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.

Hallowe’en: what we’re celebrating

Since I get a kick out of digging into the history of such things (like I did for Valentine’s Day a couple of years ago), and since I — being a recovering goth, former Catholic, and damn heretic — know a few things on the subject, I thought it would be fun to look at the history of today, the day we call Halloween.

All Saints DayFirst, the name. “Halloween” is a bastardization of Hallowe’en which was a bastardization of All Hallows Eve. Tomorrow, as you must obviously know is All Hallows Day, or as it’s more commonly known, All Saints Day. All Saints Day is the day that we, as Catholics (you’re all Catholic, right?), celebrate those who have died and have “attained the beatific vision of heaven” [1]. All Saints Day, of course, comes before All Souls Day, which is when we pray for those who have died but not achieved the beatific vision of heaven. So, All Hallows Eve is the night before all that praying and stuff.

Oddly enough (or, not-so-oddly if you, like me, are aware of how such things work historically), Halloween coincides with a pagan celebration known as Samhain (typically pronounced sah-win, which, I might add, is not just a post-Misfits, Glenn Danzig metal band). The word Samhain comes from Old Irish for “summer’s end” and is the first of four quarterly feast celebrations that centered around the changing of the seasons.

Traditionally, Samhain marked the end of the harvest and the preparation for the long, dark and cold days ahead leading into winter. It’s also one of two days of the year (the other being Beltane, the spring festival which, strangely (I’m being ironic here), coincides with Easter) in which the “door to the Otherworld” [2] opens and fairies and the dead come out and do stuff, like talk to people. This isn’t always a good thing, because there are good fairies and bad fairies and there are good dead people (like late Uncle Joe) and bad dead people (like mass-murdering psychopaths). With these good and bad dead people and fairies roaming around, things can get pretty crazy. We want to celebrate the good people and fairies, so we invite them to dinner by setting a place for our deceased loved ones [3], but we also don’t want to let the bad guys in, either. People would do things like turn their clothes inside-out if they had to go out after dark, carry salt to ward off the fairies, or put food out as offerings at the door.

turnip lantern
Look at me! I’m like a jack-o-lantern except I’m a turnip!

Oh, and turnip lanterns. Did I mention turnip lanterns?

Turnip lanterns — sometimes with faces carved into them — would be placed outside of homes for a variety of reasons. They can light your way at night (good, so you don’t get snuck up on by evil spirits…because evil spirits are totally afraid of light), they represent the “spirits and otherworldly beings” [3] that happen to be roaming around, and they might also protect your home from bad spirits and otherworldly beings. Because you don’t want to invite a mass-murdering psychopath to dinner, just Uncle Joe.

Wearing costumes was common at Celtic feast days, but especially on days when the spirits were said to be roaming about, and could have served to confuse, ward off, represent these spirits, or possibly some combination of the three. Additionally, Wikipedia has this to say which is much more interesting than I could paraphrase:

In Ireland, costumes were sometimes worn by those who went about before nightfall collecting for a Samhain feast. On Samhain in parts of southern Ireland during the 19th century there was a Láir Bhán (white mare) procession. Someone covered in a white sheet and carrying a decorated horse skull (representing the Láir Bhán) would lead a group of youths, blowing on cow horns, from house to house. At each, they recited verses and those inside were expected to donate food and other gifts. The greater the donation, the greater the blessings that would be bestowed on them by the ‘Muck Olla’.

Hey, that sounds familiar, right? Also: some stuff about horses and goddesses. We won’t go into that.

Playing pranks (the “trick” to your “treat”) dates as far back as 1736 in Scotland where Samhain was sometimes known as “Mischief Night”. By the time Scottish and Irish immigrants started coming across the Atlantic to America, there was a strong tradition of dressing up and playing pranks. Going door-to-door collecting food (e.g. trick-or-treating), therefore, could have come from collecting food for the feast, fuel for the Samhain bonfires and/or offerings for the spirits/fairies.

But what about all the saints and souls day stuff? All Saints day was originally celebrated on May 13 but was changed to November 1 in 835 by Pope Gregory IV. Ultimately, in Britain, popularity for Halloween waned after it was pointed out during the Reformation that these customs were rather “popish“, but as they had been celebrated in other places (notably Scotland and Ireland) since the Middle Ages, the holiday is still observed in some form or other.

Catrinas, Dia de los MuertosBut what about Dia de lost Muertos, or Day of the Dead? How does that fit in? you ask. Well…

Like All Saints/All Souls Day, Dia de los Muertos is an opportunity to pray for and remember your deceased loved ones. Though it shares similarities in theme and timing as the Catholic observances, scholars trace its  history back to indigenous observances of the Aztecs. That’s right, the freaking Aztecs, yo. [look it up] It’s not actually all that surprising, when you think about it, since the basic premise is just remembering your dead, something that pretty much all cultures and religions do at some point and in some way. The skulls and Catrinas are specifically descended from some of those early celebrations.

So, there you go. Another perfectly good Catholic feast day demystified. Actually, many modern Christians reject the idea of Halloween because they believe it originated with pagan celebrations (which it kind of did) and officially the Vatican has condemned the traditions commonly associated with Halloween as being “anti-Christian”. [4] But that’s okay because:

Father Gabriele Amorth, a Vatican-appointed exorcist in Rome, has said, “if English and American children like to dress up as witches and devils on one night of the year that is not a problem. If it is just a game, there is no harm in that.”

If the Vatican’s exorcist thinks it’s okay, it can’t be all bad, right?

omg I HATE this movie, it freaks me the f--- out

for valentine’s day

as today is yesterday was valentine’s day, and also, coincidentally for some, the traditional day of rest and reaffirming their faith in their chosen higher deity, i thought it would be appropriate to take a minute to ponder the origin of the holiday.  partially, this was influenced by @KarinaAllrich‘s tweet earlier today that “Valentine’s Day on a Sunday just feels wrong.”  i thought, well, it shouldn’t, really…after all, saint valentine’s day is originally a roman catholic feast day, right?

well, let’s just see about that.

of saint valentine, the actual person, very little is known.  in fact, it’s not even entirely clear if valentine was one guy, or several guys from the same general period all named valentine.  valentine could have been 1) a priest in ancient Rome, 2) a bishop in Interamna (Valentine of Terni), or 3) a martyr in the roman province of africa (of whom all that’s known is that: he was a martyr in africa).  to make things even more confusing, though valentine of rome and valentine of terni were two different people, both are buried on the via flaminia.  the official feast day of saint valentine on february 14 was established by pope gelasius i, who included valentine among those “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God” — which is to say that even he didn’t know anything about valentine the man/martyr.

the popular vote seems to go to valentine of rome, of whom either more is known, or more has been fabricated — take your pick.  the story goes that valentine was persecuted as an early christian and personally interrogated by emperor claudius ii.  claudius was impressed by valentine, and tried to get him to convert to roman polytheism.  when valentine didn’t and, instead, tried to get claudius to convert to christianity, he was sentenced to death.  while imprisoned, he cured the blindness of his jailer’s daughter.  an embellishment to the story by American Greetings has valentine sending the very first valentine to either his lost, secret love, or the jailer’s daughter, or both (i.e. the jailer’s daughter is his lost, secret love), signed “from your Valentine.”

but besides the contemporary fabrication, there is no relationship between valentine and romance until geoffrey chaucer in 1382 in a poem he wrote honoring the first anniversary of the engagement of king richard ii to anne of bohemia.  the verse in question goes:

For this was Saint Valentine’s Day,
when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.

the poem is set in a fictional context of a long history of valentine’s day commemorating romantic love, but, in reality, no such context exists.  in addition, while it is largely assumed that chaucer was referring to the valentine’s day on february 14, mid-february is not the most apt time to find mating birds, and it has been pointed out that chaucer might actually have been referring to the saint valentine’s feast day that occurred according to a different liturgical calendar, such as May 2nd, the feast day for Valentine of Genoa.

nevertheless, during the middle ages and the renaissance, this idea of valentine’s day being about love and romance proliferated  like bunnies, and the earliest-surviving valentine is from the fifteenth century from charles, duke of orleans, to his wife.  in the late 1700s, the practice of sending a valentine to your loved one became mainstream, with the conversion from traditionally hand-made valentines to mass-produced, commercially purchased valentines becoming the norm around the 19th century.

the point of this history lesson is this: anyone who thinks that valentine’s day is just a Hallmark holiday is wrong.  it’s not just a Hallmark holiday.  it is THE Hallmark holiday, the great-granddaddy of Hallmark holidays.  it was a Hallmark holiday before there were Hallmark holidays, before there even was a Hallmark to mark holidays with the popular purchase of mass-produced greeting cards.  so, thus, let us not disdain and reduce valentine’s day to a meaningless tradition; instead, let us embrace the tradition of valentine’s day, which is based — almost entirely — on misrepresentation, miscommunication, and fabrication, and has evolved into something that represents absolutely nothing even remotely close to what it was originally intended to commemorate fifteen hundred years ago.