Letter to the Editor: What do we save in a self-absorbed culture?

Written by Casey Schumacher and Media by Fallyn Paruleski

The following letter is written by Casey Schumacher, who is not a member of the Greenville College community, in response to an article  published in the Papyrus entitled “Should Museums Preserve our Digital Heritage?” by Bailey Ochs. What follows is being published as written and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Papyrus or Greenville College. 

I really enjoyed Bailey Ochs’s Papyrus article entitled ‘Should Museums Preserve Digital Media?’ The Papyrus publishes many current and relevant articles and this article is no exception; those who think this question is not important are very ignorant of history, how it is read and interpreted, and what kind of legacy they are leaving. I’ve worked in a number of museums over the years and I’m currently pursuing a Masters degree in Museum Science; this is definitely something our generation will soon be forced to address. I’d like to address a few key points here as Bailey presented them in the article.

“What is happening now will be history one day. But the way that history is recorded has changed as well.”

It’s true; nobody keeps maps in their cars anymore, the email has outlived the letter and stamp, iTunes overruled the CD and the cassette not to mention 8 tracks, and video chatting now balances higher gas prices by saving us the drive across town to actually see our friends and family. You said it Bailey; our world is becoming increasingly dependent on digital technology and material. As you hinted, the biggest problem with archiving all of it is the ridiculous quantity of it all. External hard drives, the cloud, and GoDaddy.com exist for a reason; people have so much stuff they want to keep. And we all know it’s not just professional photographers who are storing hundreds of gigabytes in their laptops, closets, and storage units; it’s also amateurs that now have access to Instagram’s easy peesy editing options that used to be the artistic prize of the limited few that purchased PhotoShop. The Billion Dollar Question: Where do we draw the line? How do we decide what’s worth saving? Museum ethics is a touchy subject and very soon next year’s graduating curators will have to write whole new textbooks on the ethics of choosing what digital media we archive and what we delete.

In a way, modern technology is already deleting some of it for us. Snapchat automatically deletes created digital material after it is viewed. How long before other things are recorded and then lost permanently?

“The purpose of a museum is to preserve things that are historically significant or valued by a culture so that people can come view, learn about, and enjoy the artifacts in the future. They display parts of a culture from various points in time so that they will not be forgotten.”

Absolutely! I couldn’t have said it better myself. In fact, I wrote it on a sticky note on my desk. My question at this point is do we really want to remember everything that digital media is saving for us? Facebook, the selfie, #yolo, and an entire line of gadgets beginning with the pronoun ‘I’ are all examples of digital material, messages, and yes, artifacts that speak to a very self-centered, material-absorbed culture. Do we really want to be remembered as the generation that put ‘selfie’ in the dictionary? Yup, look it up, it’s getting added in the next Webster’s edition. Look at it this way. In 100 years, when historians look at cave drawings in prehistoric France, they will see a developing method of art on a newly-discovered medium portraying individuals working together to achieve a common goal, all put on display for the purpose of telling a story about community, survival and human intelligence. By comparison, when they view selfies of skimpy outfits taken with a smart phone, not only will they see the subject’s absorbency with themselves and a lack of respect for their body, but also the use of a medium that requires only the effort to extend your arm and press a button. The fact that billions of these images disappeared shortly after they were viewed shows that not just the photo’s subject, but its viewer didn’t care enough about it to keep it. I know, these are two extreme forms of ‘art,’ but does this sound like a side of our generation that we want people to remember? I’ll bet there were skimpy-dressed, self-absorbed teenagers in prehistoric France, but they recorded more important things. For the selfie generation, it’s ALL important and it ALL goes on the world wide web. I’m not saying all digital media is bad – we can do brilliant things with film and music that simply cannot be ignored. I mean, have you seen some of the new movies coming out? Revolutionary in terms of effects, digital clarity, and musical score. However, the ratio of useful (aka beneficial to the opinion of the generation that produced it) archivable material to nonuseful material is much greater now than it was 100 years ago. Personally, I’d rather be remembered for John Williams’s music than the selfie of a teenager wearing a napkin to a party she’s not old enough to drive to.

“Digital media has been used to capture important recent events such as protests, presidential campaigns, human rights movements, and natural disasters.”

As I mentioned, this statement is totally true. I can’t tell you many times I’ve wished I had a video of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural was easy to access as Obama’s. However, I want to mention a case in which this scares me. Thanks to digital media, we can access so many historical transcripts and footage of many events that have been lost to history. However, that same technology created Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and, more recently, Rapture-Palooza. How in the world are these beneficial to preserving history? Our great-great grandchildren will ask, ‘What did most Americans in 1856 think of President Lincoln’ and ‘What did most Americans in 2013 think of President Lincoln?’ and they may have two very different answers. What message are we sending future historians about how we respect our country’s leaders when we put them in completely fantasized albeit technologically epic and appealing movies? Rapture-Palooza is a completely disgusting spoof on how a good portion of Earth’s population believes the world will end. Oh yeah, way to go America, you absolutely respected religion if you made a movie like that. Kind of reminds me of Birth of a Nation. We hold the creators of that film accountable for explicit racism in film and we could be held accountable for blatant religious hate in the future.

Digital media is important. Recording our history is important. If you think the two are mutually exclusive, it’s okay because your opinion isn’t worth recording anyway. We should archive and preserve digital media; we must. But we must also be prepared to answer the question of what we chose to preserve and be willing to accept the consequences.


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