Saturday, September 13, 2008

Can Remembering be Overrated?

I recently finished reading Alec Wilkinson's article "Remember this? A Project to Record Everything We Do In Life." The idea that someone out there, namely Gordon Bell, is making a digital archive of his life is mind boggling. Digitization allows us to record and store things that we would have never been able to before. Most people purge their paper records at least every ten years ago, the average person simply does not have enough space to keep every grocery receipt or every scrap of paper they have ever written on.

The fact that Bell has managed to save so many "artifacts" from his life is a feat in itself. However I have to wonder if notion of quality over quantity has been forgotten. Historical records that have survived in archives or museums are typically ones that were deemed saving. Bell's method of digitizing everything removes the choice of what is valuable and what is not. I don't particularly care what he ate for breakfast or what colour of socks he wore on a particular day.

Also, the digitization or recording of all the minuscule details of life brings about another problem, the issue of personal privacy. What happens to Bell's archive once he dies? Will it be available for everyone to browse? The idea that the public at large could examine the smallest details of my life and essentially my daily memories is a frightening thought. Some phone conversations, emails, fashion choices, or life choices may be something that not everyone cares to remember.

Bell's personal archival project actually reminds me of the 1998 movie, The Truman Show in which Truman Burbank's daily life is being watched by millions of people and he doesn't even know it. The idea of a personal archive has the potential to put people in the same place Truman was in, a place where every movement is being watched and recorded and the everyone else seems to know more about your life than you do. I think digitization is a very valuable history tool, however I think there needs to be limits and consideration as to what is worthy of digitalizing.


David W. Rodger said...

Bell's personal archives is certainly excessive. This is not an activity that I would wish to partake in. However, his record of the mundane, while trivial now, could be quite valuable to historians hundreds of years in the future.

One example that sticks out in my mind is a photo of three family members who are standing in front of a lake. At first it seems only the individuals and perhaps their dress could be of interest. However, if you look at the small sections of background that are visible it is possible to determine that the vegetation growth by the water's edge is not very high. Looking at the same lake shore decades after the photo was taken, you can see how the vegetation has grown up. At the time the photo was taken, no one would have thought of this.

Krista McCracken said...

Very valid point. The mundane has long been of interest to historians, especially those who aim to study history from the bottom up. And in that regards Bell's personal archive is an excellent source for learning about the everyday life of a person in his time period.

I suppose its the excessive nature of Bell's personal archives which frightens me. The idea of being able to look at every aspect of someone's life is both neat and overwhelming. I also hope that Bell has established a good indexing method for his archive. Otherwise his archive has the potential to be so massive that searching through it for items of specific interest to individual historians may be impractical.