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Old 05-04-2010, 09:55 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Tombstone within Databases

Archiving Eternity

"Lots of times the families will go down to Kinko's," the funeral director tells me. "They can do a memorial folder thing down there." Do you help them get photos off Flickr, off Facebook? "We don't really help with that."

* * *
The old woman looks up from her brush pile. "My husband has to redo that roof every year." Her husband is crawling around their roof, sweeping pine needles from the angles to the ground below. "We've been here fifty years. You see these two pines?" They're impossible to miss, at least eighty feet tall. "When we moved in to this house we planted those."

* * *
The second of June, a couple of years back. A 27-year-old man is biking in downtown Eugene, Oregon. David's a clumsy, funny man. Easy to love. Lived here his whole life. He's unsure of what he's going to do with his Bachelor's in Environmental Studies—maybe become an activist?—but for now he's managing this restaurant that also does live music and maybe it's not what he wants to do forever, but it's pretty great right now.

He turns on to 13th & Willamette, but so does the woman in the car.

* * *
A grey wedge juts from the side of an Arctic island, a stark entrance to a stone vault. It is quiet under the snowy mountain. Beneath the rock that shelters the vault there are rows of cabinets, each a berth for tens of thousands of sleeping seeds.

* * *
I sit in my living room, thumbing through a notebook full of her poems. They're old poems, from back when she was going through that first really awful breakup. Themes repeat. Learn to live in the moment, she writes to herself. Then its corollary: Who will remember me?

"Why did you want me to read those?" I ask her later. "Because you asked why I have a fear of commitment," she says.

Now I look out the window at my neighbor's two tall pines. The top of one comes to a point, then goes on for another ten scrubby feet, as if a smaller tree is growing from the crown of a larger one.

"Do you know how your ears pop at altitude?" says her poem. "Sometimes I can feel the change of pressure in my heart."

* * *
Friends gather at David Minor's Myspace page, sharing shock and grief. The page isn't decorated for a wake. David's profile picture is of the kid from Growing Pains that wasn't Kirk Cameron. His last status update says he is "at werk dreamin of hot tubs".

She's made a ghost bike for him, painted a thick-pipe commuter bike white with spray paint. Going to leave it on the corner, chained to a lamp post. She posts a time on David's Myspace page, lets her friends know when to gather.

Word spreads. She's pushing the bike down the street, surrounded by hundreds of mourners. They saw her message on his Myspace page. They walk by the bike, tossing down flowers and photographs and messages to David. She didn't expect this.

* * *
She's driving me to the bank. My car's busted and I have to get money for the mechanic. "It's over on Willamette," I tell her. "It's sort of across from that Kinko's." She doesn't know where the Kinko's is, she says.

The Kinko's is huge, unmissable with its backlit purple awning. It's on the corner of 13th & Willamette.

I'd never noticed the ghost bike before. It's nearly invisible, surrounded by flowers maintained by his parents, who still visit nearly every night.

David's Myspace page is still online. His friends still stop by, leaving messages, telling David they had a glass of bourbon in his honor. But most of them have moved on to Facebook.

* * *
The Cloud is just the internet. And the internet is just a bunch of hard drives.

The internet is really good at replicating discrete bits of self-contained data. There are probably a few million copies of any given Loretta Lynn song out on all the hard drives of the world, because lots of people care about Loretta Lynn.

But my photos on Flickr only live on a few hard drives in the world. The hard drives in the database servers. The hard drives in the networked-attached storage devices that are used to backup the database servers. A few of the pictures are on my friends' hard drives, but not most of them, and certainly not the complete collection.

When I die my Flickr Pro account will expire and a large percentage of my photos—girlfriends, family, vacations, my dog—will disappear from public view. They'll sit on Flickr's hard drives until Flickr goes out of business or loses the data.

Someone might send Flickr my death certificate, prove that I'm gone. Flickr might even give them access to those photos, should one of my friends even think to gain it. But more likely no one will even think to look. Part of my trivial legacy will go dark, sleeping quietly on a handful of hard drives.

* * *
She hands me a manila envelope, tipping it to spill old slides and prints into my hands. "Have you scanned these in?" I ask. "I don't know how," she says. "Then they don't exist," I reply. It's bedroom-level profundity, but I surprise myself by believing it more than a little bit.

I pick up a photo of her father. He's spread out on a bed with his shirt off, his infant daughter sleeping in a bundle on the floor beside him. The little tab in the corner of the print says "1982".

"My mom never liked having that picture of him in the album," she says. "She thought he looked too sexy." I tilt the picture in my hands just a bit until I can see the scratches on the matte surface. There are hundreds of little indentions, tracks from fingernails showing the many times the photo has been held.

When we scan this picture in those scuffs will disappear. The rest of the world will see only the young, bearded man smiling in some sepia living room. They'll increment the file's viewcount by one, leaving their own perfect hash mark. It won't be the same as the photo I'm holding in my hands, shifting in the light to read its physical metadata, but it won't be inferior, either.

* * *
Today, 10.22 billion miles from our sun, a golden phonograph with a badly laid-out label holds a message from Jimmy Carter to the rest of the universe.

* * *
She and David dated, sort of. It was an on-again, off-again thing. They both grew up here. Everybody dates everybody eventually. It was confusing. It always is.

One mistake, a broken condom or just a drunken infelicity...who knows? There could have been a kid. Not a copy. Better than a copy. A mix. The only thing that, before we invented culture, we ever passed on. Our stupid, maniacal genes. Us but not us. Our bodies and brains, but not our thoughts. Not our art, but our brush.

We've made a lot of brushes.

* * *
Chances are we'll each be lost to time. 100 billion people have been born before us. Most of them no longer exist as individuals in our memories. No names. Faces only reflected in our own and not in any way that really matters.

But not us. We might be remembered forever. All our Twitter updates, our email, our Vimeo movies, our Xbox Live profiles, our wormy FourSquare maps. They won't be important. Not to most people, anyway. But they'll be there if the sysadmins take care of us, if the corporations and machines to whom we've entrusted our records do not fail or are not destroyed.

We won't matter to most. But our memories will be cataloged, indexed, made available along with our stories, our names. $viewcount++.

* * *
Somewhere in the future, a picture of David Minor—in jeans and a tie, face beatific under a studio light, sleeves rolled up to expose the Eugene Debs quote tattooed on his arm—is berthed in a database table in off-system storage, waiting to be remade.

Memory [Forever] is our week-long consideration of what it really means when our memories, encoded in bits, flow in a million directions, and might truly live forever.
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