Monday, September 13, 2004

The Digital Life

My head has been spinning with ideas surrounding how people represent their lives to others -- not verbally, or with their outward appearance or where they live, but how they record, organize and display their experiences. In contrast to my recent focus on how people envision their future lifestyles, I'm pondering the value of the past.

I went digging into an old journal and found a few pages of notes I had made five years ago sketching out a business plan for helping people construct their personal histories (journals, memoirs, etc). My mom has done some of this kind of work both informally and through her business, Rosetta Projects. We talked seriously then about marketing consulting and publishing services to individuals and groups who wanted to create books, documents, web sites, and multimedia for their own posterity. We were looking at the scrapbooking phenomenon and thinking about all of the grandparents in the next 15 years who will want to reflect their lives for grandchildren and posterity.

Most of us have kept journals and letters, filled photo albums and dutifully saved home videos. Those media seem fairly manageable, and they can constitute a decent (although fragmented and disconnected) records of our lives. Anyone who has had a computer for a few years is starting to also see the mega(giga)bytes of other personal archive material piling up in disorganized folders: digital photos, music, projects, resumes, e-mails. If you could wave a magic wand to assemble all of those artifacts in a way that created a meaningful representation certain events, showing progressions over time and overall showed someone (or yourself) the essence of you, that would be pretty cool.

Now picture the implications of millions of people who always have portable devices that digitize and record anything they're experiencing. Cell phones already do e-mail, take photos and store music, so we're well down that road. Today I found this post on the topic: Personal Life Recorders and Digital Lifestyle Aggregators. I've bounced off of Marc's ideas before, but that was when I was thinking more about the learning and career-planning benefits of e-portfolios. He's envisioning technology that will make it easy for people to create and manage their own personal records and networks (think how easy blogging has become).

I suppose that the technology will eventually be as easy to use as a point-and-shoot camera. It made me realize that although nearly anyone can buy a camera, people still hire wedding photographers. Will people be willing to pay to have someone work with them to assemble the views of their past experiences and stories that they want passed on to their children and grandchildren?

Or perhaps from a less opportunistic angle -- will these kinds of skills be necessary and valued in the future? Just as we're expected to be able to assemble a meaningful and effective resume now, will the ability to digitally represent our stories, characteristics, and learning help us be more engaged workers, family members or citizens? What if we could all create the equivalent of Johnny Cash's video (RealPlayer or QuickTime) for Hurt as we look back in old age? What an intensely powerful personal artifact -- a four-minute snapshot of an extraordinary life, narrated in song by the Man in Black not long before his death.

Mortality is the unannounced shadow behind some of this discussion. People want to believe that their lives do matter; that they'll be interesting ancestors and that someone will care to understand who they were (if not who they are). Since I started paying attention to the blogging world, I've come across sites with a death notice as the most recent post -- the author has passed away, but their words, links, photos and files live on, leaving a fascinating public view of their lives that would otherwise never exist. A blog may be a fairly rudimentary personal history, but spend an hour looking through the archives of any established blog and imagine its value in conveying something meaningful about that author.

But what of the inherent narcissism in all of this for those of us who plan to be around for a while? The knock against blogs is that nobody else cares what I ate for dinner last night, my opinion on Michael Moore, the process of writing my thesis, or whatever else I might think is important right now. I've always found this argument to be absolutely irrelevant (although it stings to hear it from people who know you blog). Just because most people's personal artifacts (letters, songs, writing, videos, photo collection, other creative works) won't have a big audience doesn't mean that it won't be extremely valuable to the small group of people who do seek it out. And the most important member of that audience is the author, who can look through the filtered layers of their life and try to find wisdom, personal growth, and opportunities emerging from their past.

It's also true that although there may be a couple of million bloggers who all think this personal publishing phenomenon is something pretty special, only a small fraction of people will ever want their lives recorded and reflected in the ways I'm describing here. They will clamour for better ways of collecting, creating and sharing their stuff while hundreds of millions of people never get the urge to put their lives on display in any way -- not even just in print for a family heirloom. This does not negate the possibilities in this area, because the I suspect that the number of people looking for easy ways to represent who they are will continue to increase (especially as the boomers age) and the technology will keep making it easier for them to do so.

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