Over at Kottke.org, the gentleman scholar Tim Carmody has been minding the store all week and is running an interesting experiment:
.@kottke What are the best things you have ever seen on the internet? If the world wide web were on fire, what would you save?
— Tim Carmody (@tcarmody) April 17, 2017
To which I responded:
— Brian McCullough (@brianmcc) April 17, 2017
I was referring to this story, which I seriously consider the greatest, most beautiful, most perfect story ever committed to the printed word. And that is generally what he’s been after: to collect the best bits of culture, art, etc that the web has spit out over the years.
But it was the framing of his tweet that got me thinking… “what would YOU save in a fire.” When we think of saving things in a fire, we think of saving things euphemistically known as “personal effects.” Baby photos. Wedding rings. That antique watch that was your grandfather’s.
And as you guys know, that’s a question I think about a lot. I did a whole TED Talk on this subject:
Think of all the “personal effects” that we, each of us, have personally left strewn around various corners of the Internet.
Here’s one of my own: We’ve lived in Park Slope for years now. Two kids. Beautiful brownstone apartment.
One day, after moving in, I mentioned casually to my wife that I always told her we’d raise our family in Park Slope. I always knew it. “Remember when I told you that?” I asked.
“What are you talking about?” she said.
I reminded her of the time, early on in our relationship, when I brought her on a trip to New York (she was living in Detroit then) and I brought her out to Brooklyn to show it to her for the first time (yes, I was already angling to convince her to move out here with me).
She swore up and down, this never happened.
“It did!” I said. “I brought you out here, showed you Prospect Park, we ate lunch in that Thai place and I told you we’d raise our kids in this neighborhood.”
“Never happened,” she insisted.
Welp, fortunately, I had THIS:
An actual. Foursquare. Checkin.
Such, air-tight evidence, I bet it would hold up in court.
I would save that checkin from an Internet fire, no doubt. It’s a nice memento that reminds me that at least some of my best life-goals have worked out. (And, hey. There’s nothing better than winning an argument with your spouse using drop-dead digital proof.)
So, think for a minute how many of these accidental (perhaps) but tangible and valuable signposts to all of our lives are now collecting dust in some cobweb corners of our social media profiles, or our web histories, the internet at large.
Here’s another one for me.
Two big life events happened in our family in the last 6 months: we moved to our current apartment from another one a couple blocks away. And, our dog of 11 years died.
When I go to Google Maps and look up my old block, if I go to street view, I can see what feels like a nostalgia miracle now: a picture of me and my now-deceased dog walking into Prospect Park, like we did a thousand times. I remember the day it happened. Noticing the Google Street View car just as it passed us. Wondering if it captured us.
It felt like a lark at the time. Now it feels powerfully meaningful. Proof, somehow, in the vast historical Matrix of the Internet, that Winston was my dog. And we went for walks in the park in the afternoon. And he was a good dog. And they were GOOD, those walks. I miss those walks.
We all know that, more and more, Internet life IS real life. The important, consequential, meaningful things that happen to us increasingly have a digital record; and that’s if they haven’t, in fact, ACTUALLY happened online! So you, reading this right now, probably have 3-4 things that are treasured heirlooms from your digital life that you would save from a digital fire.
I think we all feel instinctively that we’re barreling headlong into a future where our whole lives are recorded. This is what I talked about in the TED talk… that maybe we should treat that as an inevitability, make our peace with that, and, in fact, get out ahead of it.
Because—as inevitably comes up when you think about the fact that all our lives are online now—you SHOULD think about how you can take steps to preserve, organize and curate that life.
Sometime in the next year or so the Google Street View car will go by my old block again and the picture of my dog and me will be replace by a new, updated image. Someday that checkin from Foursquare might not be accessible (quite frankly, I was a amazed it was still there). Tim has already talked about the beautiful web things from the past that are no longer with us.
So, here’s my modest proposal to you, Tim, if you read this:
Ask your readers to submit some of the most profound, history-changing, this-is-when-my-life-changed PERSONAL moments that are on the web. That upload. That status update. That selfie. The digital, “personal effects,” as it were, that they would save from a fire.