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Leaving A Mark May 2, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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Frequent readers know I am working my way through Team Of Rivals, a great account of Abraham Lincoln’s political career.  As I read it, I am struck by the detailed information available to us 150 years after these events unfolded.  For the most part, the book is drawn from newspaper accounts of the era and personal letters from the various people involved.  Even today, these archives are well-preserved and readily accessible to any interested parties.

I think it will be impossible write such a book about our current world 150 years from now.  While we are recording more data in more ways than ever before, we are recording it in ways that are transient and unstable.  I haven’t written a real letter, on real paper, in 25 years.  I haven’t saved a letter I have received in the past 25 years.  No one will ever rummage through my attic, long after I am gone, and turn up a trove of letters, bound with ribbon and unlocking the secrets of my time.

What you might find would be utterly useless, even today.  I have a reel of 9-track tape that holds all the code I wrote at my first job, between 1982 and 1985.  I have floppy disks with old files, both 5.25″ and 3.5″, that are completely inaccessible to me now.  On my laptop are copies of my address book from a previous job, cleverly stored in the Novell Address Book format.  Lots of data, stories to be told, lost to the ages.  Over my career, I’ve posted thousands of articles to dozens of Usenet newsgroups, and posted a weekly movie ratings report to rec.arts.movies for five years.  Perhaps two dozen of these posts still survive in remote corners of the Usenet archives on the web.  I ran a web site for six years, and wrote weekly columns for three other sites for almost ten years.  Again, all gone, deleted without a second thought when those sites were shuttered.  Even these blog entries will be gone without a trace in twenty years.

My father has half-a-dozen original photos of my ancestors in Italy, taken between 1880 and 1905.  They have survived over 100 years, passed from generation to generation as precious heirlooms, given the appropriate care that such a rare artifact deserves.  In my children’s hands, they will survive another 70 years before being turned over to the next generation with a similar admonishment to take care of them.  I also have over 5,000 photos taken over the past ten years, stored as JPEG images on my laptop and carefully archived using Adobe Photo Album.  Does anyone really believe that these photos will be accorded the same care?  Will someone copy them from media to media every few years, converting them to some new format as needed?  When my son takes out the photo of his great-great-great-grandmother in 50 years, will he be able to look at those photos from our church retreat last weekend just as easily?  I doubt it.

I worry that we are not leaving a mark, a tangible reminder of our thoughts and dreams and lives.  Lincoln’s letters (and those of his contemporaries) are filled with deep thoughts, emotions, and dreams.  They are transcribed conversations that reflect what people were doing across a period of years.  What are we leaving behind?  Facebook pages?  YouTube videos?  A thousand unrelated tweets on Twitter?  Lots of data, very little content, all in a format that is exceedingly perishable.  In the end, the most connected generation may leave behind the smallest useful footprint of our daily lives.

I don’t have a solution to this.  Should we all start writing letters?  It makes my hand hurt just to think about it.  Convert everything to paper hard copy?  I don’t have the space to store it all, and I wonder how long the ink would last before fading away.

I think it is important to leave a mark, large or small, one way or another.  Perhaps the mark we leave, like that of Lincoln, transcends the paper and photos and is truly captured by the lives we touch and affect for all the years to come.  In that regard, we should all live our lives in the hope that we could touch even a fraction of those impacted by Lincoln and that 100 years from now, someone would still know our name.

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