The Trunk in the Attic, or, Designing a Digital Legacy

by: Robert Schrag / North Carolina State University

Communication is, and always has been, a negotiation; technology and society parrying and thrusting, demand and counter, proposition and accommodation. Folks feel a communicative urge and hunt around for a communication container capable of holding the symbols necessary to ease said urge. Speech, text, painting, sculpting, music and math all met communicative, conceptual, needs and claimed specific amenable space on paper, canvas, stone, metal, or in the melodious air. It is, in part, those past successes that articulate the next expressive opportunity; the evolving expressive capabilities of technology are themselves hints at how our communicative tools might be best employed.

The gradual, expressive, maturing of the digital environment makes me hopeful that an old communicative fantasy of mine may be edging toward reality. I have always been delighted by the creativity of others. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to be in the presence of another’s insight or expression and find myself reduced to a state of delighted confusion: How did they do that? And, how did they even think of that? The desire for real answers to those questions often drives me to Google to find an author’s or artist’s or musician’s or scientist’s email address and ask them. You would be amazed at how often they respond. The problem, of course, is that on occasion they have been so rude as to die before answering my questions – sometimes decades ago. The frustration of their ultimate inaccessibility always reignites my desire for a “virtual biography.” I want to know what Einstein ate, what the streets he walked along looked like. I want to share the music to which Georgia O’Keeffe listened; I want to hear the sounds of London that Shakespeare heard. I want to be able to participate in some way in the experiential reality that must have shaped the creative flame within those souls. And I want to feel the firelight and hear the wind that whipped around the farmhouse winter nights in South Dakota when my father was a boy. I want to see the pages of the books that entranced my mother as a young girl in rural Pennsylvania. I want interactive, real time biographies that move beyond words on a page or flickering images sprung from the imagining of filmmakers and TV producers.

Such living histories would be incredibly difficult and expensive to create. To reassemble the past from fragments of mostly discarded data, to attempt to reconstruct from them a facsimile of the creative, reflective, experiential reality of one long dead is a daunting, if not impossible, task. However, assembling such works to chronicle lives in the present, using digital technology, has become surprisingly feasible.

Think about it. All you really need is a “capture device” – something that can record the visual, auditory and textual experiences of a life, a “structuring device” – something that allows one to edit, order and organize those collected experiences, a “storage device” – someplace to store both the collected data and the constructed representations, and a “publishing-distribution device” – something that allows for the sharing of the constructed representations with others. A simple hardware configuration meeting all those requirements would be a video cell phone, a laptop computer with a broadband connection, and a large external hard drive. Apple’s iLife and Microsoft’s Office would take care of the software. You could, naturally, beef up each portion of that configuration as need and desire dictated, but those simple pieces could get “the job” done.

The next question is “What does ‘the job’ look like?” To which I respond, with great certainty, “I’m not sure.” I see two major divisions in “the job.” One is really a database. I like to think of it as a huge digital trunk in the attic. You know, that trunk that had all those funky things from when your parents were young, or better yet when your grandparents were young. You could dig through it and actually touch a bit of that time. Chronology and use of the items wasn’t always obvious, but many essential components of the past were there in that trunk. Our digital trunk, stored on the huge hard drive and backed up on the appropriate back-up medium de jour, would contain the digital components of our life: images, sounds, text, whatever is eventually available to record and store.

The second part I think of as a journal. Again consider the parallel to the trunk in the attic: In the trunk you find a journal that tells the story of a life, and in doing so refers to some of the items in the trunk – the data is structured in a way would allow an observer some insight into those two questions with which I am a bit obsessed: How did they do that? And how did they even think of that?

But what is the appropriate structure for this journal? Remember, we are the folks filling the trunk, writing the journal for those kids – biological, intellectual or philosophical – who we hope will one day climb up into our attic. What should we include in this story of our lives? Again we are meandering through somewhat unknown territory. As I mentioned in my last column here in Flow, we don’t really even understand the language yet. But I have revisited the works of several master storytellers recently, and from their efforts draw some reasonable guidelines.

First, the digital journal of our lives must aim for experiential veracity. Isaac Asimov in his 1953 work, The Second Foundation, introduced millions of readers to the idea of the Prime Radiant – a virtual reality projector that enabled social scientists to actually walk around inside an incredibly complex equation describing the past and future of all human/galactic society. They could reach out and shift elements of the equations and see the impact on the whole, in real time. They reached back in time and actually shared the creative experiences of the other Second Foundationers who had preceded them. I have never met anyone over 35, involved in new technology environments, who is either unfamiliar with, or uninfluenced by, those five or six pages.

Second, understand and share, to the best of your ability, your own formative moments. Louis L’Amour points me to this particular guideline. Yeah, yeah, I can see you looking down your nose. But I would suggest reserving judgment until folks buy more than two hundred million copies of your books. The man was an incredibly gifted storyteller. And his dependable structure was part of his gift to us. A Louis L’Amour story often starts in the protagonist’s childhood. The incident that solidifies the protagonist’s core characteristics is recounted and the rest of the work is an unfolding of how those characteristics guide a usually admirable life. Remember we are trying to explain to the folks who come rummaging around in our attic why we do the things we do, why we think the things we think. Hence, we need to share with them the “what and why” of our own core characteristics.

I draw the final characteristic – multitextuality – from Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits, “Scarborough Fair/Canticle”, to be precise. In this particular work several textual, vocal and instrumental themes flow around one another, over-lapping and intermingling to create a synthesis that is not only greater than, but also different from, its various component parts. Most narratives about life and creativity are cast in one medium. They begin at point A and proceed to the Z of our lives or creative endeavors. The reality is that our lives and creations are entities and events of complexity, serendipity, planning and surprise. We have the best chance of discerning and representing that process with accuracy. So the constructions we pass along – the journals we leave in the trunk – should reflect as much as possible all the experiential, cognitive, and creative streams that combine in the expressions we seek to preserve.

What I am talking about is the conscious creation of a personal digital legacy, compiling a personal history of unparalleled richness, accuracy and complexity. If such legacies were to become a common cultural practice, how much more profound would be our insight into ourselves, and our world. Certainly I would like to know the intricacies of the lives of the giants of our times, great artists and thinkers whose works I so admire. But at least as precious would be the legacy of my family. My father is 91, my mother and older brother have already died. How wonderful it would be to know that they had left me a trunk in the attic, a digital legacy of inexhaustible memories, moments and perceptions to comfort and to guide me. Sadly, my father cannot construct such a legacy, and my mother and brother took their trunks with them. I will leave mine for my daughters.

Robert Schrag’s Online Journal
Prime Radiant
Images from the Prime Radiant

Please feel free to comment.


  • It sounds like blogs are the beginning of this creation of a virtual reality experience of someone’s life. Blogs are more social than historical now, but as they get older and sit in cyberspace for decades, things might change.

    Or, should this archive be more like some of those online virtual worlds (Myst, Sims, Warcraft)? Why would it be likely to be one or the other? Is the ideal a melding of the 2? And if we had virtual reality technology, and we could create any possible world to live in, would we choose to recreate past worlds? Why is nostalgia so powerful like this? Perhaps memory paints a brighter picture than actually existed, so if there truly could be an accurate virtual world of a bygone era, it might not be as great as we expect. Would we want a modified version of the old world then?

    We could make a virtual archived world for our progeny to see how we lived, but we could also make it for ourselves. There’s always been something unseemly to me about technology giving us the ability to live in our personal past. I fear that living in the past could become an addiction: we would choose the predictable bliss of our happiest day over the uncertainty of tomorrow (the only thing that prevented this from becoming a serious problem was sub-par technology). I have both photos and video of my past. I’m fine with looking at the photos every now and then, but the video seems almost too powerful. Watching video of someone who is gone is a bit like seeing a ghost to me. I can only imagine what seeing a VR representation might be like.

  • Historiography?

    I think one thing to keep in mind is the notion of who presents the history you speak of. Surely somone serving in Hitler’s Army during Nazi Germany would differ from say a Holocaust survivor. It is important to document and preserve history. Whether this is done in print or a more advanced digital medium, like blogs. As the above person noted, blogs serve much more as a social funciton than a historical one. One only needs to look at as an example of how so called “history” is documented. More often than not it is the inane (IMO, although I do have a LJ!) ramblings of so and so and such and such. Another problem this sort of “digital treasure chest” is that it may be lost over time. As technologoy advances even things that are preserved by and large are overlooked. I know a professor who has thousands of punch cards which serve some mathematic function, but he doesn’t even remember how to read them! Lastly, I don’t want you or anyone for that matter to think I’m against information. I’m a journalism major and information and the effective communication of that information is what drives progress.

  • The problem with this idea….

    The “old” ways themselves of documenting one’s life all have their degenerative properties–the ink of a pen fades, the paper of a diary or journal is weathered by the air, the clarity of a photograph decays after decades of subjection to the elements.

    We are aware of these issues and many people take extensive precautionary measures to preserve their legacy through these items by storing them in as protected an environment as possible. While this is obviously no fail-proof plan to eliminate the degeneration , it certainly assists in preserving said items for as long as possible.

    Technologically-based “trunks”, on the other hand, face a non-elemental force which, in my opinion, is much harder to protect against–the emergence of new technologies. We cannot be sure that the video we record to a MiniDV tape will be able to be played back by any equipment readily available in 50 years. We can’t be sure that computer-based storage of such data will be preserved either–for example, who knows at what point .avi file formats (and their compressed counterparts) will be rendered obsolete and video software from that point on will no longer be coded to support their playback. Hell, we can’t even be sure that http file transfer protocol along with markup languages such as html and scripting languages like javascript and php will be the norm in even twenty years. Perhaps by then those protocols will be long forgotten in favor of new ones. In that case, even these blogs and livejournals begun now, which seem to be invincible to the forces of time, will no longer be easily accessible–if at all.

    The only way this idea of digitizing one’s personal legacy would achieve success is if each person committed themselves to keeping their digitizations up-to-date with new technologies as they blossom. This would be a very active and time-consuming process. And though you may be an exception yourself, it is likely that few people are willing to put forth such an effort.

    If the primary concern is near fail-safe preservation of the data, the most sensible methodology is to simply devote extra time and money to the research of how we can best preserve the documenting materials that we know will never become simply “unreadable” in the face of new developments–we can be certain that nowhere in the near future,unless the human eye decides to evolve very suddenly and quickly, will we lose our ability to marvel at a photograph or to read written word presented to them in the form of a real, tangible journal. Even as new technologies develop to cast their shadow upon these “old ways”, we can take comfort in the fact that our ability to go back to them at any time will not be affected. The same can not be said for the digital forms of storage.

  • Tangential tangibility

    Rather than comment on the logistical limitations to Dr. Schrag’s digital “trunk in the attic,” I’d like to present a perspective on the subject that supplements the discussion and encourages further debate.

    If, as the author states, we design a (personal) digital legacy for our progeny in the hopes of enabling future access to our current experiential reality, we must, it seems, supplement our digital records, journals, and the like with tangible artifacts of our existence. Museums, galleries and archives serve a socio-cultural historic function in maintaining, preserving, and displaying cultural artifacts, providing a tangible link to past experience, a glimpse into the social or cultural world of the past through preserved fragments of everyday life. However purposefully placed, catalogued, and explained these artifacts are in their particular holding, their relative worth and function within a historical re-construction of an era is relative to meta-narratives presented by present authorities. An artifact may provide insight into the social reality, but rarely does it explicate the subjectivity of the individual who owned, made, or possessed said artifact. One of the problematic qualities of this dynamic is the tendency to grant cultural significance to the object, effacing the subject entirely. The inevitable canonization of artifacts according to grand narratives of history and culture also eliminates the subject from history. Unfortunately, archives and museums ultimately tell us as much about the collectors and institutions of collection as they do about the objects contained therein or the historical subjects. If, however, these artifacts were supplemented with journals of the type suggested by the author, the artifact(s) would lose a modicum of their cultural relevancy in favor of individualized relevancy. The creation of personal histories can, ultimately, bring the subject back into the historical equation. Only a broad collection of artifact/journal combos would adequately present a glimpse into past socio-cultural reality.

    However, future generations will undoubtedly have access to technologies that more fully exploit the entirity of human sensorial experience; to record for them a subjective history of ourselves through audio/visual data only is to do them a disservice. We must strive to collect for them our personal scents, our most personal experiences with touch, and perhaps even our favorite tastes (those foodstuffs with preservatives should last).

    The subject, perhaps, can be an integral part of future history.

  • Pingback: FlowTV | Teaching Television, or What I’ve Learned From Flow

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *