The Digital Storage of Analog Memories

Frictional Objects

Do you have a bunch of physical items stuck in storage? Objects you’ve kept over time that you can’t get rid of because you have a set of memories attached to them? Objects are keystones of memory, but pictures of those objects are still adequate keystones. Your brain is more than capable of filling in the missing details that were lost when the object turned from the 3rd dimension into the 2nd one. It is a rare moment when one can open the bins of stored objects and browse through them.

Bruce Sterling has often talked about the difficulty of owning and getting rid of excess objects out of one’s environment.

“Take its picture first”, said Sterling at the Reboot ’11 Conference in Copenhagen, “Catalogue everything about it. You might want to write down a story, the way it made you feel. It’s all right. You can get another one. Plenty of junk on eBay. It’s just going to sit there, you can click it, you can have it, it’s not hard”.

Last year I went home to see my parents and attempted to clean out the garage of old objects I’d hoarded since childhood. Every few years I go through the boxes and can’t get rid of a thing because I can’t stand erasing the memories. There are only so many items I can hold in my head, and these physical objects were anchors to memories I would not be able to access otherwise.

Uploading Memories

When I went through the boxes last year I had a small camera with me and I began to take pictures of everything. My camera’s EyeFi Card automatically uploaded everything to my Flickr account and stored each picture as private. In this way, I could have the best of both worlds – my memory artifacts suddenly took up no space, I was able to search for them, see them all at once from any web browser instead of going home and opening a box, and I was able to attach descriptions and stories to them for later use.

This is a set of images showing what I used to carry around in my pocket. A keypad from my old cell phone, a Blastoise eraser, plastic model cement, rapidograph ink, a keychain bubble level and tobacco papers.


In all, I took around 700 pictures of around 400 objects. Then I donated or threw them out. Once I had done this, I felt that a great weight had been lifted from my brain and life. Not only were these objects preserved, but they were stored in a way that could be easily accessed. I plan to do this for other objects when I go back home again.

The Fragility of Digital Data

Though this method of uploading images is fast and results in a convenient way of retrieving memories, it annihilates the original objects. If Flickr’s servers were to go down, or my account were to be deleted, my memories would go with it. Web companies are frothy and file formats change often. What is the best way to store data like this? The best way may be to own a few copies of it. One on your own server and one on an external 3rd party server and set up synching and backup between the two. We discussed data storage and ownership at IndieWebCamp last month, and how 3rd party data isn’t really your own. Additionally, as Stewart Brand has explained in his essay Escaping the Digital Dark Age:

“Digital storage is easy; digital preservation is not. Preservation means keeping the stored information cataloged, accessible, and usable on current media, which requires constant effort and expense. Furthermore, while contemporary information has economic value and pays its way, there is no business case for archives, so the creators or original collectors of digital information rarely have the incentive– or skills, or continuity-to preserve their material”.

Objects I physically own could be destroyed in a flood, or their digital forms could be destroyed by the burst of a tech bubble. If I had left these objects as digital forms I might have never taken the objects out of the box in the garage again. Do they really matter at all?

And for some objects, photos can’t replace touch or feel or the smell of the original items. “Lego doesn’t feel the same in photo”, says @chanmaster. But if photos are taken of objects that will rarely be touched again, is it worth it just to have the memories of those objects closer?

8 thoughts on The Digital Storage of Analog Memories

  1. Perhaps Kevin Kelly was right – “access is better than ownership”.

    I recently went through a year long process of digitising all my CDs, DVDs, some books and decades of printed photos.

    What I found was by mentally and physically processing each item, I was forced to assess what it meant to me, why I needed to retain it and whether I could cope with its loss.

    (Essentially, I was running an accelerating mourning algorithm on all my stuff!)

    Understanding the motives for retaining something really helped me surface my emotions about stuff.

    Many times, I found that an item itself had no real innate or obvious meaning, but connected me to a place or time; discarding it ironically helped me to internalise the associated memories.

    But, I did wonder about legacies and heirlooms – my grandparents left very few items and artefacts after their deaths, just some property and of course their children and grandchildren.

    I’m starting to understand that *that* kind of humanistic legacy is more potent that being able to manifest your life in stuff and works. The collective fleeting and imperfect memories of someone are perhaps more important than the literal recordings of their existence :)

  2. Hmmm, its a potential solution – digital storage space is cheap and metatagging easy unlike similar for physical objects, however you lose so much.

    All you have is your own metadata and an image of the object. You dont have and cant recover its smoothness, its weight or any other tactile sensation, any smell that it may have, including both the original smell and the “oldness” smell; whether it rattles if you shake it, any chips or imperfections that you barely notice or notice only because you know they are there. You either record them explicitly, or ignore them in which case they will be lost in the fullness of time.

    Its a solution, certainly – but the thing that makes these objects special to you is the secrets that only you know about (eg that this little ornament has a tiny chip because you once knocked it off the table, but never told anyone because you would get into trouble) – to codify those secrets makes them not secret, but without the full richness of the object, the secrets will be lost.

  3. Mhairi, thanks for such a great comment. I agree with you completely, which is why I have chosen not to digitize the most important objects in my life.

  4. There are several things at play here that digital archival resolves. The main thing is it’s a shortcut to a sort of buddhist-like lack of attachment. You really want to not be attached to these things but you really want to keep them. It solves that problem by tricking yourself into getting them out of your way.

    I just moved across the country and was forced to make similar choices about childhood toys, books, etc. Not to mention more recently obtained items.

    Mhairi, your points are absolutely valid. If you require the feel and weight of that cherished toy, if you desire the smell of that old book, keep it. If you see it and interact with it, keep it. I know I kept most of my books, even though it’s ridiculous on the face of it with kindles and the like.

    However, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. There’s also a second class of possession that’s just kept around for the memory of it and not the actuality. The reason you keep it is because humans are wired to fear loss. So for this second class of less-cherished yet still desired items the digital archive solution is perfect! You get to keep it but you don’t need the space.

    So keep the things you really need to keep, but digitally archive everything else!

  5. This reminds me that I have to embark on a comprehensive data cataloging project. Thousands of digital pics need keywording, documents need deleting, filing and/or back-up. Also, I plan on digitizing a bunch of pictures. Right now, I’m making sure every single music CD we own is uploaded, and then we will donate the CDs. I just keep thinking: How will I carry this to a retirement home? Or to my grave? Do I ever sit around and reminisce? It just isn’t my style. I think attachments to objects are dangerous. So, I would have to vote that accessibility is probably more important than ownership, but I hardly ever spend time accessing old memories anyway. I prefer to spend my time making new ones.

  6. Posts like these help to make the whole world wide web experience rewarding. The ability to talk about your personalized thoughts and observations with the whole world. Truly fascinating

  7. Great post. One of the points I have been trying to explain to a lot of folks is that an image of an object in context actually captures parts of the essence of the object that is lost if you pick up the object and begin working to preserve it. That is, photographing something in context can actually capture more of the significant properties of that object than actually preserving the object itself. Some of your examples here are useful for working through this line of thinking. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Pingback: Replaying Childhood: On Gifting my Video Games to the Library of Congress | The Signal: Digital Preservation

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