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.

Ryan Gosling’s snickers are another victory for rape culture

Mashable thought this was pretty funny:

This seems like a pretty typical reading of an alien encounter and a live sketch where Ryan Gosling couldn’t keep it together. Hilarious, right?

Except there’s one thing that is particularly disturbing.

Hey Girl, I'll totally watch while some extra-terrestrials fondle your breasts

Why are we just okay with the narrative here? Taken at face value, we have three individuals who have been kidnapped, one of whom describes in fairly graphic detail waking up half-naked, being observed on by multiple onlookers who are — according to the narrative — taking pleasure in peeping and watching her urinate, and who, later, get in line to take turns fondling her breasts. And this is so hum-drum that the flat retelling of the story in a comedy sketch becomes chuckle-worthy of the actors on stage.

What the actual fuck?

The alien abduction and sex trope may have started with Whitley Streiber’s Communion — a supposedly true account of a man being taken in an alien space ship where they performed experiments on and explored his body — including sexually. When the book came out, it was pretty universally seen as a) a joke and b) a pretty entertaining piece of fiction. In the book, the sexual experiences are not told with any degree of regret or disapproval (in fact, the narrator becomes fairly attached to the aliens who are doing this to him), but never was there any degree of consent. The aliens never said to him (telepathically or otherwise), “hey, is it okay if I make you orgasm for science?” And among the backlash about the book, not once do I recall it ever opening a conversation about male rape or Stockholm syndrome (where the victim falls in love with or empathize with their captors).

And this trope about being abducted with aliens has been so widespread that now it’s just assumed that when anyone talks about being abducted by aliens, it’s obviously for sexual experimentation. So much so that we have the backstory for the SNL sketch above.

Consent is consent. Sexual activity without consent is rape. Whether you were sort of okay with it at the start or you didn’t actually hate it afterwards, if you did not expressly voice consent, it is rape. And this joke isn’t funny. The fact that we think it’s funny is just evidence of how ingrained rape culture is and how messed up our views on sexual consent and ownership of our own bodies are.

Mashable posting this as a ha-ha funny sketch is also troublesome. Not that Mashable is a beacon of light in the darkness of sexist media, particularly, but, in general, they try. Recently, they celebrated a feminist on Tinder who actively trolls the most sexist suitors. They don’t see why this scene is more evidence of rape culture, either.

Surely I’m not the only one, right?

In the SNL sketch, after the abductors were finished, they abandoned the victim on the roof of a Long John Silver’s, still without her pants (and presumably, based on the story, her underwear), which they dropped in a tree several feet away. Again, take this out of the context of the scene for a minute. A woman is abducted, undressed, forced to urinate while others watch, has multiple captors touching her body, and when they are done, they abandon her, half-naked, where she will need to expose herself to others in order to cover her body and go home. There’s no one she can talk to — obviously going to the police in this case would be ineffectual, they are aliens after all — and she can’t even really explain where she’s been or how she got there.

I’m just wondering where the joke is in all this.

On Trans, Gender, and Body

I tweeted out a post on Mashable this morning and then, after it went out, I wanted to elaborate on why it’s important. This is the tweet:

Gender is not a binary thing

It would be easy to look at that headline and switch off. I don’t care about trans-anything. Those people aren’t like me. There’s nothing for me here. That’s the nice version. The not-so-nice version might get into the mental states of transpeople or the “right-” or “wrongness” of a 14-year-old taking estrogen for hormone replacement treatment. Having met a trans kid who was living as one gender in kindergarten and first grade and then publicly coming out as the opposite gender the next year, I’ve had to take some time to evaluate my own feelings on whether it’s a nature or nurture thing, of whether we are pushing things, and our own agendas onto kids and that this is a decision rather than a part of who they are.

Despite what you may have been told, gender is not a toggle switch. It’s not Green for male and Red for female (see what I did there?). The reason why there has been a marked increase in articles about transgender individuals and issues and more transgender people in the media is because this is a human thing. This is a thing that exists in the grand scope of human existence and it is normal.

It’s a thing that we just accept as a given that people are different. No two people are alike. “Everyone is a unique snowflake” and all that. So why do we assume that the same does not apply to things like gender, like mental health, like sexuality, like autism? There’s more to it than just XX or XY chromosomes, but even within those, there are more variations than just those two. None of these things are on/off, you-have-it-or-you-don’t things. Like everything else that it means to be a living creature on this planet, it’s a spectrum. And it’s that spectrum, that variety, that makes things interesting.

Speaking from a place of extreme privilege

Look, I’m well aware of how easy things are for me just to exist in our society. I will never know how hard it is to be a woman walking down the street, let alone what it means to be a trans woman walking down the street. I’m white, male, cisgendered and (more or less) heterosexual. I have it easier than most, so it’s important to me to take advantage of that privilege and add my voice to these types of issues.

…and so…why that post is important

I have never experienced the feeling of not knowing/understanding/trusting/feeling comfortable in my own skin. I have maybe experienced mild gender dysphoria but it had nothing to do with my identity and everything to do with the expectations and cultural values assigned to men. Men are supposed to be muscular, drink beer, watch football and shoot guns. They harass women, rape, and are physically and emotionally aggressive. They are villains but they are also heroes. They are the center of the story. They are the ones who rescue the princess. They make the rules and run the show. They are presidents, CEOs, prime ministers. I am not, nor will I ever be, any of those things, or those things I might be because of my gender, I do not accept. Ergo, I must not be a “real man.” It was later, after doing an intense study on gender and transgender issues, that I realized that none of that mattered, really, because society’s expectations are stupid and don’t define any of us. But I digress.

The point is, I don’t know what it’s like to be a teenager who feels like she is trapped in the body of a boy and I never will because that’s not me. I only know what it feels like to be a teenager and young adult who has a lot of self-hate having to do with what it means to be the gender that I was born as. But I don’t have to have that common ground to watch that video and realize what just happened. And what’s happening every. single. day. that posts like this and others are published and more awareness is spread around the existence and acceptance of women and transpeople as human beings deserving of equal rights, respect and privilege.

I am well aware of the demographics of my followers on social media and the sorts of folks who will stumble across my blog. Very few of them are around because I talk about gender equality or gender issues. Mostly it’s nerds like me, or people who follow me because I write about soccer or WordPress. And that’s part of what makes it so important that I also talk about stuff like this. Because maybe someone who would never have looked at that video of a transgirl getting her first hormone treatment from her mom and breaking down in tears of gratitude will be able to see it for what it is — a real, human experience, real joy and acceptance. And the more stories like this there are, the more real, human experiences from transfolk and women and people of color we see, the closer we get to a world that I want to live in. One that accepts you for the person you are. Not for what you look like, not for what society expects you to be, not for the things you like or the way you style your hair or your tattoos or piercings or clothing or money or where you live or where you were born or what god you put your faith into or what the motherfucking scale says. Just you. That’s where I want to live.

Jenny and Jai

Last weekend, we found out that two friends of ours — mothers of our kids’ classmates — were involved in a domestic dispute that left the two of them in the hospital in critical condition from multiple gunshot wounds. Full news reports here and here.

What happened was horrid and devastating and both women not only had families but were teachers and educators; Jai was the librarian at the Open Classroom school and I worked closely with her to develop the Book Review Library plugin for the Open Classroom library. I can’t begin to imagine the repercussions of this experience, physical, emotional and financial. There are a pair of YouCaring pages up for both of them and it would be amazing if you were able to find it in your heart to help these fantastic women and their families out as they work on healing.