How Do We Save Our Digital Lives?

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To my surprise and delight, I was selected to do a solo presentation at SXSW this March in Austin. The proposal I put together was about archiving and how digital technologies are changing the ways we create and store personal artifacts like photos and letters. Instead of leaving behind a paper trail of photographs and old letters that future generations could potentially find, we are creating and housing our personal artifacts in companies – Facebook, Instagram, Gmail. This results in a whole host of problems that people generally don’t think about.

“I have discovered,” I tell my husband recently over a dinner out with copious wine, “that archiving is humanity and love.” I take a sip of wine, “Archiving is blowing my mind.”

Recently, this sort of declaration isn’t out of the norm for me. Since my proposal was selected a few months ago, I’ve been going around town interviewing a whole host of very interesting people. Like Andy Hunter, who started the beloved app Broadcastr, a geo-location app where you could tell personal stories anonymously and tag the stories to a location.  Allowing people to walk around a city listening to an invisible narrative. “This is the mailbox where I had my first kiss…” “This is the corner where my father had a heart attack…” Broadcastr was the app that, when it shut down this summer, inspired this whole project for me.

“We worked with The Human Rights Watch to collect stories in Tahrir Square, we worked with the 9/11 memorial to collect stories from survivors on the 10 year anniversary,” Hunter told me. “When we launched the app, there was an archiving aspect to it. Imagine moving into an apartment in the Lower East Side, imagine being able to hear stories from that apartment- the people who lived there, the lives they led – stories of that apartment over years, over decades.”

“That would be,” the hope of these ideas put me on the brink of tears, “amazing.”

Hunter explained that how Broadcastr is shutting down, giving people the option to pull out their stories (“Though only about 5% of our users have.”) is time-consuming and expensive. “We view ourselves as doing the responsible thing, by allowing this option for as long as we can afford to.”

“What we are choosing to capture is drastically changing,” Professor Wosh, the head of the NYU Archiving Department, tells me. “With Kodak you had a roll of film that would take 18 pictures. You took these pictures during special events, graduations, birthdays. Now you take pictures of everything; 15 pictures of the way snow looks on a tree branch.”

“We are now in the culture of, if you don’t share it, it doesn’t exist,” he says. A common idea. The volume and volume of nonsense we share on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. A picture of the turkey sandwich we ate for lunch.

But with archiving, what I can’t stop thinking about, why I think it’s so important is that, No, it’s not about “If you don’t share it,” it’s about “If you don’t save it.”

If you don’t save it, you won’t exist.

~

When I am interviewing people, or this project comes up, people ask me when I became interested in archiving. I tell them during my master’s work at NYU. I took an archiving class on a whim as an elective. I was actively studying how social networking sites change the ways we articulate ourselves and interact with an “invisible audience.” (This was eons ago in social media time. My thesis actually explores Friendster, amongst other antiquated platforms.) Sitting through this archiving class, realizing the value of being able to explore what is saved from different periods of time, against the lens of how people were currently creating their lives digitally blew my mind.

“I remember you,” Professor Wosh said when I reached out to him for an interview, “you were the first person I had worked with who was really interested in archiving and social media.”

I was at my parents house, in my childhood bedroom, when I realized that no, graduate school was not the first time I became interested in archiving. Actually, I have been deeply obsessed with archiving since the 3rd grade when I started my first diary. I just didn’t have the right words to describe what I was spending so much time doing.

Archiving, cataloguing. Indexing my life (which I thought was extremely interesting) in a way that someone could trace and follow. I printed out AOL emails and bound them. I included relevant  photos and newspaper clippings, dated, in my diaries which I maintained daily until I was 23 years old. I have a box with files of the names of my friends labelled on beige folders,  in each folder includes all of their letters and notes we would pass class.

I remember why I was doing this. I was doing this because when I was old and had lost my mind, I imagined myself sitting in a nursing home alone and having a nurse read my life back to me. From 3rd grade on. I remarked on this through my early journals. I noted the “good entries,” when something juicy happened – I kissed a boy, I drank stolen beers with friends behind Kate’s garage. I thought my old, senile self would particularly enjoy these chapters.

I’m 31 years old now. As it turns out, there is a great deal of my early life that I catalogued that I don’t remember at all. I didn’t have to wait until I was 102. When I visit my parents, I will get lost in this. Picking up a journal when I was in 6th grade. I’ll cringe at an entry and will be amusingly embarrassed about who I was, but then I’ll turn the page and read a new entry and will become fiercely proud of this girl. This young, strange, driven girl. Who is this person? I will wonder endlessly. Who wrote in these diaries, who had braces and bangs? She is dead. I know this deep inside of me. I am not, actually, her. And all that exists of her, all that is left that I or anyone will ever know about her, is what she left behind. The things she saved.

~

When you wander deeper into archival theory, it gets a little less pure than I’d like. A little more academic and theory-heavy. Like the problem of curating what to save.

“Can’t you just print out the photos and letters from Gmail or Facebook that you want to save?” I asked Professor Wosh, “Is that what archivists are recommending?”

“No,” he says, “that is not recommended. When you print, you are selective with what you print out. You choose what is important.” (Who then does decide what is important? Wouldn’t this always change with time and perspective?)

“Plus, archivists now believe it’s important to understand the full digital context. It’s not just the single document. Where does it click to? What are the comments? The document is no longer one-dimensional.”

It goes on. It’s gets more complicated. And there isn’t a clear solution, a clear answer of what to do to responsibly preserve your personal artifacts. But I’ll get into this more during my presentation.

What I’ll leave you with is the first, wine-drunk thought I declared to my husband in the beginning of this essay: Archiving is humanity and love.

I was thinking about the people who, because of what was saved that they left behind, in their death have become historical icons. Bigger than a person, pieces of humanity. The big ones that come to mind are Anne Frank, Vincent Van Gogh, and more recently, John Kennedy Toole.

A writer of a diary during a war, a painter with a crooked mind, a writer of a Pulitzer Prize winning book nobody wanted to publish. What do all of these people have in common? Somebody fiercely loved them, somebody fiercely wanted to keep them alive. Her father, his brother, his mother.

Generally, ordinary people aren’t thinking about their own archives. It forces them to face their own mortality and many people are uncomfortable with this. Generally, what is saved is an accident. And what is preserved?

The archive is a fierce act of love.

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You don’t run to live better; you live better because you run

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Running is the secret’s secret. Marriage, job,  house, kids… no, those are the overhyped things we are told we need to be satisfied in life. But no, it’s actually a lot simpler than that. For many of us, it’s running. 

As a runner you know this. And because you know this you live in a state of mild, but constant, paranoia of being injured. Which up until yesterday meant knocking up a knee, twisting an ankle, a bad blister. It meant not being able to run for a little while. Not being able to run is the worst for runners. It’s hard on their bodies, but it’s a lot harder on their minds. Runners know this–how much running helps their minds. How much stability and happiness it allows you.

There are so many people without legs.”*

If you don’t run you don’t understand the moments. Of being alone. Of being in the middle of it. Say mile 4. A good song comes on. A good thought comes to you. About anything, and suddenly stuff is good. Suddenly life is awesome. Suddenly the future is dazzling. And you run. You sprint. You are in the air. You have no weight. You fucking move. And you are grinning. Maybe you are singing out loud. Maybe you are pumping your fists. And you don’t care if anyone sees you. Every single good run has one of these moments in the middle.** Runners know this.

Running is the secret’s secret. Running starts as a hobby on the sidelines of your life, but then it has this way of nudging in–nudging completely into the center. Running becomes the radius of your life. Running becomes your life. You don’t run to live better; you live better because you run.

Runners know this. It’s the secret. It’s why we live in a constant fear of injury—fearing that one day we won’t be able to run. As a runner you know you probably won’t be able to run your entire life. Sure, every once in a while there are the moments when you find yourself running a race and an 85-year old weathered out old bird with bells tied to his shoelaces will just run right on past you, will leave you in his dust, and you’ll think, That’s fucking awesome. But those are the exceptions. You know that running isn’t always that sustainable on  bodies. You know something will probably eventually break. The shoe will drop. The knee will go, the cartilage will wear. Runners know this.

But this. Fuck this.

Running is active gratitude. To run means you are healthy. To run means you are alive and able-bodied and physically independent. To run means that you are free. From now on every run, run in gratitude.

~

*“These runners just finished and they don’t have legs now,” said Roupen Bastajian, 35, a Rhode Island state trooper and former Marine. “So many of them. There are so many people without legs. It’s all blood. There’s blood everywhere. You got bones, fragments.” New York Times

**This Sunday I ran a half marathon in PA. It was a beautiful day with blue skys and sun. During mile 7 or 8 the course took you along a small road in a wide open field. The older runner in front of me had a shirt on that read on the back, “Run On Extraordinary.” I was running behind him and thinking about his shirt. An entire family of deer suddenly appeared in the field and sprinted alongside us. I grinned and I ran.

 

The Facebook Avatar Revolution: How to Record These Moments?

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Over the last few days we’ve watched as Facebook has gone red in support of marriage equality during this week’s Supreme Court’s testimony. It’s inspiring to see the velocity of a movement happen in real-time, as people step forward all around you in mutual support of a cause.

Watching revolutions and large-scale movements translate onto social media over the last 5 or so years, it has more often been Twitter as the platform of note. The hashtags form, the news snippets are sent out from the field and retweeted by the people (and retweeted and retweeted and retweeted). People show their support in words marked with communal hashtags. Together and by volume and speed, these messages are unified as trending hashtags before a global audience. It’s inspiring to see the power of the collective.

I’m a sucker for a good data visualization or infographic because I’m a sucker for a good story. For me, my favorite part of Twitter is the data visualizations of these movements. Watching the velocity of a hashtag explode and quickly move beyond the boundary of one country throughout the world. Capturing the scope of activity and unity of people everywhere coming together in support. Plucking the specific tweets and photos that influenced so many out of the volumes of mentions and constructing a story of a movement move. (This man’s Storify of the Arab Spring exemplifies just that: http://storify.com/antderosa/2011-timeline-of-protest-revolution-and-uprising)

Data visualizations do more than capture the moment in a way that can be seen from a bird’s eye view beyond your immediate network, but they can act as archives and keepers of stories and history. And not just a single story, but the many narratives and perspectives of what happened and why it mattered and what it influenced.

“When you have different versions of history, you are creating an atmosphere of freedom – it’s more like an element of democracy. And this is not characteristic of most Arab countries. You are not expected or allowed to have more than one version of history,” said Muhammad Faour, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Centre to Al Jazeera last year.

He continued, “It’s not just a matter of current records serving as a playbook for future activists and civic groups. It’s also a matter of empowering a population to record – on their own terms – what transpired on their streets, something being documented in some measure now in Syria.”

~

It’s appropriate that Color would be the main focus of the gay rights movement, not a phrase or hashtag. LGBT has always been associated with color. Phrases can be polluted with stigmas (like focusing on “marriage equality” instead of “gay rights.”) But how do we best record this moment in time? We can record the volume and location of tweets in data visualizations. We can watch it ourself with free measuring tools. The Library of Congress is collecting all tweets (170 billion and counting) that some poor analyst will always have the opportunity to sort through. But Facebook is trickier because of data restrictions  and privacy. Images and image variations are trickier to collect, pool and sort than words and hashtags. Even though Facebook has just adopted the hasthag, I suspect it’s real value during these times of revolution will be visual. Visuals are just more powerful on Facebook than words. I don’t think this will be the last time we share an image in support of a movement on Facebook.

I don’t want the collected moment of this week to be lost. There was an instance the other day when my entire Facebook homefeed was red, every avatar. It was inspiring. But now I want to see more, I want to see it from the bird’s eye, I want to watch our support grow.  I want to remember how our support grew.

Do you have a favorite data visualization? Share it! Or a favorite tool to capture and analyze image volume?

Lines

Assignment: Five interesting lines in structure or design.

Purpose: To understand how lines can create an action or statement.

Cross Here lines

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Stand Back! lines

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Don’t Jump lines

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I’ll Take What You Don’t Want lines

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Think About What These Lines Are Supposed To Mean lines

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Unlike Fireflies: A Short Meditation on Fluorescent Corals

“Unlike fireflies, glowworms and other bioluminescent creatures, fluorescent corals don’t glow on their own. Instead, they absorb one color of light, and emit light of another color—a process known as fluorescence.”

~

Fluorescent Corals remind me of this tree that is on a narrow street in southern Thailand. The roots are cracking the pavement and an old weathered prayer flag is wrapped around the trunk several times. Five years ago I was jogging down that road, something I did nearly every day then, and a thought struck me so suddenly and with such weight, and from seemingly out of nowhere, that it stopped me right there—on the side of the road, hands on my knees, breathing heavily and staring up at that tree.

“If that tree wasn’t there, I wouldn’t be here.” That was the thought. But now I am no longer able to recreate the weight of that thought in my mind. I can just remember the actual words.

Have I forgotten the depths of Buddhism in the same way I have forgotten how to speak Thai? Or in the same way in where it’s hard to run even 3 miles when I take a break from running every day—when there are times my body can run marathons? Can the under-used muscle of the spirit go slack like the mind and the body?

~

Fluorescent Corals remind me of my diaries from when I was a girl. Now I read them in wonderment. I read them standing up by the desk in my childhood bedroom dressed like an adult because I am an adult. I read them and am proud and embarrassed and filled with infinite marvel all at once.

Who was this girl? And what’s even more confusing is where did she go? This girl in my diary, sitting on her bed in her pajamas who had so many feelings. This girl who was just writing and writing and writing and trying to figure it out—and by “it” I mean trying to figure herself out. And her parents were just downstairs, those foreign creatures, her parents watching television and passing the popcorn just oblivious—oblivious, she imagined, of ever understanding the depths of this girl who was sitting in her bedroom right above their heads with thoughts that blow around inside of her so violently, so perpetually they are like a wind vortex spinning a pile of dead leaves in a cyclone on the street in front of her suburban home.

The girl’s pen dries up. Me, the adult, shuts the diary. I’m busy and have to go somewhere else. I’m not at my parents’ house to read my old diaries after all.

“Why are we afraid of death,” I ask later high or drunk one night in my adult bed. “When we have died so many times? When people we once were are dead and gone right now and they will never ever possibly come back in the physical form as we knew them? But their presence, their essence and lessons are with us—invisibly alive inside of us always.”

“Haven’t we already died, died as we understand it—like physically just gone forever—so many times before?”

If that girl in my diary wasn’t there, then I wouldn’t be here now.

I understand it then.

~

Fluorescent Corals remind me that we are all just products of the people and environment that have and do surround us throughout our lives. Fluorescent Corals remind me of a poem or story I want to write but can’t think of anything better to say then what they are and what they do. They remind me that I’m not alone. That I’m not special. That I am part of you and you are a part of me and if that tree wasn’t living and breathing that time on a narrow street in the South Thailand I would not be here, writing this now, in this moment—which is the only moment in which I, as I am right now, is and will ever be alive.

This Baby Is Hustling

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Baby’s got dry mud caked all over his butt and a fringy sailor top on. Squirming on his back like he’s having a baby stroke, heaving his tummy up and down. I’m in a metro station in Old Delhi. There are students and dogs and garbage and shit tons of people and baby and me. I’m looking at a map. Baby’s momma is lounging on the street outside with her lady friends. Her elbow’s on the curb, hand resting her head. She’s gabbing.

I thought that baby was having a stroke until I felt a tap tap tap on my knee and looked down. Little baby with his dirty little finger, smirking baby toothed smile and dry mud caked on his arms too. Motioning his baby hand to baby mouth, baby hand to baby mouth. He has a sneaky smile in his eyes and he’s got his skinny girl arm planted on his jutted hip out with his baby balls hanging and his left foot tapping. What I’m saying is baby’s working it.

Ughhhhhh. I think. Is there anything else to think right now really? Is there anything more profound that I am missing? This baby is a riot. This baby is funny. This baby is hustling. I say  to baby No, I shake my head to baby No. Baby loses his sneaky smile in his eyes, he tips his head to the side, nods, and then prances his naked butt away, plops flat on his back down on the ground and starts pumping his tummy up and down. Baby stroking for someone new.

If there’s a God—dude is twisted.

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