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What we leave behind

Imagine how much differently our great-grandchildren will come to know us from how we came to know our great-grandparents.  I’m named after my great-grandmother, but have no idea what she looks like.  I know she was an orphan, that she lived in Arkansas, as well as some general dates, but I have no idea what she was liked, what she thought, what she did on a day-to-day basis.  The process of coming to know her goes roughly like this: talk to family members, dig through old family photo albums, papers and the sort, and finally resort to

Official records are often the only evidence that our ancestors existed, especially when said ancestors had modest incomes and professions.  If your lucky, there will be a family bible, a formal portrait, or some letters that have survived.  But we make a larger digital footprint than this in a single day.

Money and technology would be the most obvious factor to point out.

In 1900: The Kodak Brownie was the first affordable camera, debuting in this year for $1 or approximately $30 in current currency.  Illiteracy in the United States rested just over %10, with double the percentage in the South.  The ball point pen had yet to be invented, these pens were available from Sears, prices starting at $1.25.  Paper was more affordable, but even they could not compete with the ten cents I pay for a notebook during back-to-school sells.  To put this in context, the average income in 1900 was $ 438/year, or about $12,000 accounting for inflation. 

Pens in Sears catalog circa 1900.

Now, though a $400 computer would be the equivalent of $15 in 1900, and a $40/month Comcast bill would be the equivalent in cost to one of those fancy ball point pens, and a decent digital camera would have cost $5.55:

66% of American adults pay for in-home internet access.

61% own a laptop and 58% own a desktop.

78% of American households own a digital camera.

Median income; however, is around 50K, meaning we have a lot more disposal income to work with.

It costs more, inflation accounted for, to obtain the equipment and services needed to create a virtual memory of yourself so perhaps equally influential are cultural shifts in how we spend as well as an ever-growing importance placed on the individual, the thoughts of the individual, and the life of the individual made possible by somewhat equalizing  internet platforms in addition to shifts in the ways we socialize and interact.  Whereas in 1900 my great-grandmother keeping her diary might have hidden it under her pillow, today the process from recording to sharing is instantaneous, and in someways without that last step of sharing creation seems pointless.   Pictures are not only to document a special occasion, but for all occasions; not only to create memories, but function as avatars.
We post pictures, make blog posts, leave comments.  Our digital footprints are astounding, to glance over your shoulder briefly is to look back over a detailed record of your day-to-day, your personality reflected in the images you have constructed of yourself, your interactions, and actions.  Assuming that all the gazillions of bytes of information out there is forever accessible, when our great-grandchildren go to research us, they will know us intimately.

And is this good?

On the one hand, perhaps they will not care about us.  Perhaps the only reason I am interested in my great-grandmother is because she is a mystery and clues are scarce.  Perhaps our digital records are too anonymous or too narrow to be of interest.  Perhaps our digital records persevere a memory of us so exact and age-specific, that our great-grandchildren will not view us as ancestors but rather as peers.

On the other, the obsession with recording the day-to-day will enable greater understand and the capacity to relate to us; the documentation of events from multiple point of views will open up vastly new directions in historical research and writings.

I write this for what is currently a thought to read when I will be but a thought.


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This entry was posted on August 23, 2012 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , .
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