Musing: A life in data

Earlier this week my External Hard Drive sort-of crashed. I say sort of because it came to a point where I knew it would become non-functioning and I migrated all of the data to another space before it fully died. I had a moment of shock for a variety of reasons. I’ll talk about two of them in this post. One reason is that I came to realise how much of my life can be gleaned from the data within that external drive, and perhaps more valuable than most physical objects I have, that data is a record of my life. The secondary point pertains to my ‘dependence’ on computers, cloud hosting and other such technological marvels of the modern world. Every solution has a problem, and I came to realise the problems of my over-dependence on digitising my life, this shall be the second part of my post.

A life in memories

When my hard drive faltered, my first thought was like the Titanic ship officers were apparently depicted in Cameron’s 1997 film, the proverbial ‘women and children’ most vital files must be preserved! This involved an extensive scan of my paper records which include most of my paper files and folders from about 2004-5 to 2009-10 (I’ve not digitally archived my files since 2010). I then took a lot of unsorted files, miscellaneous audio recordings and songs I’ve made. Then I found some pictures. Antisophie made a joke to me once saying that the perfume she got from a romantic partner lasted longer than the relationship itself. Digital memories have a shelf life which is potentially longer than the human lives that they describe. They may be our equivalent of cave drawings for whoever may come to know of us humans one day. Or it may be a lot of dirty poisonous plastic bottles and argon filled disposed fridges which are semi-degraded in deep sea waters which continue to poison its environment in the future earth.

When I looked at my archive I found various pictures and videos. I sw lots of happy times. I saw an old flame and her vibrant beauty; I saw my little nephew from birth to when he started to talk and then I saw some people who are now deceased. I had a realisation to myself that these pictures and videos are essentially all I have left of them, even if the angles and focus are a bit off or they didn’t look particularly prepared to a picture, its still all that remains, as a digital and as an human memory.Time is frozen in a photograph, and it gave me pause for reflecting on what once was.

One person whom I barely recognised was myself! I found a few pictures of myself back in about 2008 when, according to a few testimonies, I was at my ‘sexiest’. Back then I had ridiculously long and thick hair which almost went to my waist plus I was much more arrogant and times were much more innocent. In recent months for unrelated reasons, I have been thinking about contextualising the past few years of my life. In terms of social context, my own personal narrative and my wider family narrative, I was thinking about how times are different. One thing I noted amusingly with my sister recently was what life was like before she had children, she jokingly implied that she missed those days and also implied that it seems so long ago that she didn’t remember that there was such a time! It’s funny how 4 years can change lives.

Thinking about the past I have thought in some ways that I am a bit wiser, and a bit more organised. I feel that I’ve worked a lot on many of my flaws and I still am working on a few ever vigilantly. I’ve seen the past few years as a journey and one with many difficulties. Seeing the archives which I forgot existed then forced me to change my perspective yet again. Without looking at the archives, I had been thinking about the past. After looking at my archives I then changed my gloss on recent history. Times seemed much more innocent back then and a large degree of that is due to the political climate. I remember the days when Sainsbury’s basics had a super-cheap range of everything from chocolate to brandy, which, in South London parlance, I caned. Things like job stability, economic growth were much different too and from the perspective of 2012 there seemed to be a luxury of ignorance.

I miss the old me. Sometimes I wonder if it was the hair that I miss, or being so naively arrogant (both of which constituted a sense of sexiness). I perhaps miss the innocence of the time and I hate how the present feels like a redux of the late 1980s or early 1990s downturn and pessimism. Fry and Laurie sketches where the Police became Privatised or where idiots appeared on television shows are now more like satanic prophecies than quaint liberal absurd humour and my own political concerns are diminished by the fact that Real Life Stuff is more pressing a concern than say, activism or waxing political, proto-socal theorist style. The tone of our blog has significantly diminished as part of Real Life Stuff getting in the way, and I do realise I could talk about more interesting things, more socially prescient things. I see much change through digitising my life and there’s a great advantage to it.

The Umbilical USB

I keep records of financial transactions, boring administrative documents, bills and so forth and I would ideally like a unified and organised manner of keeping it all together. Google’s various appendages have been ultimately useful to me over the recent years, and I’ve discovered more and more applications and services that also help me archive and organise my life. Then there’s a point where it becomes too much: do I really need to use twitter? Do I really need PInterest? The answer to both of those is no. I do however, find Google Reader immensely helpful. I also find GCal a lifesaver. I find facebook more significant for contacting and organising things than my boile phone, in fact I use so many cloud based applications that I can get away with my phone being used only for SMS and phone calls. The irony of me being a phone Luddite is lost on most people! Most people don’t use IFTTT to syncronise their twitter to flickr, or use boolean functions to automatically save news articles to a CMS for which is later used for creating a dossier.

There are great uses for cloud applications, or even backing up data through hosting services as a way of preserving those important things. I have learned however that there have been instances where a paper based method could have been ultimately easier for me in some aspects. If I had a physical photo album, I would be more tactile and perhaps I could physically note the presence of photo albums of the past decade and pick them up to reminisce more often, instead of whenever I’m having a computer crisis and I end up almost never seeing these photos otherwise.

I’ve developed a system which links most aspects of my life together using cloud applications, I might talk about that in another blog, but it has a lot of personal implications for me. Realising that I’m dependent on GCal to organise my day makes me more stupid in some ways: I don’t need to remember things if I’ve already set it in a timetable. I also don’t need to decide things if I have planned and decided what I am to do in advance. This means I get to think less. I must admit that there is a skill to memorising and keeping a mental note of plans and keeping it all in your head. I used to be known for my exceptional skills of recollecting, and GCal is basically outsourcing some of my brain computation to the cloud. I consider it part of what philosophers have called the ‘Extended Mind Hypothesis’. Antisophie also jokes that I am a real life ‘Otto’ with his notebook.

Having GCal is great, except when the internet is down, or when my computer breaks down (both situations faced in the past year). What if there is a massive EMP or natural disaster to cut out connection to communications infrastructures or electronics devices? There is a place for the older physical methods of keeping records and data, there’s a place for keeping data on your computer and on servers as well as just the cloud. Backing up is not longer considered an 100% efficient way of preserving those precious memories or important work files. I think you probably need about at least 3-4 copies in order to really have some protection: A backup on a detachable medium; a cloud back up; ‘the original medium’, maybe a P(hysical) copy if applicable, and a second copy using one of the aforementioned means just to be secure.

A few years back I was reading a website (the exact name of it escapes me) which had this radical revolutionary idea: you only need to own a few things in your life: have enough clothes for a few days (and circulate/clean them regularly); have a few personal and sentimental items and have your laptop computer. At the time I read this website, the ultraportable laptops (which never really took off) were in vogue and were of low memory capacity. This website proposed to keep all of one’s memories and records and personal items as digital versions: ebooks, mp3 files, youtube videos and image hosted photos.

There is an extent to which I adhere to that digitally minimal philosophy. I suppose I’m personally attracted to the fact that I can still have my alienware in this minimalist ascetic idea. Especially since my alienware is a decadent overpowered piece of technology which is metaphorically and (as I’m typing right now) literally on a pedestal which centralises all of my life. It’s nice to have one’s life centralised, unified, rationalised. I think Weber would consider it a nightmare, and Kant may have considered this digital age as the potential ideal of his ‘science is organised knowledge, wisdom is organised life’. Personally, I like being away from my cloud from time to time. I find it liberating when I leave the house and I don’t need my phone, or I don’t even need a watch. As much as I am attached to technology and so reliant on cloud computing and the web to organise and enact much of my life: I also really like when it has nothing to do with it as well! Recently I’ve gotten involved in a community garden, a choir and I play badminton and try to do some weight and circuit training with a few mates.

If there’s one thing I don’t miss about my 21 year old (with the lovely long hair) self its the inflexibility and sense that I had it all set and sorted in my ideas and the way I organised myself. I don’t, and my reliance on GCal is probably going to change. There will be some new app that does it better and I’ll change. Perhaps the greatest experience I found from revisiting my memories is knowing that I am adaptable and things will change. Photos will stay the same forever and the past is fixed. Today and tomorrow are (at least from an epistemic point of view) undetermined.

Michael

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