What Will We Leave Behind?

Michel de Montaigne.
Michel de Montaigne. Image via Wikipedia

Here’s a smart piece that addresses the issue, from The New York Times Magazine:

But increasingly we’re not leaving a record of life by culling and stowing away physical journals or shoeboxes of letters and photographs for heirs or the future. Instead, we are, collectively, busy producing fresh masses of life-affirming digital stuff: five billion images and counting on Flickr; hundreds of thousands of YouTube videos uploaded every day; oceans of content from 20 million bloggers and 500 million Facebook members; two billion tweets a month. Sites and services warehouse our musical and visual creations, personal data, shared opinions and taste declarations in the form of reviews and lists and ratings, even virtual scrapbook pages. Avatars left behind in World of Warcraft or Second Life can have financial or intellectual-property holdings in those alternate realities. We pile up digital possessions and expressions, and we tend to leave them piled up, like virtual hoarders. At some point, these hoards will intersect with the banal inevitability of human mortality. One estimate pegs the number of U.S. Facebook users who die annually at something like 375,000.

I think about this a lot, maybe because I write for a living as a journalist and non-fiction author. I like to think my work will live on for decades or more, stored as it is within the databases of the many newspapers and magazines I’ve written for since the 1970s. I’ve written many personal stories for publication in print: about getting married, getting divorced, returning to church, and know that millions of strangers who have read them, like those who read my blogs, “know” me as a result.

But I don’t have kids or even nephews or nieces, so I also know that all my beloved family photos, and those of my sweetie — my favorite image, being cuddled by his Mom as a baby — will end up as detritus or, maybe, in some flea market bin.

Same with my journals and notebooks, decades of insights and observations. Gone.

But I worry about the loss of all the paper artifacts so many of us now disdain and no longer use — letters sent through the mail and kept, whether love letters or documents — that make up our individual and collective histories.

On the morning of 9/11, one of the most poignant and terrifying artifacts were the burned shreds of paper that floated all the way into my sweetie’s Brooklyn backyard from the fallen Twin Towers: invoices, letterhead, faxes…

Think of all the men and women we’ve come to know only through their letters and journals over the centuries, even milennia, from Herodotus to Pepys, whose diary of daily life from 1660 to 1669 is considered one of of the world’s greatest. I love (geek that I am) Montaigne’s travel journal, from 1580.

One of my favorite songs, Virginia Woolf, by the Indigo Girls captures the profound connections we have with the long-dead through their writing:

They published your diary
And that’s how I got to know you
The key to the room of your own and a mind without end
And here’s a young girl
On a kind of a telephone line through time
And the voice at the other end comes like a long lost friend
So I know I’m all right
Life will come and life will go
Still I feel it’s all right
Cause I just got a letter to my soul
And when my whole life is on the tip of my tongue
Empty pages for the no longer young
The apathy of time laughs in my face
You say each life has it’s place

The hatches were battened
The thunderclouds rolled and the critics stormed
The battle surrounded the white flag of your youth
If you need to know that you weathered the storm
Of cruel mortality
A hundred years later I’m sitting here living proof

What will you leave behind?

Does it matter?

6 thoughts on “What Will We Leave Behind?

  1. I have been writing about this issue on my blog this week as the floods in Queensland (as well as four other Australian states) will have consumed countless photos, diaries, letters etc. Brazil and Sri Lanka will also be facing this issue. At the moment the priority is where it should be – saving lives and creating safe living conditions. There won’t be the time or the resources to save personal memories.

    I face the issue of destruction of records every day in my current work researching the history of teaching reading in Australia. I have trawled through many archives in two states and have not found many records that I know once existed. These records may have been destroyed in natural disasters such as floods and bushfires, some were destroyed in the act of moving to a new building (easier to destroy things than move them); a new person in charge of the collection (among thousands of other duties) may not have recognised the significance of the items and thrown them out; poor storage conditions such as humidity (causing mould), insects, leaking pipes can ‘eat up’ records; some items were destroyed because they contained superseded information (we don’t want students to learn ‘wrong’ information)etc etc. Paper is an ephemeral object.

    Added insurance can be gained by digitising records through scanning them. But floods and fires destroy computers and backups. Better still is to digitise the record and store it in the cloud. This is what the State Library of Queensland did recently. They uploaded 50,000 photos to the wikimedia website just weeks before floodwaters invaded their building. While they were closed this week and their website was down I was able to include one of their photos of the 1893 Brisbane floods on my blog thanks to their wikimedia upload.

    We are hoping that the work at the State Library of Queensland earlier this week preparing for the flood results in minimal damage to their collections.

    1. Thanks for such a long and informative comment….Of course, natural disasters such as these are compounding the problem. Fascinating to read what the solutions are — communal and international and digital.

  2. With the rising popularity of apocalypse movies, video games and books, I worry about this constantly. But the chance that some catastrophic event will destroy all our technology is pretty slim.

    I personally have tons and tons of notebooks (staring at the computer screen for too long gives me headaches), but I realize I might be an anomaly. Great song choice!

  3. Fru, I am amazed at the faith, in fact, that so many are now placing in digital media instead of physical artifacts….we have material from Egyptian times, but I fear some nasty virus that could easily and permanently destroy all digital data, if we have no physical backup.

    Love the Indigo Girls!!!

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