Our Digital Fossils
Physicist Carl Heber and his team at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California spent the summer working on an unusual project. Their subject was an old piece of wrinkled tinfoil. The tinfoil was so old, 134 years old in fact, that touching it in order to examine it was out of the question. It was simply too fragile.
Why was this small sheet of foil so important? What did it signify? Was there something on or within it that had value? The answer is that the wrinkles on the tinfoil were actually indentations which, at a minute level, represented a waveform. It was an audio wave, in fact, captured on June 22nd 1878 and it represented the sound of a man singing, laughing and playing the cornet. (Though, naturally, not all at the same time).
It is the oldest playable American sound recording and the reason why a team of top physicists were intimately involved in bringing it back to life is that in order to "play" the foil, its surface had to be scanned in intense detail by lasers. It was then modelled in three dimensions so the physicists could calculate how a needle would have travelled across its surface and reproduced the waveform's peaks and troughs as vibrations.
It's incredibly clever stuff and the result, after a lot of post-process cleaning, is crackly, a little out of sync and very difficult to interpret. But it's also, somehow, eerie and vital:
"Our technology," commented Heber to Atlantic journalist Rebecca Rosen, "since it's based upon modelling and simulation, it can accommodate anything really, any kind of mechanical recording. That's why we've been able to fill in the picture so completely."
The picture is filled, but the lo-fi nature of the recording is ignored completely as we acknowledge the age of the waveform and marvel at the voice revitalised, however crudely, through it.
Once a person is dead their identity is instantly deposited upon the artefacts which they leave behind. To look at the assorted fragments of a life, old photographs, personal belongings, paperwork, handwriting, is to acutely feel the absence of that person. They are not resurrected by the curation of their objects. Nor are we able to contact them through handling things which once were theirs.
And yet, tantalisingly, within each and every item, however small, resides the ineluctable mark of a being. What we feel we are holding is a piece of the puzzle, a flake of emotional DNA which just might be enough to work backwards and inwards from a person's long finished outer life towards their inner self. That it is just a few short, imaginative steps from a collection of their old postcards to knowing what they would write on one if they were to send it to us today.
We dream of modelling, of simulating them as a sum of their derivatives - these by-products of a life already lived. This fantasy is almost present in the film The Fifth Element (1997). Milla Jovovich's character is resurrected (no metaphor intended) from a single body part, her hand, which has been recovered from a destroyed spaceship.
This week I read "Paris and the Data Mind" by Craig Mod. It's a wonderful piece in which he recounts his obsession with Fitbit. Fitbit is a diminutive digital pedometer which allows the wearer to trace how many steps he or she has made in a day and, by virtue of GPS tracking and a digital map, see where on the planet those steps were made.
Mod compared his ever amassing data of daily walks to the artefacts left behind by an individual after death. This data, he proposed, could be referred to as our "hologram":
"I can't help but see an element of self-preservation amid our data collection. Preservation embedded deep within our check-ins, our food photos, our tracked steps and mapped run routes. [...] Holograms of ourselves, transparent and broken, from another time and place. They skip like a worn record, or a dusty movie reel, with pieces missing here and there. But they are us, however scratchy, and their resolution increases daily."
Naturally this made me think of the Edison foil I mentioned at the beginning of this article. I have already commented on how our digital productivity is revealing of a cultural, largely subconscious yearning for eternal self-preservation. Since I wrote my piece, vignettes such as Mod's have made me feel that the whole process is far less subconscious than I originally believed.
I think, rather, that we are immensely conscious of the work we carry out as tillers of quantifiable data. Ignorant perhaps of how this may be modelled by future generations (or individuals with hostile motives), we nonetheless acknowledge the existence of our living digital fossils each time we tweet, blog or recommend. There is an amorphous database of "me" up there in the so-called "cloud" waiting to be downloaded. I don't think of my descendants doing so; I am not thinking about leaving behind a personal time capsule - even though that's exactly what I am doing.
Rather, from my perspective, the time capsule is best opened, somewhat paradoxically, in the present or very near future. This is a project larger than simply fashioning a profile or projected self on a social network. This is the composite identity of all my social network profiles and online presences. Whether in numbers, inane wall-posts, or timestamps, the impression I leave on the internet day by day - my digital footprint - is incredibly detailed.
How much, I wonder, of me could be modelled from it? The man on Edison's carefully indented tinfoil remains largely a mystery. We have about a minute of his voice on record, but we are not even sure who, exactly, he was.
Will there ever be a point at which our data accurately and completely defines us? How much of it would there have to be in order for our true essence to be captured in columns and rows? Is such a thing even possible? Data is like a new kind of nuclear waste. It doesn't really ever go away and once it has amassed in great quantities for which we have no use, it is left to one side on servers and drives. We are always making more of it.
As every visitor to a natural history museum knows, there are many kinds of fossil. Levels of preservation between various organisms vary greatly, but by definition there are no truly complete fossils. And many fossils contain biological matter which is geochemically altered or almost totally decayed. Despite this "lossy" form of preservation, the entire discipline of paleontology has developed methods of interpretation to help us explain fossils in wonderful detail. We possess intelligent conjecture and plausible calculations which offer to reveal more about an organism from, say, a single jawbone, than you might initially have thought were possible.
Will generations in the distant future specialise in a similar discipline dedicated to excavating human culture of the 2000's? Constructing intimate portraits of us as a society in order to explain, rather than simply illuminate, events such as the Arab Spring? Or our reaction to economic crisis?
Will generations in the distant future specialise in excavating human culture of the 2000's?
Stegosaurus never intended to leave behind remains which would make him knowable to us in the 21st Century, millions of years after he walked the earth. But we humans, Craig Mod included, are at a threshold at which the realisation of our digital fossils - constructed parallel to us in real time - is dawning. We are aware, unlike the dinosaurs, of the traces we may leave behind. And my guess is that as this awareness grows, if we become obsessed with it, then we will begin to manipulate it. For future audiences, just like we manipulate the image of ourselves we publish to friends on Facebook today.
So if capturing our essences in data were ever possible, I wonder whether it is probable; whether we are too controlling of our own image to be comfortable with bestowing it to a time when we are no longer able to curate it. The thought does not seem compatible with our present obsession with quantifying ourselves, for ourselves.
And yet the more we compute and record of our daily lives, the more we tell ourselves that it is for our own benefit. Is it? Or will the people who learn most from it all be those who are around when we have logged off for the last time? Perhaps these future people will be able to dispel our thin smokescreens of self, cutting through the crap and crowd-play in order to get inside our heads. We already fear the sanctity of our privacy in the light of today's technology. Tomorrow's technology may be able to simulate and model us in fantastic detail in ways which we can now only imagine.
It would be absurd to begin to change our online habits at the prospect of such a future world, ignorant as we are of what will really be possible. And yet the possibility floats there as a potential component in human chronology. Prevented, by time, from seeing it clearly, we have no choice but to plough on. There is still so much for us to say. So much data to be made. It is for our descendants to inherit.
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22 minutes ago.
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