Fading Snapshots

Recently, some family members came into possession of some photos from Karen’s great-grandfather. When I say photos, I mean photos from when photos were amazing new technology. I mean grainy black and white images on glass plates, not film. These images were from a long, long time ago.

There were images of New England towns, some of which the family has sense tracked down, as well as museums and schools that Karen’s great-grandfather likely had a hand in constructing. Several of the images were scanned, and what I saw were digital copies on a laptop screen (the irony of that fact considering the point of this post is not lost on me). In some of the shots, a family is gathered outside against a snowy backdrop, waiting for a picture to be taken. They did not look happy. I told Karen’s aunt that I could imagine these people staring at their family member in disbelief that this new-fangled equipment of his would capture their images, but somehow willing to humor him by sitting out in the cold for a family portrait. I can almost hear one of them say, “there’s no way that’s going to work.”

We’ve speculated as to who those people might have been, but as of the last I heard, we really don’t know, and possibly can’t know. What fascinates me, though, is that moment of time captured. Decades and decades later, I was able to participate in that moment, even though I don’t know where it took place, or who my fellow participants were. Those people had no way of knowing, or possibly even imagining, who I would be, or my wife. I dare say that they certainly never dreamed we would be seeing their images in a world and time that was beyond their wildest imaginings.

I was wondering aloud last night to Karen, pondering who would see images of us and our parents and siblings generations from now. I try to imagine our children’s children discovering photos of moments from our marriage or honeymoon or subsequent adventures, even just from the past four years. I try to imagine people looking at them, somewhere in a time I can’t imagine, even in my science-fiction inclined wonderings. I try to imagine these people tracing their genealogy back several generations to find us and who we were, or perhaps further to find out who our parents were. Or, perhaps, they will be so far in the future that, like we were looking at the scanned images of those old glass plates, they will have no conceivable way of tracing that information.

Karen is concerned.

She’s not concerned that they won’t be able to figure it out…there’s really not much we can do about that except preserve the records of our lives. She’s concerned because physical photos are the exceptions, not the rule. She becomes uneasy that our photos are saved on hard drives. I reply that that’s why I’m so obsessive about backups. She says that’s not enough, because after we’re gone and families move and future generations relocate, those hard drives can be lost far too easily and never re-discovered. I say there’s no difference between that and a box of albums that’s pushed to the edge of an attic and forgotten until someone new buys a house. She says hard drives become corrupted and unsalvageable.

I’ve thought aloud here before about my concerns over the potential cultural transition of the printed word to digital form. I’m concerned, as well, because the written word is so critical to our cultural identity,  yet so fragile. Music recordings may perish, but music can live on in live performances. Art and literature, should their respective canvases be lost or discarded, can never be recovered.

When my grandmother passed, my parents didn’t save her letters. We were dumbfounded that they did not. We had been completely willing to take them for my parents, and store them. Karen is fascinated by history, and, while I’m no historian and not personally motivated to maintain genealogies, I recognize how essential they are, and I would do it myself if I found I were the only one willing. We know so much about scholars and people and ways of life that preceded us because letters have been donated to museums, and stored, and even collected into books. We no longer write letters, we type emails…emails that are deleted as we fight to achieve inbox zero. We send messages via social networks that may or may not store them, that are not even on our own hard drives, and forget them as soon as they are read. Our thoughts are published on blogs like this one that rely on the continuation of a certain degree of information infrastructure to continue their existence. Perhaps we still send physical cards, but then only with a cursory signature and two-line wish for the occasion celebrated.

Rationally, I recognize that our technology will likely only continue to move forward, and that there will always be a way to recover the words and images of our pasts. That said, I think of all of the old VHS tapes stored upstairs, and wonder if we could even locate a VCR to purchase in order to play them. After our discussion, I fear that all of our thoughts and images and contributions to the greater good…our legacy…could be lost by a single “blackout” event large enough to cause a catastrophic data loss. To see our culture set back to a previous age, and thus doomed to repeat our mistakes because there was no record that we made them, because we considered reducing our records to “data” progress, would be the sort of tragedy that only we could do to ourselves.

What do you think? Am I too paranoid?

Photo Attribution: Justin Pulsifer

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