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Home / Articles / Columnists / On the Bright Side /  Days Of Our Digital Lives
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Monday, February 4,2013

Days Of Our Digital Lives

By Jonna Shutowick. M.S. Ed.  

I took a course this year about Britain in the 19th century. When it came time to research my thesis, I was astonished at the amount of archived information available. Primary sources such as personal letters, diary entries, notes on calendars, and comments in the margins of books proved themselves vital in my quest to dig a little deeper. Casual banter about the day’s politics, or a comment about what was seen in the store window that day were, for me, artifacts of my archeological probe into daily life in Victorian England. I began to wonder about the details of our modern lives that are recorded electronically. What if my subject’s "best stuff" were in emails or on Facebook? Would some of the nuggets that were instrumental in my research fall into some electronic abyss a few years after he passed? Will ours? I have no box of letters in my closet. Some of my best writing is on my blog. What will historians 100 years from now have access to? Public figures will leave behind an easily discernible trail, but what about Great Aunt Alice? Her sweet posts on your Facebook wall, or her political rants in her status; her email informing you why your grandfather really left your grandmother. The e-card with her favorite poem for your birthday. Even photos flash by on digital frames or on the screensaver on the TV... when they are no longer compatible with the latest technology, will anyone ever see them again?

Historians are kind of like vintage shop owners. We collect old stories and show you how relevant they continue to be. We keep the past alive. I haven’t quite figured out how to don my superhero cape with a capital “H” to preserve all of the digital information that might otherwise just get deleted with our accounts when we are no longer alive to use them, but I do plan to add to my will that my digital assets are to be considered as part of my estate so that access is allowable. This might sound crazy, especially in our privacy obsessed culture, but it is really no different than what people might find in one’s closet after they’re gone.

There was a sad story in the news recently about a young man who committed suicide and did not leave a note. His devastated parents are now engaged in a battle with several online companies for access to their son’s accounts in search of any clue as to why he did it. If this had been 20 years ago, bank statements, credit card bills, letters and cards, even perhaps a personal journal would be found in his apartment, his car...his mailbox. The problem is that today his mailbox is virtual. Online companies are obliged to protect the privacy of their clients, even as loved ones desperately need to understand what happened.

The quandary posed by our digital lives is definitely a challenge that will cause some heartache as it is being ironed out. It is a Wild West scenario with much yet to be decided. On the bright side, due to our digital lives, we are more connected to others than we have ever been. Ten years ago I certainly did not have 350 people wishing me a happy birthday! I also did not write about my feelings on important (and not so important) matters on an almost daily basis. I did not have the opportunity to “like” pictures of friends’ kids because I didn’t even see pictures except at Christmas! Connectivity brings us joy, but so much of the anecdotal evidence of our lives rests in the digital world. I hope it doesn’t just disappear when we do.


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