Monday, April 27, 2009

Digital Dust

I am in the midst of a major move ... yes, I'm looking for a little empathy, but I've also had some intriguing thoughts about how the shift from our analog/paper past to our digital society is altering our memory and relations to our environment. As I've sorted, recycled, donated and trashed countless items in recent months there is one item that I came across unexpectedly that made me pause and reflect more than any other. It was a sharply folder piece of "binder paper" that I found tucked between two unrelated books on a shelf. "What is that?," I thought upon seeing it. I lifted it from its dusty surroundings and peeled back the corners of the discolored notebook paper, as memories of my high school locker days filled my mind. It just got better from there.

Once the paper was unfolded I saw handwriting, in blue ball point ink, that looked remotely familiar, yet very foreign at the same time. "That 'T' looks familiar," I thought "but there's one too many loops on it." I soon realized that was my hand writing and my anthropological dating techniques estimated that it was from roughly 1984 - I was probably about thirteen years old.

What was written on this piece of paper that was so important? Why did I keep it all these years? And what did this little discovery teach me about who I am and how I became this person?

The page was clearly titled: "Don't Quit." And the words below were a motivational poem that I had read probably hundreds of times in my childhood -- but hadn't thought about in decades. At first, I assumed it was a poem I had written as a teenager. I used to love to sit in my room and write poems about all the things in life that I felt I couldn't talk to people about. Funny how I didn't save any of them. So why this poem?

As I stared at the paper, I began to get murky memories of doing laundry at my parents' house. "Now that's weird," I thought. Then it clicked. This wasn't a poem I wrote. It was a poem my mom had cut out of an old magazine, probably Reader's Digest, and had posted it to the wall in our laundry room.

I used to read this poem each time I did my laundry -- as the water filled the basin and I waited to pour in the detergent. (Do teenagers still do that?) Little did I realize my mother's old magazine clippings contextualized into those repetitive laundry experiences would instill such powerful values inside me. But they did.

At some point in my life, I took that poem off the wall, carried it to my room, copied it onto my own piece of paper and preserved it for myself, probably in an effort to remind myself to keep going when things get rough.

So what's the big deal and what does all this have to do with digital technologies? Well, this experience made me reflect on how the loss of our tangible "clippings" changes the way we contextualize and share information with each other. As a teenager today, would I still record on a tangible piece of paper a message that influences me? Probably not. More likely, I'd record that message and save it digitally on a hard drive and/or post it to a blog (heck, a Google search for "don't quit" and poem returned 128,000 pages including videos portraying enactments of the anonymous poem!).

Now the benefit of the digital is preservation, entirely and completely, (minus the drive catastrophes) and, of course, sharing it with an endless audience and opening up that content to an interactive dialogue. But the disadvantage is also preservation. Isn't there something special, something sacred, something precious about an aged object that carries the essence of who we once were? This is eerily reminiscent of the loss of "the aura" of an authentic work of art that occurs through reproductions of that work, theorized by Walter Benjamin in his "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction."

This relic helps me remember my past, helps me understand where my relentless passion for life originated, and teaches me a thing or two about my mom too. My thirteen year old handwriting is forever gone and that old piece of paper is my precious relic that I'd never want to turn to digital dust.

Photo Credit: Laineys Repertoire on Flickr
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