The Digital Storage of Analog Memories

Frictional Objects

Do you have a bunch of physical items stuck in storage? Objects you’ve kept over time that you can’t get rid of because you have a set of memories attached to them? Objects are keystones of memory, but pictures of those objects are still adequate keystones. Your brain is more than capable of filling in the missing details that were lost when the object turned from the 3rd dimension into the 2nd one. It is a rare moment when one can open the bins of stored objects and browse through them.

Bruce Sterling has often talked about the difficulty of owning and getting rid of excess objects out of one’s environment.

“Take its picture first”, said Sterling at the Reboot ’11 Conference in Copenhagen, “Catalogue everything about it. You might want to write down a story, the way it made you feel. It’s all right. You can get another one. Plenty of junk on eBay. It’s just going to sit there, you can click it, you can have it, it’s not hard”.

Last year I went home to see my parents and attempted to clean out the garage of old objects I’d hoarded since childhood. Every few years I go through the boxes and can’t get rid of a thing because I can’t stand erasing the memories. There are only so many items I can hold in my head, and these physical objects were anchors to memories I would not be able to access otherwise.

Uploading Memories

When I went through the boxes last year I had a small camera with me and I began to take pictures of everything. My camera’s EyeFi Card automatically uploaded everything to my Flickr account and stored each picture as private. In this way, I could have the best of both worlds – my memory artifacts suddenly took up no space, I was able to search for them, see them all at once from any web browser instead of going home and opening a box, and I was able to attach descriptions and stories to them for later use.

This is a set of images showing what I used to carry around in my pocket. A keypad from my old cell phone, a Blastoise eraser, plastic model cement, rapidograph ink, a keychain bubble level and tobacco papers.

Results

In all, I took around 700 pictures of around 400 objects. Then I donated or threw them out. Once I had done this, I felt that a great weight had been lifted from my brain and life. Not only were these objects preserved, but they were stored in a way that could be easily accessed. I plan to do this for other objects when I go back home again.

The Fragility of Digital Data

Though this method of uploading images is fast and results in a convenient way of retrieving memories, it annihilates the original objects. If Flickr’s servers were to go down, or my account were to be deleted, my memories would go with it. Web companies are frothy and file formats change often. What is the best way to store data like this? The best way may be to own a few copies of it. One on your own server and one on an external 3rd party server and set up synching and backup between the two. We discussed data storage and ownership at IndieWebCamp last month, and how 3rd party data isn’t really your own. Additionally, as Stewart Brand has explained in his essay Escaping the Digital Dark Age:

“Digital storage is easy; digital preservation is not. Preservation means keeping the stored information cataloged, accessible, and usable on current media, which requires constant effort and expense. Furthermore, while contemporary information has economic value and pays its way, there is no business case for archives, so the creators or original collectors of digital information rarely have the incentive– or skills, or continuity-to preserve their material”.

Objects I physically own could be destroyed in a flood, or their digital forms could be destroyed by the burst of a tech bubble. If I had left these objects as digital forms I might have never taken the objects out of the box in the garage again. Do they really matter at all?

And for some objects, photos can’t replace touch or feel or the smell of the original items. “Lego doesn’t feel the same in photo”, says @chanmaster. But if photos are taken of objects that will rarely be touched again, is it worth it just to have the memories of those objects closer?