On Sunday night, October 8, my parents’ house in Napa burned to the ground in the wildfire. For my mom and dad, now in their eighties, the place had been a retirement escape from the hurlyburly of New York. My wife and I were married there 23 years ago, in the hillside living room looking out over a vine-carpeted valley. The fire turned this refuge into a heap of tile and ash. It also torched our family history: a mountain of scrapbooks, photo prints, and travel diaries that we will never mine again.
It’s all gone—almost. The fraction of our media heritage that survives is the small portion that I managed, over the years, to scan or digitize. A box of Super 8 canisters that I’d transferred just a few years ago, when the vinegar-y smell of the decaying film told me it was time. Another box of reel-to-reel recordings that my dad, ever the avant audiophile, had made in the 1960s on a monophonic Tandberg tape deck. I had feared they’d become completely unplayable, and asked a radio-pro friend to digitize them for me. As a result, we still have audio files of me at seven playing the theme from the TV show “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” on piano, and movies of my grandfather teaching me to ride a bike. But we don’t have the photos of my father from his military service in Korea, or the Leica camera he brought home. We’ve lost my mother’s sepia photo of her grandparents, and the menus of the delicious New Year’s Eve feasts she’d prepared every year.
From the dawn of the internet era, we were warned that digital information is ephemeral. Print diehards like Sven Birkerts and Nicholas Carr sang the praises of paper, and told us that If you hope to save something for the long term, you really want something solid. Websites come and go; pulp and ink can survive for millennia.
But our collective experience of the cloud era and its durable, redundant networks has eroded any qualms we might have about the insubstantiality of digital storage. The server farm is the new attic. After two decades, Google seems to be pretty good at not losing your old prose. I’ve kept my own documents in Dropbox for nearly a decade—along with those transferred audio and video files. The company may still feel like a startup, but it acts like an institution, and it has won my loyalty. For a whole generation today, digital means safe. Why lug cartons of memorabilia behind you all your life when you can upload the important contents?
As with so many arguments about technology, this one collapses too easily into a binary choice that masks the real issue. We are always entrusting our memories to some kind of technology. Each has powers and perils.
Sure, I wish I’d taken the time to scan the slides in my dad’s old Kodak carousels before the fire consumed them. Digital copies are a hedge against an uncertain future, and when 70-mile-an-hour winds start piling embers around your home, they’re great to have. But they’re also copies. Those slides were tangible originals: They had my father’s precise handwriting on them. If I’d scanned the notebooks my mother kept on all her travels, I’d still have her words—but if I had the books, I’d have the paper her hands touched as she wrote.
In an ideal world, we’d keep both the copy and the original—not only because the originals represent a direct connection with the human who made them (they have an “aura,” as Walter Benjamin famously put it) but also because the copies are unreliable, too. File and media formats are in constant flux; a big chunk of my writing from the 1980s is lost in the tarpit of WordPerfect 4.2. At some point, probably in our lifetimes, the Windows and Mac file systems will become as inaccessible as Super 8 and reel-to-reel are today. Someday even Google might face budget cuts, engineering disasters, or other threats to its stewardship of our data. It’s just a 20-year-old corporation, after all. Companies often make promises about trust and longevity, but they’re at the mercy of shareholders and markets.
Consider the case of Evernote: The note-taking app maker has long touted a “100-year” plan for preserving your memories, but the company’s layoffs and business-plan pivots after just one decade suggest how unlikely that kind of staying power is. Facebook, today’s dominant receptacle for personal images and tales, is entirely unreliable as a custodian of family histories. It’s even harder to find old things in Facebook’s labyrinth than in the shoeboxes in your attic, and its attempts to organize memories for us into automated slideshows have been unimpressive.
No company will care for our heirlooms the way we ourselves will. Yet life is short, and few of us have the time or focus to draw up and execute a master plan for personal archiving. In the end, no plan can guarantee the survival of an artifact or a file directory, anyway. Fires rage; servers die. Maybe, as the Dalai Lama and Marie Kondo teach, we should just stop being so attached to stuff—physical and digital. But that’s stern counsel when it comes to photos of your grandparents.
Human memory, today’s neuroscience tell us, is less a perfect copy of information than a process that simplifies and distills its contents each time they are stored and recalled. Something similar inevitably happens to the external memories we pile up in trunks and shoe boxes, Dropboxes and Instagrams. Sooner or later, we have less and less of them, and we value the remnant more highly.
Napa’s cruel fire sped up this culling for my family. But what it destroyed would have faded eventually, anyway. I’ll remind myself of that as I mourn the photos of my backyard frolics and college-newsroom nights that I’ll never see again. My parents faithfully preserved our family history for decades. But when it was time to run from the flames, I’m glad they didn’t tarry to save the photos, and got out in time to save themselves.