In the Office – Relics in a digital age

My father keeps everything. Of the 10 rooms in our house, he has had an office in at least five of them at one time or another. Every piece of paper he has ever scribbled on while on hold is filed away in a cabinet or a briefcase.

His collection of dusty Wall Street Journals stacked at least five years back in his office gave me my first taste of journalism as a child. A walk through our basement reveals parts to cars that were destroyed 10 years ago and burnt out appliances he saved to harvest a single usable part sometime from now to never.

With boredom setting in over winter break and graduate school applications inviting procrastination, I started snooping through his other overflowing collection, the bookshelf in the corner of his upstairs office.

Photo albums mixed with middle school yearbooks and college textbooks, a paper trail that left me scarred with images of shaggy hair, "Punch Card Computing", and one too many photos of my mother in short-shorts.

Maybe it was my father sporting trooper glasses in what would now be classified as a drunken Facebook pose, but it made me think about the trail of information we all leave behind.

What markers of my exploits will my kids come across 20 years from now as they go searching for their father’s hidden past? Scanning through my hard drive, I see what has to be 10,000 pictures documenting the finer moments of my life. I’ve printed exactly 20 of them. At last count, I have 273 photos on Facebook. Will Zuckerberg’s creation even exist in 10 years? What will become of the millions of photos bound by their privacy policy? How are these virtual albums going to collect on a neglected shelf, waiting for that niece, nephew or potential spouse to laugh at them to your own expense?

I know dozens of people here at school, some of them I call my friends, but I have visited the homes of almost none of them. Walking into some one’s home for the first time is something like breaking ground in a friendship. To be invited in, to see the pictures on the wall, seems to solidify a relationship. You have been granted a pass into their lives. The right of passage in a digital world is gone.

All these memories are locked away in digits and binary. We are a generation bound tighter than ever by our electronic connectivity, yet we all wait in gallows of its fickleness. Nearly everyone knows the agony of the black screen and the unsaved photos and files that died behind it. We sort and shuffle folders, horde them and hide them from the world.

It’s shocking to think about how fragile our digital lives can be. Entire segments of the past are determined by a series of ones and zeros. When I’m a bitter 50-year-old man with a failing memory, what will tell my story? What will there be to follow?

In our lifetime, we’ve seen the transition from floppy disks to CDs, videotapes to DVDs to Blu Ray. I have flash drives, hard drives, SD cards and compact flash cards, all with literal bits of my life story. Twenty years from now, will anything recognize all these devices of record? Think about the eight-track and cassette tapes of previous generations. How long will it be before the information locked away in these contraptions is forgotten to all but the historian and audio junkie?

One of the great finds of my adolescence was the discovery of my father’s record collection. While he was at work, I would spend hours pouring through Skynyrd, Zeppelin, Charlie Daniels, and ZZ-Top. I would like to say it influenced my musical taste for the better. But how exactly will my children stumble across my iTunes collection?

I once thought that the most overwhelming sense of loss a person could feel is to lose everything they own in a fire. Yet, in every way losing the contents of a hard drive is now on the same level in our paperless lives. Think about what you would care about in your house. Your clothes, television, appliances and furniture can all be replaced, but it’s the lost record of our past that hurts the most when it drifts up in smoke. Now more than ever, our digitized pasts can go up in smoke, and we’d never hear the alarm.

I have embraced this technology. I praise it’s speed and the shear volume of our the past that we now collect in digital camera, cell phones, video. But I still love heavy roll of a Sunday newspaper as I walk back from the mailbox, the anticipation of a leisurely morning and a good cup of coffee.