Uncovering Digital Artifacts

This morning, my wife and I were having a conversation about what happens to our cultural information and identity when we are gone. Not just, what happens to, for example, this blog after I, personally, am deceased, but also, what happens to all of our information 50, 100, 200 years from now when the means of communication and information storage are completely different than the mediums used today.

Right now, if we want to understand what society and culture was like from a previous era, we piece things together from whatever information was left behind. For ancient civilizations and cultures (hundreds to thousands of years ago), we have little to go on. We have art that may have been preserved in sculptures or paintings. We can dig up tools and pottery. We can occasionally uncover cities or discover ruins and hypothesize what these buildings were used for. For more recent history, we can occasionally dig up writings from the period, or photographs, or film reels.

This conversation came out of a blog post on free range learning blog. In it, she talks about uncovering her own family’s history. It’s relatively easy to trace your family tree back to the nth generation but it’s significantly more difficult to understand who these people in your history were. Where is that information kept? Letters, journals, maybe newspaper articles or newsletters. What’s the modern equivalent?

Her argument is that we are an increasingly digital society. All of our information lives online or in the cloud or on a hard drive somewhere. That’s great. Maybe you even keep backups of your data and you own all your own information. Fantastic. But what happens to that hard drive when there is no machine to read the information?

I think in the future, archeologists are going to be experts in the field of data recovery. Our history is increasingly written in binary — but when a hard drive fails, it’s tossed in the trash. Maybe the data was recovered and moved to a new hard drive, or maybe that data is just lost forever and buried in a landfill somewhere. Digital archeologists will be necessary, to dig up these artifacts — hard drives, floppy discs, DVDs, BluRays, zip disks, thumb drives, SD cards — and use sophisticated tools just to extract what data can be recovered from them in order to get an understanding of who we were as a people. Because, be sure, we don’t leave physical remnants around. We don’t write with our hands on paper — we hammer keys and store that information on a hard drive somewhere. Every tweet, every blog, every Facebook message, every Instagram — what happens when these servers don’t exist anymore? Do you honestly think that all of that data is going to be migrated when we as a society are long past caring what an Instagram was? Or a hashtag?

How many things do you own that contain data that you actually, physically have no way of reading anymore? I have tons. I have zip disks of work I did in college. I have floppy disks with god-knows-what. My wife has floppy disks with important writings she did in college, too. I have slides and negatives from when I studied photography. I have Super8 film reels from a film class. I have stacks of VHS tapes, some from a movie I filmed in college and others the original recordings of a band I was in during the same time. I have stacks of cassettes from high school of various original music recordings I did. My mother-in-law is currently trying to deal with the thousands of unsorted photographs of her family and my wife and sister-in-law in boxes of prints and negatives and completely overwhelmed by the sheer scale of it. And this doesn’t come anywhere near the amount of photos we take now that we all have high quality cameras in our pocksts.

I have lost data, too. I built a server a number of years ago with a software RAID intended to back up and archive all our digital artifacts that ended up having a boot failure which corrupted the data that was striped across 3 hard drives. I had a backup solution in place at the time as well, but the backup solution had been failing and there was no recoverable data. Years and years of information, photos, backed up websites that I used to own were gone in an instant, never recoverable.

The point is, this thing we have now? This architecture, this system? It’s fallible. And we’re already losing our own personal histories.

Archaeology is the study of human culture through artifacts that are left behind. Archaeologists visit sites of lost civilizations and spend time digging up utensils, pottery, sometimes entire cities. Personal Digital Archeologist is a thing I think will exist in the future — and, for that matter, could probably be done now. It will require a different skillset than current archeologists because our culture is not traceable through the physical artifacts we own but through the data we record. What’s a computer besides a metal box? The thing isn’t important, it’s what’s saved on it that is valuable. Personal Digital Archeologists could be hired to dig through your mother’s digital archives — every website, every Facebook post, every blog, every recipe stored online — and collect data from whatever media that you can no longer access — the floppies, slides, zip disks and more that no longer have an interface (at least one you can read data from). It will take someone with an array of technical knowledge and tools — the ability to recover data from various forms of media including broken hard drives and physical media — and the patience to compile a personal history based on that data. You might get both a physical copy of the compiled data and a digital copy. Every home video burned to a BluRay, every photo and file saved onto a hard drive as well as printed copies of everything.

If this web development gig ever runs dry and/or I’m feeling ambitious enough to start a new business again, I might be interested in being a personal digital archaeologist and dig through family histories to create a narrative about who people were, starting with my own.