In memory

Unless you have a very zen sense of humor, the proverb “nothing lasts” is not very reassuring. This is particularly true in the online world, where so many things pass their “best by” date almost before you’ve heard of them. We wish the longevity of our work could be measured in dog years–the reality is more like mosquito years. Just recently, everyone has moved off to “the cloud,” leaving the earthbound behind with the equivalent of pushcarts full of 8-track tapes and Betamax players.

My poor iPhone 4s, rolled out with such fanfare, and still too new to swap up, is already too fat, too heavy, too slow, too small. And it’s not just gizmos. Yesterday’s perfectly good web pages cause newer browsers to choke and cough, as if they were made of tomb dust. All of the NCPR web audio recorded before 2005 might as well be chiseled onto clay tablets. Publishers are beginning to bypass paper printing altogether for electronic formats that will almost certainly be extinct as the dodo within a few years.

Homer’s brain was the storage medium of choice in pre-Classical Greece. “The Odyssey of Homer” by Samuel Butler [1900]

On the one hand–all the world’s recorded music could be copied onto a single petabyte drive. On the other hand, in twenty years, there probably won’t be a working device on the planet that can still play something that old. From the stone age to the classical period, the world’s collective memory was passed on from memory, in poetry and myth; from then until 1450, it was penned on parchment. From 1450 to 1900, it was the province of print on paper; and since then it has been recorded on a quickly changing mish-mash of physical and digital media.

What gets left behind with each transition? How would we remember?


8 Comments on “In memory”

  1. Pete Klein says:

    Fortunately I don’t have an iPhone 4s and will never have an iPhone 5.
    I do have a not very smart cell phone but the poor dear sits on my dresser and was last used last year.
    Part of this is due to me living in Hamilton County but I don’t have any plans to buy some minutes for it because I have never really liked phones in the first place.
    To me, the best thing about the land line phone I now have is caller ID. Unless I want to take a call, I don’t.
    As for computers, I love my computer. I couldn’t do my job without it.
    As for print versus digital, I agree digital is the future but don’t believe it will ever eliminate print.
    Newspapers? I don’t know. I don’t believe anyone has come up with an online model that makes enough money. Maybe someday but not yet.
    Biggest problem I see with digital this, that and the other is way too much choice. It make a person can feel like they are drowning in an ocean of information.

  2. Mike Balonek says:

    I especially miss MiniDiscs…those were great, especially for making recordings, etc. When I last was in Sri Lanka (2008), I could not find any in the states, but in SL they were still ALL over the place.

    And as a Karaoke DJ, I REALLY miss LaserDiscs…those had much better video AND audio than the CDG’s or digital versions of Karaoke songs do!

  3. connie says:

    It’s very sad. Going through my Mother’s photograph albums, it’s a thrill to discover pictures of my parents and even grandparents when they were young. What will children of the future find to look through?

  4. Mark, Saranac Lake says:

    Connie – Our children will find photographs…IF we chose to make prints. If we leave everything on the computer (or “the cloud”, or whatever nebulous device that exists in the future) they will probably be lost over time. It is up to us.

  5. erb says:

    Funny, I take great comfort from leaving behind stuff that I don’t need and, as we all know, the number of things we “need” is very small and mostly intangible. Though I sometimes muse about beloved cassette tapes lost in the detritus of my personal history – say, Johnny Clegg and Savuka’s 1989 “Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World” – I listened to, and felt, the music on those tapes enough times so that I do not need them to recreate my feelings for them.
    So my counterargument is let it go, at least most of it. Whatever you are trying to preserve will probably not tip the balance of history, and it will not lengthen your life or bring you contentment. Also, because everyone else is forgetting as quickly as you are, take comfort in knowing that your mistakes and blunders will soon disappear into the graveyard of outdated digital memory.

  6. Dale says:

    Hi erb.

    I don’t have a problem letting go personally–except there are few favorite LPs I’m still waiting to find on CD. My concern is for what gets left behind all together. What never made the jump from 78 to LP? From LP to CD, from CD to the cloud. What movies will never become digital, now that film is being phased out.

    Books last for centuries, and even out of print, can still almost always be found somewhere. Film and tape is perishable. What about all the manuscripts that only exist on floppy diskette? The last century is particularly vulnerable to being lost to posterity.

    While that’s not entirely a bad thing, it’s alarming to to my inner archivist.

    Dale Hobson

  7. erb says:


    “The last century is particularly vulnerable to being lost to posterity.”

    Hmm, do you think so? I can think of quite a few celebrated authors whose work we wouldn’t have except that requests to have their work destroyed after death were not followed. It stands to reason that there probably were many more whose heirs did what they were told.

    (I just clicked onto the Wikipedia page “Lost Work” which has this lovely sentence, “Works that no others referred to, of course, remain unknown and totally forgotten,” as well as long and poignant list of the great lost works of antiquity and beyond.)

    It seems to me that we are now able to save so much that is meaningless that we have difficulty knowing what is worth saving. So archiving is pretty random, but maybe not more than it ever has been. I don’t envy you having to drag all of that stuff into the next iteration of the digital attic.

  8. tootightmike says:

    I lost everything…twice. and had to strive to recover certain bits of my history. It was traumatic, but as time goes on, Who cares about some guy, doing some work, having some opinions, engaging in some discussions… As I read back, i don’t even care!
    Nostalgia is a disease. The future is where we will all live.

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