In 2014, it was announced that Toni Morrison’s papers would be permanently housed at Princeton University. The “papers'' included book drafts, diaries, photographs, videotapes, course materials, and other media documenting the life and work of a prolific author. Most of us are familiar with the idea of digging through a box of old family photos, or of an archivist poring over a famous author’s handwritten letters. But what happens when our “papers” are digital? What happens to Toni Morrison’s floppy disks (see image)? What about Susan Sontag’s 17,000 emails, recently made available to view on computers in UCLA’s Special Collections reading room?
In the day-to-day lives of those who regularly use computers and smartphones, we are all archivists—taking photographs that save automatically to a camera roll, uploading documents to the Cloud, starring and sorting e-mails, taking screenshots, curating posts on social media—but the traces of our digital lives are rapidly eroded by devices crashing, software expiring, or by simply choosing to move away from an app.
Your Computer: Archive or Paperweight?
In his prescient 1945 essay “As We May Think,” Vannevar Bush speculates about “trails” of thought and data that each individual cultivates and preserves:
“Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library… A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.”
Likewise, Ted Nelson’s Project Xanadu (a 1960 hypertext predecessor to the internet) was intended to be a place “where nothing would be forgotten.” In Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom, Abigail De Kosnik writes that these anticipations of the internet as a master archive are instead a “memory machine myth,” invoking Wendy Chun’s description of the internet as “the enduring ephemeral”—unstable, fleeting, but suggestive of stability in its relentless presence.
When you write something on paper, there is the inherent risk of someone else coming across it. The physical space it takes up implies that, eventually, it will be handled at least once more—even if just en route to the trash can. But writing in a digital space allows us to surrender to the likelihood of our traces being sucked back into an intangible vacuum, shuffled away into the excess of bitstreams that are indecipherable to most. Even things that we might not consider secrets become so, due to the fragility of digital material. We self-curate our social media and online interactions, but aside from shared devices, it’s rare that we see the day-to-day digital lives and creative habits of others.
Once the primary user of a computer is gone, their digital materials are shrouded in passwords, software updates, and period-specific charging devices. So, it’s a matter of pure guesswork to locate anything close to a representative archive (did they store things in a text editor? As email drafts? Nested deep within tiers of vague folders?). Individual computing processes are fragmented, far-flung, and an embarrassing compression of private and professional habits that leaves many thinking, oh no, delete it all! Yet many disciplines of knowledge—history, literary studies, anthropology, journalism, and law, to name a few—have come to rely on archives as a critical part of their research process (to the point that “archival studies” has become its own field).
By studying archives, scholars can recover mistranslations, revisit interpretations in new cultural contexts, learn more about the cultural and historical influences on a literary work, and even resurface something—or someone—that was previously overlooked.
While scholars in digital humanities (among other fields) continue to interrogate the hows and whys of digital preservation, we are left with the fact that once an individual is gone, their personal computing device is just as likely to become an archive as it is a paperweight—the task of processing a computer as an archive is unfamiliar, high-maintenance, and easy to ignore.
The Future of Our "Black Boxes"
It’s easy to delegate the work of collecting and preserving a digital archive to the technology that we use—and in many cases, letting software take the wheel is necessary in a world with such a sheer volume of digital material.
In exchange for the convenience of outsourced archival labor, tech companies and government organizations have access to our daily digital habits and preferences through incessant data collection, conflating what the user finds valuable (an email correspondence with a loved one, a SoundCloud project, a perfect meme) with what surveillant entities find valuable (how long you linger on an advertisement, how many gigabytes of storage a consumer in your demographic uses, how often NSA trigger words are used).
Computer Tours has allowed me to think more collectively, intentionally, playfully, intimately, and openly about my own digital space. I hope that experiments like this, while small and bizarre, empower the everyday computer user to further define the shape, ownership, and future of their own digital archive.