Last weekend, I went upstate to my childhood home in Woodstock. My dad still lives there, along with three silly little dogs and a lifetime of accumulated stuff. My mission was to help him clear out a portion of that stuff, so that the house would be uncluttered in time for my sister’s upcoming engagement party.
Unsurprisingly, the weekend was a trip down memory lane. We sifted through boxes of files and crates of knick-knacks. We perused old photographs, flyers, newspaper clippings and notebooks. We flipped through late 60s yearbooks, marveling at the afros and beehives, and debated throwing out Consumer Reports magazines from 1982. Most of the momentos were from or about my parents. But some stretched back another generation, even two.
The oldest artifact survived from 1905 — a small, yellowing notebook bearing a cover price of 5¢ and the name “Hattie Nelson” — my maternal, maternal great-grandmother’s maiden name. Inside, repetitive lines of her tight, measured handwriting filled the fragile pages. The content revealed nothing — just grammar exercises, not at all personal or creative — but the style evoked a fading, past America that my generation can only know through legend.
Looking at the notebook, I wondered what Great Grandma Hattie looked like. And what her mother had looked like, and her mother before. Chances are, somewhere in some family vault lie photographs of at least five generations of my ancestors. Maybe six. Before that, photography was inaccessible to the masses, and I doubt any of my forefathers were rich enough to commission painted portraits. If I’m lucky to find that vault, I might be able to show my kids images of their great, great, great grandparents. Like Wolf Hausman, Lincoln’s middle-namesake, or William Flood, Evelyn’s middle-namesake. What a treat!
But what will happen if that vault goes undiscovered? Or its contents are lost, destroyed, thrown out? As my weekend of purging Dad’s house proved, material possessions can’t last forever. Eventually, all the physical photographs will disappear. All photos from my grandparents generation, my parents’ generation, even the photos of me as a kid — lost to an unrecorded past.
Not so, for Lincoln and Evelyn. They’ve been born in the age of digital — digital photography, digital video, digital mail, digital telephones, digital everything. Freed from the constraints of physical film and paper and ink, their photographs (and video, etc) exist only as data. And that data is indestructible, because it is nowhere and everywhere. It lives in the cloud of the Internet, stored on distributed and duplicated servers, unthreatened by physical realities. Its colors never fade.
In fact, Linc and Evie may be the first generation whose entire lives, from their moments of birth, will be documented and preserved for eternity. As in, forever. Or at least until the end of society as we know it. The cost of storing digital data is so low, why would any future generation throw out Lincoln’s “007 lbs” video? The task of finding digital data is so easy, how could any future generation lose Evelyn’s “Coming Home” movie? Though our digital storage technologies may (will) change, it seems unlikely that they’ll change enough to obviate early digital data. A thousand generations from now, Linc and Evie’s descendants will be able to know exactly what their great-to-the-thousandth-power-grandparents looked like — and whether they liked sweet potatoes, survived Hollywood fame, or tortured their adorable pets.
This seems like a profound historical shift. From my kids’ generation on, ancestors will never be lost. They will be searchable. And, quite likely, they will be overwhelmingly documented. Every photograph, video, email, text, IM, tweet, blog post and a zillion other digital data points will paint a robust picture of who they were. Their stories will live for a digital eternity.