Ivan’s private site

February 27, 2010

Digital memories (or the lack thereof)?

Filed under: General,Links — Ivan Herman @ 18:15

A few weeks ago I visited my mother in the south of France. By moving around some furniture at her place we stumbled upon a bundle of old letters. Letters written by long gone friends from right after the War, i.e., around 1946, for example from  young American soldiers who were in Paris at the time when my mother was a student there. It was touching and also nostalgic to look at these old envelopes, written in a style and in a handwriting that that is really not of this time and age any more. But it is part of my mother’s life and hence, in some way, of mine, too.

However: what will I show to my son when I reach my mother’s age? I actually did write a some letters to my wife; after all, our relationship precedes the e-mail era. But we certainly do not do it any more. And my son’s generation clearly does not even know what it means to write handwritten letters to friends or family. It is all skype and facebook and email: although these can be archived, these messages are nevertheless inherently ephemeral.  What will he show to his children? We seem to loose something essential… and I am not sure what to put in its place.



  1. You have a very good point Ivan, something which bothers me often; so far all I have for my youngest is a collection of photos and videos on a memory card and backed up in several places.

    Often I take short videos of every day life, just general ramblings, walks home from school etc – the little things, I’m v glad that I have these, but the “real” nostalgic stuff is somewhat missing 😦

    May also be worth giving thought to “Digital Memories” and most importantly keeping them in a readable format, media types and encodings will be v different when my little ones are my age..

    Thanks for the reminder to consider these things,


    Comment by Nathan — February 27, 2010 @ 18:21

  2. “ephemeral”? They’re infinitely storable (although this does require some electricity) and searchable, which is a lot more than the paper letters can claim. We don’t have it now, but I’m looking forward to some kind of remembrance agent (http://www.remem.org/ -esque) that passively shows me old text and other media when it might be relevant to what I’m doing now.

    I’ll trade the handwritten quality of old letters for a new feature– I can now see an old email in the context of the pictures I took on that day, SMS messages I wrote and received, what was on my calendar, etc.

    Comment by drewp — February 27, 2010 @ 19:27

    • Technically: that is of course theoretically true (although most of the emails and irc conversations these days are ephemeral). I wonder, however, whether it has the same emotional quality… Those letters (or other, physical artifacts) may be torn, are dirty, but those smudges and wrinkles may remind me of things in the past that I may cherish. But, well, I might be simply old school… Though, agreed, if somehow those digital archives provided a smooth integration with other media of the day, that might have a comparable effect.

      Comment by Ivan Herman — February 27, 2010 @ 20:01

  3. I think there is a grater problem with the new type of letters. Especially if they are love letters – you cannot graciously throw them to the Seine when you get angry of you loved one. I think the problem that we have here is not so much with memory as with tangibility of communication artifacts. The current Web is cold, accessed through glass touch-screens, and even worse – the plastic mouses. There is no texture, no different temperature. Just no tactile experience.

    I believe that the tangible interfaces research might resolve some of those problems.

    On the other hand it is also a matter of style. I still send many letters in paper form, even if I am highly bound to Facebook and Twitter and I live in my inbox. Some of them I seal with a wax seal (there is a shop in Paris that sells all sort of old school paper stuff). But then we have the problem that the memories that are created that way, are not accessible through digital means. And sometimes digital means simply provide a more efficient access. IMO, there should be a way to make the physical objects a part of the Web so that they can be linked and accessed.

    Comment by Milstan — February 27, 2010 @ 21:41

  4. I keep a diary – have been for 40 years, 20 of them on computer, I take photos, make videos. Lots to see there. Easier to search than letters too 😉

    Comment by Steven Pemberton — February 28, 2010 @ 14:49

  5. A similar post written by a colleague and friend

    Comment by Monica Duke — March 4, 2010 @ 17:23

  6. Ivan, I believe the nostalgia is not in how the memories are on old-looking media, it’s in our minds. Of course we tend to ascribe great importance to how letters look weathered (so to speak), but I’m confident we’ll keep nostalgia without the material decay.

    Consider how immaculately maintained old cars can make you nostalgic for the time when you had a car like that.

    We are losing handwriting, which we may replace (for the nostalgia-triggering effect) with, let’s say, turns of phrase that belong to that long-gone age. Or smileys. 😎

    I like Steven’s remark about a diary (alas, I effectively stopped mine a long time ago); and Nathan’s daily videos (I should try that).

    We (humanity) will be OK, at least on this front.

    Comment by Jacek — March 29, 2010 @ 10:59

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