Every now and then, I reach for a white box hidden in the back of my bedroom drawer. I carefully take off the lid and immediately become enveloped in the familiar sights and sounds of my youth. Here I am in a Christmas photo, uninhibited joy painted on my face framed by a toothless smile. There is my swim league badge. A friendship bracelet. And a stack of letters from my loved ones, tied with a fading golden ribbon.
My memories can be touched, held, looked at, taken out or hidden whenever my heart desires. What will my children have, though? What will remain from their friendships, their Holidays? What will their ‘box’ look like: Texts in a dusty corner of cyberspace? Images somewhere in the cloud?
We are fascinated with the transient and temporary. An explosion of self-destructing message apps, such as Snapchat, Cyber Dust, and Wickr is a case in point. Snapchat grew almost 60% in one year. Thirty-seven percent of 14–17 year olds are regular Snapchat users, which is worth some reflection: why do so many of our youngsters choose to live in five-second moments? Cyber Dust, another ephemeral messaging platform, has reached half a million users in only one year. Its promise is to wipe our messages clean, without any recoverable trace left behind. Preserve and destroy. Share and withhold. Have we become technologically bipolar?
Today’s technology encourages us to immortalize every step — in video, audio, instant message, digital photo, or a combination of all of the above. It is so easy to share our lives that not only the millennials, but octogenarians surf their way through the net, drum their fingers on the smart phones, and chat with friends from America to Australia. And there is more to come. Jon Ashley, Managing Director of Experience Design at EPAM, sees an exciting future: improvements in image resolution, super thin, flexible screens, and growth of metadata-based services. “I envision maturation of facial recognition software to the point that it will recognize people across time, whether their photo was taken at five or twenty-five.” Jon also feels that, with evolving geo location data, we will be able to produce images of exceptional richness, complete with landscapes and architectural landmarks.
Over the past few years, much of the public discourse has focused on erasing our digital footprint rather than preserving it. There are many good reasons for it, starting with privacy and content ownership concerns all the way through cloud-directed hacks. Loss of privacy created a backlash. Cyber Dust entered the market with the tagline, “Every spoken word isn’t recorded. Why should your texts be?” The European Court of Justice ruled that EU citizens should have the “right to be forgotten” — having their digital traces erased from the Internet if they feel they are irrelevant or outdated. The question is: do we have the right, the tools, and the desire to be remembered?
We take thousands of digital photos and store them in the cloud, with the help of providers such as Google Drive, Dropbox, and Tresorit. Will these photos be there in 20 years though? One would hope that digital storage providers are putting some thought into it, but when I posed this question to a Dropbox spokeswoman, her reply was, “We have nothing to share.” In contrast, Jon Ashley from EPAM has a clear vision: “With the proliferation of image capture technologies and storage costs going down, the main challenge will be ‘findability’ and indexing.” He believes that automated content creation software will facilitate the way we turn raw data into meaning. “As a society, we will just need to find the right balance between technology advances and security-privacy concerns,” he adds.
Despite the facility of capturing memories, do we actually value them? The Internet and social platforms are still relatively young, and the users who grew up in this space are only getting old enough to understand the importance of living beyond the present moment. “Do you ever think of preserving your memories?” I ask Henry Grayson, a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh. “I didn’t until I met my girlfriend,” he says. “Now I have every text we’ve ever exchanged stored on my computer, with a back-up in the cloud.”
Alas, not everyone backs up their data, and physical loss is a lot more frequent than we think. According to the Annual State of the Net Survey, we lose 1.3 million smart phones each year; twice as many get stolen. Only a third of owners back up their data to a computer or the cloud. “I think people have become desensitized to the possibility of losing their data,” comments Sage Rowin, a Colgate University student. “As someone who tends to lose electronics, I worry that our photos and our memories are not as permanent as we think.”
Next thing to consider is the mode of communication. According to the 2015 Pew Research Center’s study, texting has become the most prevalent mode of interaction for teens. They use it to declare love, set up dates, break up relationships, resolve conflicts, and exchange views. But a smart phone can also be a shield: almost half of 18–29 year olds confess that they use it to avoid interacting with others, the Pew study says. Thus, social media can make us equally social and antisocial.
Technology used to change every several years; it now changes every few months. When my oldest son was born in 1991, like most first-time parents we recorded his every milestone on a newly acquired Hi8 video camcorder. Two kids and three cameras later, we ended up with 97 cassettes and discs in four different formats. Both data and equipment are susceptible to digital rot, which can be problematic for parents, as well as historians, government agencies, and data retention lawyers. But our grandparents had a similar challenge — after all, paper can fade, get lost or be torn, be attacked by mold and — literally — rot. Digital generation should keep it in mind because Facebook, the cloud, Twitter, and Snapchat may be long gone by the time our children have children.
In the first days of World War II, my husband’s grandmother was forced to evacuate from her art-filled apartment amidst enemy fire and bombs dropping on the city. Out of all the antiques and family heirlooms, there was only one treasure she would not leave without: a tiny suitcase with black-and-white family photos. Recently, we gathered around the dining room table to admire those very photos, digitized and transferred onto an iPad. Four generations of the family, ages ranging from 7 to 89, swiped through them screen after screen, laughing, remembering, connecting. And there it was: the old and the new, the past and the present, a bridge across the digital divide.
The 1920 photo rescued from WWII destruction by my husband’s grandmother. A memory preserved.
Ultimately, it’s not about technology; it’s about the effort we’re willing to extend to protect what matters. That’s what I’m going to keep in mind this Christmas. One of the best gifts I can offer my kids is interest in their legacy — the one they inherited and the one they will one day establish. It doesn’t matter how their memories are preserved as long as they are preserved, whether it be through family keepsakes, black-and-white prints, texts, photos in the cloud, flexible screen images, or any future technology platform.