Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Footprints in the Digital Sand

Shall I Compare Thee to a Summ301101001. Error – file not found.

One of my in-laws recently lost her father after a long illness. He’d lived a rich life and left ample artifacts behind as evidence. Among the multitudes of documents they found after his passing were love letters written between him and his wife during their many years together. It was a treasure trove of emotional substance that helped tie the generations together and add depth and dimension to his children’s understanding of their parent’s lives. It was not unlike how archeological finds bring us closer to our ancient ancestors, except that of course this was more direct and personal and meaningful to the daily lives of the people involved.

And it made me wonder whether that sort of physical documentation of peoples’ lives and relationships is soon to become a thing of the past – a relic of the age of paper, an anachronism in the age of technology. I’m pretty far out of the loop on the modern world of dating. I’ve been happily married for years and years (and years) and I’m just not plugged in to the dating scene. But from what I see and read about it, it seems that it increasingly involves emails, text messages, and social networking posts. All of which are often frustratingly transitory or permanent for a lot of people.

Yes, I realize that transitory and permanent are opposites here. But that’s what frustrates a lot of people about electronic information storage – so much of it tends to be beyond their easy control. Things that people would like to keep forever – documents and emails, for instance – are easily lost. How many people reading this have a solid backup regimen, and how many are just one failed hard drive away from losing all the data stored on your computer? Or there are the folks who switch from Earthlink to Comcast (for example) and discover that they’ve lost access to their webmail and all of the emails stored therein. Whoops – lost those letters!

Then there’s the undesired permanence – forum posts and entries on social networking sites or emails to other people that you wish would go away, but are still kicking around the “dark places in-between” of the Internet, periodically showing up to remind you that anything electronic that you put where others can get to it might as well be posted on a billboard near your nearest freeway. It only takes a second to shove your cell phone down your pants and snap a picture for your significant other, and it seems really funny at the time. Until he/she isn’t your boyfriend/girlfriend anymore and that picture’s circulating among your friends, enemies, and people who don’t really know you but are now intimately familiar with your deepest, um, secrets.

So is that what’s going to replace the precious little box of cherished love-notes? A trail of ill-advised electronic communiqués and a gaping hole where your emails and text messages to your latest lover have been lost to an email or cell phone account you no longer have? I suspect so.

There’s a trade-off, however. This blog, for instance, isn’t written to my kids, and usually isn’t even written about them. But unless I intentionally delete it for some reason, it will likely still be here for them to discover and read, if they’re so inclined, years or even decades from now [Hi kids! I miss you – come visit your old dad in the home. It’s lonely and the other old people smell funny. You scoff now, but this is going to be hilarious in 50 years.].

So if nothing else, it’s very likely that electronic media will change the game in a way that hasn’t happened since literacy and cheap access to writing supplies introduced the concept of the love letter to the masses. The simple box of papers will almost surely be lost for many, many couples. And even electronic repositories that might have served the same purpose will be unavailable if the couple’s descendants don’t have access to them. In their place, however, may be an equally rich tapestry of online photos, social networking interactions, blogs, homepages, tweets, videos and presumably other virtual publications that haven’t necessarily even been invented yet. And they’ll be available to the whole family, not just those holding a box of notes in their hands. While the digital seas may wash away some footprints in the sand, they’ll often leave behind a swirl of fragments of a person’s life that are equally rich.

No comments:

Post a Comment