On the Cusp

Ed Steussy, Parker Elementary School, 3rd Grade, Mrs. Robinson's class, 1972

This post is in answer to JR’s question on Facebook, “Great picture ! Where does Ed come up with these ? Does he save everything?”

Simple question, long answer. We’re on the cusp of a fundamental change in human history: digital artifacts vs. physical objects. The key here is that digital is really, really different. Let me walk you through my journey.

About 2005, I realized that taking digital photos was a very different experience from film. Obviously, not using film is a great improvement in many ways — I can see a photo immediately and I can erase any photo I don’t want. But these are not the key, culture-shaking changes. One key difference is price: digital is free (or, from an economic perspective, the marginal cost of each additional image is zero). This means lots of pictures for even small events. When I was 25 and traveled around the world for eight months, I took 504 photos. Today, I’ll easily shoot 200 pictures at a child’s birthday party.

Nicholas Freitag's Deed to the family farm in Wisconsin, 1869

Another difference is the ability to make perfect copies, again for free. I have complete copies of all of my 27,000 photos in no fewer than five separate places, including two laptops. I also have 5000 of my photos from the past year on my cellphone. The very best photos are shared on Facebook and the Steussy Ranch website, which make them widely (Facebook) or universally (steussy.com) available.

Low cost and increased availability/usability are two key elements in the change. Realizing this, I start using my camera differently. When one of the kids brings home a test or makes a drawing, I take a photo. When I’m in my brothers’ or sisters’, aunt’s or parent’s houses, I’ll take photos of the key family pictures they have hanging. That way, I have my own copy. Business card from someone? Have to use the camera on it before I inevitably lose it. I’ve been doing this now for five years. And all of the images are in a 27,000 strong database that resides comfortably in my laptop (with a complete copy in my wife’s laptop).

The first page of my father's diary. Starts at age 10, probably 1933. First dated entry, July 1938.

Digitizing pre-digital images and records is an essential part of this database. While virtually everything created since 2005 has a digital component, and hence is stored somewhere where it is likely to be saved, most things before then and everything prior to 1995 needs to be recorded digitally in order to be preserved.

“But what about when your computer crashes or dies?” Aunt Mary asks. Good question. Since my computers hold a lot of critical business and personal data, I have a highly paranoid backup scheme. I have no fewer than five backups of my image database, and they are constantly maintained. From a culture-wide perspective, images that I post here on the Steussy Ranch are immediately copied by Google, Yahoo, Bing, the NSA, Baidu and a host of other private and public databases. Visit the Way Back Machine to see a very public version of old internet data. Once an image is on the open internet for a few days, you can assume that it will be indefinitely preserved in several places.

Maria, Unknown, Rufus (boy), Unknown, Unknown, Ruth Fretiag (girl). Undated - approx. 1918.

Charles Stross warns of a post-digital society which is incapable of forgetting, while our personal pre-digital histories deteriorate or get lost or forgotten. We’re five to fifteen years after the cusp of forgetting. When I see something important from the pre-digital era, I snap a photo and keep it. Photos of grandparents long past, family vacations from the 1960’s or 1970’s, pictures of the family dog I grew up with, scrapbooks from the 50’s and 60’s; these are what I save.

Dad. 1975.

When my father passed away earlier this month, there was one picture that we all remembered. Dad standing over the city of Amsterdam, enjoying a glass of Heineken beer after a tour of the brewery. This was Dad at his best in so many ways, captured on film by my sister, Cally, in 1975. One day, around summer 2005, I was at Cally’s house and saw it hanging on the wall. I snapped a photo of it. By 2010, it had been relegated to the basement, forgotten. The digital image I took then was the source of the photo that ran in the Courier Times, the Indianapolis Star and other places.

I’m not naturally inclined to be a packrat. But this digital collection of photos and images, letters and signatures, diaries and thoughts, dovetails with my interest in computers. So, I’ve enjoyed copying all of the photo albums from my youth, third grade school photos, pictures of my ancestors from the ninteeth century and the like and curating a database for them all.

Besides, someone will want all of this someday. I’m sure.

Calling card for my grandfather, Solon Boston Woodfin, Jr. Died 1922.

4 Responses to “On the Cusp”

  1. crs says:

    you do realize this skill you’re developing is a commodity. the young woman presenting with me at the wha conference is a digital archivist. i don’t know how to weave that into your current efforts but it is possible to do the work for pay.

  2. and what happens to our pictures when civilization crashes and we have no electricity?

    better hang on to those hard copies.

  3. PS. I believe it was Miss Robsin.

  4. admin says:

    Helen: I think a bigger problem then the end of electricity and civilization (we’ll have other, more important things to worry about then) will be incompatible formats from one era to the next. See my next post on Seattle Filmworks. Re: 3rd grade teacher – I wasn’t sure. Will update as Miss Robsin.

Leave a Reply