There are people who will be happy during the digital age only when it becomes digital enough to invent a time machine so that they can travel back to a pre-digital age. These are people who ardently wish for leather photo albums. They want fading pictures held in place by adhesive corners that you have to lick and stick.
I think photo albums are lonely beings. They have clasps, sometimes locks, and hold secrets to themselves. They spend a lot of time alone, shut up in dark drawers, only to be discovered on moving day, and then they get shoved into a box.
Digital images, on the other hand, are party animals. They cavort on your Facebook timeline, in your emails, on your computer as screen savers, on your phone in texts. These gregarious digital gladhanders sidle up to you and expose themselves at all hours. They are the guest who sleeps on your couch, overstaying his welcome by at least a week. Conventional photographs have decorum. They hang prudently in frames. They elegantly clothe themselves between leather covers. They don’t speak unless spoken to.
In case you haven’t heard, we have a digital baby who is growing up online, with a very public life lived on Facebook. We allow friends and strangers to peer into his fishbowl, savoring everything about him almost in real time. They know that he, at five months, is wearing the nine-month size pajamas, and by that measure, by the time he is 20, he will be wearing the clothes of a 50 year old. People he will never meet know his smiles and sadnesses, his flickering moods, the steadiness of his inner timekeeper, always registering when to be fed, and the unsteadiness of his gut, able to launch half-digested items at the best of clothing and at the worst of times. They know when he started rice cereal. They will know when he walks and speaks.
We, his parents and promoters, never question what he might think of his digital fishbowl. I suppose that’s because we assume life is on an ever faster progression toward becoming ever more public. Our kid’s pre-school interview will go well because the headmistress will have been following him on Facebook. He won’t need to fill out a college application or write an essay, because when he walks into the admissions office they’ll say, ‘We’ve read your blog and enjoyed your cleverness on Twitter.’ Later on, no job interviews will be needed. The recruiters will say, ‘Your unbroken twenty years of videos has been hilarious.’ His vacations, marriage and his own fatherhood will be documented, becoming part of an enormous body of work. It used to be only presidents received this kind of documentation, housed in hushed presidential libraries, but we are all our own biographers now.
I like the portability of digital media. It doesn’t sit in a drawer like a lonely album. It propagates at the speed of light. But all our online sharing doesn’t generate transparency or truth. People ardently curate their Facebook pages, showing us only wonderful moments or crappy ones, according to the face they want to present. Being our own biographers means we are biased. Our blizzard of pixels and posts is a whiteout of ephemera, without the eye of a photographer (or biographer) to edit us. Of course, this is exactly what most photo albums are made of, too: moments that might not be all that meaningful, but in aggregation, acquire meaning.
Perhaps that’s what we can hope for, that an archeologist of the future is going to gaze at a screen and give us the edit we deserve, employ the focus we so obviously lack, deliver the depth of the story instead of the surface.
There is the chance, though, that our future archeologist ends up laughing at hysterical cat videos, and the needed edit will never get done, and then in that case even I might wish for a leather photo album or two.