Digital Witness: a shift in ephemera
I place my phone face down on the glass and wait for the ding that tells me the QR code on the Passbook app has been recognized.
I sit at the departure gate at Midway Airport, waiting for my flight back to New York and think about waiting for my grandfather to return from business trips as a child, back when we could still get through the gate without a ticket. When a thick paper envelope held boarding passes and you had to buy those double pronged headphones. I won’t have a boarding pass to put in the frame to have a physical reminder of the time we visited Chicago and I fell for the city and its casual, familiar midwestern kindness.
I come from a family that hoards photo albums and basements full of keepsakes that we might never visit again. We have a hard time letting go of tangible reminders and markers of life events, big and small – that we had children, that we were married, that we visited. I love sepia toned photos of stony-faced relatives posing in dusty 1950s Cleveland in front of great grand relatives’ homes and cars and churches. I became the kind of teenager (is this every kind of teenager in mid-2000s?) with an intense and devoted sense of nostalgia for the present and the very recent past. This is the generation and type of person who’s gone on to develop the documentation and curation culture that we participate in now. I’d collect 5×7 Walmart-printed photographs, concert tickets, Applebee’s receipts, school event fliers. I never outgrew this habit, maybe just scaled back and transformed it into other things, like this blog and all the other documentation I maintain.
I don’t make a habit of mourning that which “technology” (read: screens) has replaced. As we transition from printed tickets and boarding passes, ink to pixels, we see the benefit of using and therefore wasting less paper. We also benefit from the possibility of data and being able to collect, distribute, and reflect on that data, on all kinds of scales and to many means.
What we do miss out on is the tangibility of ephemera and everything that comes with that. This explains the contemporary graphic designer’s obsession with vintage, specifically paper, inspired graphics and textures. We want the satisfaction of the visual and tactile that comes with paper and ink. These objects carry romanticized histories of craftsmanship, American industry, labor and handmade. We imagine that these objects have a legacy, in their making and in their future. Paper can also be destroyed by natural incident like fire, water, and aging, or human incident like shredding and tearing. It is part of the physical world like our own bodies. Paper and physical ephemera also have sources in physical, seemingly organic origins, manifested through labor. Our recorded histories are documented on paper with ink so to abandon this method feels cheap and inauthentic. Our antipathy of digital comes from an unaddressed fear of change and ultimately mortality, as well as a kind of nationalistic idea of labor and craft. We also subconsciously aim to validate our digital labor and image making by grounding it in the deep perceived roots of paper and objects. The masturbatory quality of skeuomorphism has been much discussed and it might appear that we’ve burst that bubble and moved on. We try to cleverly straddle the lines between digital and analog by creating uncanny references to paper and a world that we can hold in our hands, revealing how tightly we are clinging to it.
In creating digital, data and pixel based artifacts, we are afraid of what we ourselves might do to make our work and our objects obsolete. Paper can be preserved, archived, and eventually destroyed, in a seemingly natural life cycle. The average person might not understand what our digital footprint entails and that mystery is uncomfortable. We’re less comfortable and less emotional and warm towards that kind of object. A huge exception to this is that aforementioned group, those that brought in the digital documentation we are in now — the M word. We’ve lived our lives to a large degree, online, parallel worlds to the one in which we eat, breathe, and sleep. Our internet selves our intimate reflections of our feelings, moments and memories, relationships, and personal growth. We do, in fact, have a lot of digital nostalgia. Ask any person in their 20s who has unearthed their old MySpace or Livejournal or Neopets account. The intimacy and depth of emotion is so much so that a lot of us might have obliterated these footprints out of embarrassment of the people we once were, in the same way that one might throw away a journal or tear up photographs.
We also fear for the future and uses of our digital ephemera i.e. data. Not only is a lot of what we do and document in digital spaces often owned and manipulated by entities outside of ourselves, the platforms on which we create and document are subject to change at an impossibly fast rate. Our timelines, posts, drafts, backups, and clouds could disappear or be bought and sold, overnight. A small piece of metadata found on some social medias, “Member since” is kind of looming and threatening. There is no “Member until.” We don’t know when we will abandon our current means of documenting, broadcasting, communicating and when they will be replaced by no means. What are the next media platforms? What will happen to that old data that can’t be imported, downloaded, transformed into something we can remember? Trust that a lot of capital is expended on answering these questions and making profit from the answers. It is our personal responsibilities to take ownership of the answers and to create the digital environments in which we want to live.
Because of the out-of-touch, mainstream media representation around our digital lives as young people, the idea that digital memories and documentation are invalid remains the dominant narrative. Resistance to digital media and social online lives is resistance to changing culture and shifting power structures. Our digital footprints and memories are intimate and reflective of our lives and behaviors. We hold in our hands data about our lives and relationships that holds a lot of power and impact. Young people have grown up with digital worlds running concurrent with “offline” or physical worlds so it seems like a more natural and integrated part of our experiences of social and personal life. For everyone else, it is simply a matter of not only being open to change but realizing that we have access and opportunity to shift the way we live our lives in relation to documentation, representation, and memory. It is a conceptual shift in how and what our documentation does for us. While physical ephemera is tied closely to physical space and physical experiences, digital ephemera is about time and feelings and therefore is unstable and rapidly changing, just like our “offline” lives.