Bit Rot and the Difficult Task of Curating Your Past

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Credit; Antonio Roberts

I occasionally hear of people who have degrees in library science.  This has always puzzled me – I could see how someone might get a bachelors degree in such a field, but a PhD?  What would the dissertations cover?  Reconfigurations of the Dewey Decimal System? Strategies to improve database search efficiency?

A couple of weeks ago I finally met someone who had degrees in library science, and now I finally GET it.  She explained some of the in’s and out’s of storing data, the process of archiving, and the tough job of knowing what to throw away and what to keep. Library science also seems to require some conflict resolution and negotiation skills to help people let go of items, books, and documents that are no longer relevant.

And where I once thought that library science might possibly be the most boring degree path possible, I now think it shall be a path for me to pursue in a future incarnation.

During my brief lesson on the need for and usefulness of library science, I was introduced to a phenomenon I’d never heard of. Bit rot.  For some reason, it strikes me as really funny, and I laugh every time I say it out loud.  Bit rot is the gradual degradation of data and information in storage media – also known as silent corruption, a phrase that is even funnier to me.

Electronic data in these storage mediums isn’t really decaying the way one would typically imagine when envisioning a rotting material. To put it very simply, storage media contains tiny metallic regions that hold an electrical charge. Sometimes, through various factors that contribute to decay, these regions can change their electrical charge, known as flipping. These charge flips can cause data to be corrupted or lost. Bit rot can cause small issues, such as clicks or pops in audio files, to the extreme of entire files becoming completely unreadable by software.

My amusement by the idea of bit rot got me to thinking more about a topic that is always at the forefront of my mind: knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep.  And, if you keep something, how long should you keep it?  How important is what I’m keeping and this will affect the type of storage I use?

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I read a really great little book a couple of years ago called Experience Curating by Joel Zaslofsky. (By the way, it is ridiculously cheap on Amazon right now – this is my own personal endorsement; I am not receiving any kickbacks for posting this.) In his book, Joel makes the point that with all the information we have flying at us every day, we have to come up with a way to sift through it, isolate what is most important to us, and store the information in such a way that we can easily retrieve it. Just how a museum curator might select and display only the best and most relevant pieces to represent certain ideas or historical periods, so we must be ruthless in how we gather and deal with the information in our own lives.

I don’t think most of us are very good at curating our lives. We try to convince ourselves that we really can take in all the information available to the world, we can read all the books, we can listen to all the music, and so on.  But, this is entirely impossible. According to a recent Forbes article, 90% of the data currently existing in the world was only created in the last two years. Mind boggling, much?!

This begs the question, can everything really be meaningful?  Or does everything start to lose its meaning when there is too much of it? And with the wealth of ideas and “stuff” in the world, how do we determine what is most meaningful to each of us personally?

Here’s an example.  With the development of cheap digital cameras and smartphones with good camera capabilities, people take insane amounts of photographs. But really, how many of those photographs are quality work? Also, are the myriad of photographs we are so quick to snap really helping us to remember an event or special moment? There’s something called the photo-taking impairment effect that says our frantic need to photograph everything might actually reduce our ability to fully appreciate and remember the subject of the photograph.

How many of us go through all those photos stored on Facebook and Instagram and actually organize them in any useful way?  And how many of us have SO many photos that the idea of culling our collections seems completely daunting and overwhelming?  I should add here that all of your old photos sitting away in files somewhere are subject to bit rot, too, so you might not want to wait too long before deciding which ones you really want to save long term.

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Besides the ninja-skill requiring job of sorting and sifting information that is shoved at us every day, sometimes curating our past can be equally difficult. I’ve been struggling for a long time to figure out what to do with old photographs and possessions that I no longer want…but they aren’t entirely my possession to make decisions about.

My mother passed five years ago, and so I’ve made alot of difficult choices about what things of hers to keep and what to throw away. Some of her prized possessions hold little meaning for me because I don’t know the stories behind them or the emotions stored within them. However, it still feels rather cavalier on my part to just dismiss the gravity those things carried for my mom by giving them away or throwing them away.

My dad is about to remarry and is also deciding what possessions from his “previous’ life should continue forward and what should be left behind.  And again, I’m asked if I want this or that, and should this be thrown away or kept? I struggle with knowing whether I will one day regret the choices I am now making about those things.  Right now, simplicity and minimalism resonate with me – will I always feel that way?

I wonder too about how my children play into this curation game. I had not thought about it until recently….that what I am throwing away and keeping impacts them, what they know about their heritage, the stories and photos that would have contributed to their shaping.

I have been divorced for almost two years, and I felt a great need to get rid of as many things from my old life as possible.  I no longer wanted the furniture, kitchen items, or house decor that my ex and I had once bought together and shared.  Those things only kept me tied to something I am very happy to be free from.  But I am heartbroken now to realize that I never took my children’s feelings about those things into deep consideration.  I thought of how I desperately wanted to be rid of things, but not that they might desperately need to stay attached to those same things from the years that their father and I were married.

I’m glad I came to this realization before I tossed out all of the old photos I had of our family when I was still married. I’m glad I didn’t delete all of the digital photos I have stored on Facebook that still have their father in them.  I credit this to an article I read a while back.  Those old photographs and even the household “things” I got rid of don’t belong solely to me – they also belong to my children. Tossing old photos is kind of equivalent to erasing their past, and saying that those years didn’t matter.  But they did. And it is not my job to curate my the information and memories that are important to my children and their lives.

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Like most things in life, I think we have to pursue the middle way in deciding what to keep and what to throw away.  Keeping nothing or just very little has the power to rob loved ones in our lives of stories, items, and memories that they are entitled to.  At the same time, keeping everything take away meaning, reducing what is special and unique to the realm of the commonplace.

I think what I’ve learned by chewing on all of these ideas is that, like all things, nothing that I do impacts only me.  My actions, what I consider meaningful, and how I curate my own life ripples out and affects others, most importantly, my children. I’ve been quick to throw away so much because it reduces my stress and makes me feel more comfortable. But that is not necessarily true for them.

Perhaps we should approach our lives a bit more like archivists. The currently trendy idea of minimalism tells us to discard with abandon, while our consumeristic culture is also telling us to buy cheap and buy fast.  Maybe we need to put the brakes on both of these ideas by taking the time to determine what we really find most meaningful in life, and then carefully preserve just those things.

 

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