Thursday, March 08, 2012

Time and memory

If you've been following the drama that is my life, you might know that I'm in the process of giving up my home and getting divorced at the same time. It sucks. Thank you for your kind thoughts. But that's not what I want to talk about.

I was going through some papers today and came across some files of Tessa's college poetry, novel starts, and such. When I passed them over to her, I mentioned that I had some of her later writing on floppy disk and that I would send it to her after I am able to convert it into a newer storage medium. I began to think about the very different nature of physical data and electronic data. Much, possible too much, has been said, written, and generally pontificated on this subject. My tiny contribution is an observation on owning stored information.

Information stored on paper takes up a lot of space and it's heavy. For the last century or so, when people move or die, the debulking (that word might be my mom's creation. If it's not, don't tell me) process that happens often involves the destruction of a lot of their paper. Personal information is also often unique information, which means this destruction is equally often permanent. We historians hate the destruction of information. The Second World War not only saw a wholesale destruction of information with few parallels in history, it is the only such destruction where so many historically minded people were around (or survived) to appreciate the destruction. After the war a number of projects were started to save vulnerable knowledge by making copies and distributing them around the world. Ten copies of a Fifteenth Century book existing in German libraries could easily be destroyed by another European war, but then thousand copies on microfiche in libraries around the world are almost invulnerable. And a million copies in databases... ?

My first thought looking at the file box that contained a decade or so of her creativity and comparing it to the pocket full of disks that contained another decade was that the later version was far more likely to survive debulking than the former. Looking further, I had a thought about that survival of information.

I'm not sure who first pointed it out, but we are going through a truly amazing shift of wealth right now. As the Greatest Generation and the Korean War generation pass away, the baby boomers and their children are receiving the largest transfer of wealth in the history of the world.* At the Fremont Sunday Market, where Tessa and I sell her uniquely scented and gentle soaps and skin care products, the junk, antique, and collectibles dealers talk about this. "Wealth" is a nice abstract term. In reality, wealth isn't just numbers on bank ledgers, it's stuff.

Here are some vaguely remembered numbers from my teaching days in the early 90s. Those of us who were born in the 1950s, as children, had roughly three times as much stuff as our parents. Our children, born in the 70s or 80s, had roughly five times as much stuff as we we did. Do the math: Gen X kids grew up with around fifteen times as much stuff as the Greatest Generation.

This is what I've heard from thrift shop keepers and junk dealers. They have no problem finding stuff to sell, what they have is a problem of sorting through all the stuff to find the sellable stuff. College kids no longer have a problem finding furniture for their apartments, they have a problem finding the furniture that they want for their apartments. When a flood hits the Mid-West, relief groups don't want you to clean out your closet of last year's clubbing outfits, they want a very specific list of coats, boots, and rugged outdoor clothing. Most of the greatest property transfer in history will go into landfills. The great issue of this "wealth" transfer is sorting.

What does this have to do with Tessa's old poetry? Information, now called "data", is having less and less to do with this process. Diaries, files of papers, and photo albums are less bulk than they once were. Boxes of paper became disks in the 90s. A decade later they became fewer disks. A couple boxes of papers? Oh... throw them away. A handful of disks? Pitch them in this drawer... I'll worry about them later. Data storage becomes exponentially cheaper. I can now keep my parents' entire lifetimes in a corner on my hard-drive. Now I can back it up on a flash drive on my key chain. Next I can give a copy to each of my sisters and all their children. Duplication ensures survival. What happens when we all embrace distributed computing and data storage--the cloud? Blow me up or let me die alone and the data is still there.

Now that I'm giving up my house, I've begun moving my belongings into a storage unit. I don't know how bad my downward mobility will be. I doubt I will be able to take everything with me at this stage. I'll pay for the storage as long as I can in the hopes that my luck will turn around. Across the hall from my space is the unit of someone whose luck did not turn around. They've sawed off his lock and replaced it with their own, representing foreclosure. I hate the cable show Storage Wars. Each "treasure hunt" signifies the end of someones history, their dreams, and their continuity. At the Market, sometimes the junk dealers have boxes of old photos. Who are these people? These photos were taken for other people to look at. Continuity. Somehow that chain has been broken and now the photos are just images, illustrations. They have no human meaning.

As the bulk of personal history begins to shrink, what will happen to the fragility of human memory? Paper to disks to fewer disks to drives to smaller drives to the cloud. Memory increases exponentially. When i die and cease to visit my data, will it even be worth the effort for the keepers of the cloud to isolate my data and sell it to the future equivalent of the Storage Wars ghouls? Does this make my data more vulnerable to destruction or less? Memory becomes exponentially cheaper. At what point does it become not worth their effort to seek it out and destroy it? At that point, my history becomes immortal.

Millions and billions of us will be buried in the background noise of the global database. Who gets to mine that data? The intellectual property and privacy battles of today deal mostly with the living and their heirs. Will the next round deal with the extinct who have no heirs?

My generation is receiving the greatest property transfer in the history of the world. The next generation is going to receive the greatest information transfer in the history of the world. I wonder what they are going to do with it.

* As an historian, I think the terms of that proposition could be argued all night if enough beer was available. Technically, every generation transfers 100% of it's wealth to the next generation (or the one after). The only exceptions to this rule, that I can think of, involve imperial conquests. One group of conquests, like the Mongol invasion of Central Asia, are so devastating that they put a significant dent into the total wealth of the world. Another group, like the Spanish looting of the Aztec and Inca empires, accelerate the transfer so much that a fraction of one generation receives wealth that would have taken more than one generation to transfer in normal circumstances.

Compare and contrast. Cite sources. This will count for 20% of your final grade.

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