

    I’m going to challenge this a bit Mr. Cochran. Yes, newspapers are struggling. And yes, there’s something to be said of the loss of a tangible newsprint archive. But your facebook statuses and images are saved in databases that aren’t disappearing anytime soon. Imagine a world where upon your death they’re turned into an memorial page where people sign a condolence guest book and share stories about their interactions with you, etc. Then it’s linked to your family tree where generations of your descendants can go back and look up the micro-blogged account of your life. Indexed across census data, and historical footnotes.

    Prior to Facebook, I don’t think the world was filled with 400 million people who regularly journaled. But thanks to Facebook (and Twitter, and blogs, etc) we may all leave our descendants more insight into who we were than ever before.

    Not nothing at all.

    Your favorite .com friend

    • Jason Cochran

      I hear you, Jeanne, and I love the picture of an ideal world that you paint. The trouble is that it’s still an ideal world. As you say, I have to “imagine a world” in which what you describe happens. I also have to imagine a world in which any .com lasts more than 20 years, because so far, that’s an untested concept due to the youth of the Internet. The central problems of leaving evidence of yourself online are not only that commercial Web interests have a historical tendency to fail at high rates, but also that the rapid evolution of technology leaves storage and retrieval techniques obsolete after scarcely a decade. Nothing is proven over the long term. To imagine that both and current storage methods will have preserved your personal information after 60, 80, 120 years is, so far, wildly conjectural. Even 10 years would be conjecture at this point. And that reveals the trouble we are potentially in as a society recording itself.

  2. Ken

    I was going to comment here how much I like this post, but then I realized that might be pointless as my cyber-praise will likely disappear in time. So I’ll just text ya. 🙂