Remembering DBS

Capturing_memories and digital afterlife

Copyright: @infinizee on Instagram

It was a happy day but also so sad. You would have been in your kilt or your military suit. No matter which, I imagined you chatting up all the Ladies. No one was safe from your charm.

When talking to someone you made them feel like the centre of the universe. They had your full attention, you didn’t allow yourself to be distracted. Many people have mentioned this to me wistfully now that you’re gone.

I missed your wit and funny voices. The way you’d ignore cock-ups and smile on a situation. Your willingness to relish every moment and make it count.

Even though you weren’t there, you were. Everywhere.

Is digital eroding our past?

Our new digital identities mostly exist in the hands of third parties and for many these days, memories reside in email and social media. Our mementos of events are digital photographs, or a casual comment posted online. These seem fleeting in the moment, but can quickly gain significance as life changes occur. While we assume their digital nature makes them always accessible, they may not end up being everlasting.

The people in our family have always hoarded personal mementos. Correspondence, photos, interesting lists, old membership cards and random but significant bits of paper – we have thrown these haphazard fragments of personal history into cardboard boxes, under beds and in drawers. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been sorting through forty years of these memory boxes.

Among them, I discovered perhaps the first recorded account of my thirteen year old self winding up my five year old brother. I was at boarding school at the time, and written letters were my main connection to home. The distance taught us the value of letter writing, between each other, family and friends. Given that we kept most of these letters, I was able to eventually piece together this incident from three perspectives, with letters from my mother providing a third perspective. His response to my paper trolling was assertive while at the same time, totally adorable and generous. And my mother’s intervention demonstrated her humorous side in how she decided to adjudicate the situation.

Preserving memories_ written v. digital afterlife

Looking back on correspondence from the past has been fun, comforting and enlightening. It documents so much about our family and our relationships with each other. Old letters have been a joy to look through and reminisce over, sometimes providing a reminder of situations that I hadn’t thought about for years. Sometimes, they recount events that I have no memory of at all.

I’m not sure when I stopped writing letters, however my brother continued to be an avid correspondent with ink and paper.

It was a significant occasion when he got his first email account as I had been encouraging him to do so for a while. In one of his many boxes, I uncovered a printed copy of our first email conversation from the late 1990s.

The email address I was using at that time was also my first email account, which until a fortnight or so ago I hadn’t thought about in ten years. But after trying to access it again to look for any other emails between us, I discovered that the email provider had been acquired, renamed and that my account no longer existed.

Not only have I lost this period of history, I’ve lost messages from the future. For example, at the opening of the London Millennium Dome, visitors were asked to provide their email addresses accompanied by a short message before leaving the exhibition. The Dome said they would send these notes back to their owners decades later as a reminder of what they had been thinking about that day.

I won’t receive that obnoxious message from my younger self outlining what a disappointment I felt the Dome had been and I suspect few of the thousands of visitors to the Dome will receive theirs. Given most people will have changed their email address at least once since then, I imagine the bounce rate on that particular mailout – if they even bother – will be close to 100%. Yet in my boxes of memories I still have the postcard and novelty over sized pencil that I bought from the Dome gift shop, items that on face value are junk but they’ve served a purpose of sparking distinct memories of that day.

Preserving memories_written v digital afterlife

My point is that I’ve consistently kept physical mementos, while I haven’t applied the same consideration to digital history and correspondence. I have a rich mine of private correspondence which provides a recorded history up to my early 20s. But as soon as I moved to email, it almost immediately runs dry, as my communications quickly moved online.

A fifteen year gap to now clearly demonstrates a casual attitude toward personal email archiving. Of course, notes and correspondence have been captured in other ways, for instance on Facebook and even MySpace walls or apps such as Foursquare or Twitter. But these tend to be public interactions so their nature is less personal.

In the past decade, I’ve moved from Caramail to Hotmail to Yahoo to Gmail for social use, as well as a multitude of work email addresses. Unfortunately, some of these accounts are now lost and no longer accessible. The speed in which technology platforms change means that it’s important to archive personal conversations as they happen. Today Facebook and Gmail might seem immortal, but there’s every reason to question whether they’ll still be around in a decade. Or whether they’ll make it easy to uncover these past memories. Their purpose may be entirely different.

While I’m not suggesting that every single personal email conversation must be stored, this recent archiving experience has highlighted the value of a system – even one that is chaotic and ad-hoc – to continually capture personal messages and notes so they aren’t lost to my future self. A new way of communicating requires a new way of archiving. For the email accounts I can still access, I plan to rummage through them like old cardboard boxes and recover personal conversations. Maybe, I’ll be able to re-connect with people from the past.

If you do a search on email archiving, there’s plenty of advice on how to manage old accounts and email management. Here’s a wrap of articles that I’ve found useful. If you have other tips to add, please do so below. All ideas are welcome.

The pen v. the keyboard and privacy in death

A few weeks after my brother’s death, Mum and Dad received eight large cardboard boxes of his personal effects from where he was stationed in Afghanistan as well as from his UK base living quarters. His laptop was included amongst these.

We had and still have an insatiable desire to find out more about him, piecing together strands of his life story like a jigsaw puzzle as we look through old photos and have conversations with his friends.

Our curiosity extended to his laptop but at the same time, we felt uncertain about whether we should look into its contents. The existence of a username and password on a laptop changes the way that you feel about accessing someone’s information contained within, whether they are alive or not. It’s generally considered taboo.

We wouldn’t have thought less of him, regardless of (almost) anything we discovered.  Our concern was though, would he have wanted his family or friends to know what was beyond his screensaver? He was rigorous about changing passwords frequently.

Despite our initial reticence, our solution was to ask an acquaintance who didn’t know him to crack into and look through the laptop’s content, deciphering what he might have wanted to share with family or friends and what he was more likely to want to remain private. That way, conversations, photos, old internet searches, notes and chat via apps such as WhatApp that he may have wanted to stay confidential, remained confidential.

It seemed to be a good compromise.  We could continue to find out more about my brother’s adventures through previewed items such as photos or snapshots of his most recent selections in music and movies via download histories or databases. Meanwhile, we felt he kept his dignity.

I considered it a straightforward process and thought that would be the end of the matter.  That is until over time, more and more belongings were unpacked and we discovered his diaries.

My brother was a meticulous note taker and asides from the occasional lapse, a writer of regular diary entries.  He had notebooks that came back from Afghanistan, his various postings as well as journals from his London work life and school days. As soon as we discovered these, I realised we had assessed his digital memoires very differently from the ones he jotted down on paper.

He wrote several online notes and entries on his laptop, usually in note taking programs or in word documents. Initially I felt that we should avoid or wipe these, perhaps because in my mind they seemed off limits and were less structured. By comparison, it hadn’t occurred to me that we should destroy his penmanship.

The online entries fortunately survived and both laptop and handwritten entries remain mostly unread.  But a conundrum remains.

Currently I’m contemplating whether or not it’s okay to read a person’s private thoughts when they are gone regardless of where they are written.

Diaries are often read and published post-mortem. In an informal poll with friends and family, their response tends to be that it is a question of personal choice whether or not you read the inner thoughts of someone close when they’ve gone.

Not having spoken with him about his views on the matter and in the absence of any last wish guidance, my opinion wavers regularly. However, whatever the outcome, his thoughts from the laptop will have equal weight.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: