Preserving our Digital Afterlives

This morning, as I was scrolling through Instagram, I came across an interesting post by Oroma Elewa, a Nigerian-born visual and performance artist, writer and director. Under the Instagram post, Elewa captioned “Please make this go viral. Don’t love and follow me secretly. Show me you care. Do not let me be erased. This is very painful.” Elewa was addressing a viral quote she had originated in 2014 on her personal Tumblr that has been repeatedly falsely misattributed to Frida Kahlo since 2015: “I am my own muse. The subject I know best. The subject I want to better.” If you Google that quote, you’ll find hundreds of images, articles, products, and social media posts attributing it to Frida Kahlo. In the comment section, people who followed Elewa through her journey as an artist on social media, supported her while others were skeptical. Frida Kahlo, an iconic artist and figure in popular culture and an inspiration to all women of many different backgrounds, didn’t say those words–but, who would believe that Elewa originated the quote?

As a young rising artist, Elewa was inspired by Frida Kahlo’s actual words: “I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.” Although this is an issue of the spread of misinformation and the blurred lines of ownership and authenticity in the online world, Elewa’s fear of erasure brought to mind Michele Valerie Cloonan’s concept of the paradox of preservation and the transient or ever-changing manner of one’s digital remains. Cloonan wrote that “it is impossible to keep things the same forever. To conserve, preserve, or restore is to alter” (235). Frida Kahlo is not alive to disprove that she ever said Elewa’s quote. With endless digital copies of her image being attached to the quote, how can we manage to support Elewa’s claim? How can Elewa make sure her work lives on without the fear of being erased, silenced or altered in the digital world? And most importantly, how can we protect and preserve our digital afterlives?

The Digital Afterlives Symposium was held at Bard Graduate Center in honor of Professor David Jaffee who was the head of New Media Research. Prof. Jaffee was instrumental in introducing and creating a new direction for the Digital Media Lab at BGC. After his death, not only was his legacy as a leading historian missed, but he also left behind a plethora of files and media pertaining to his personal and professional projects throughout his life. The topic of the symposium came about while his late daughter and a few of his colleagues started a project to archive and preserve Jaffee’s work. This endeavor has led to the exploration of finding innovative ways to protect, prolong and preserve our digital afterlives and the impact technology has on the sustainability of our digital projects as well as the privacy and accessibility of our personal information.

Technology has become an extension of our physical world. As we increasingly develop and interact with technologies, we end up with a constant re-experiencing of the past. At the symposium, Abby Smith Rumsey, an independent scholar, spoke about her research paper on how memory creates identity and how humans create artificial memory through the use of digital technology. Our transformation from an analog to a digital environment has made us reliant on digital technologies to preserve memory and be reminded of the past. And there is a moral weight of dealing with a person’s memory, especially if the person can be immortalized in the digital world. In her presentation called, “Death, Disrupted,” Tamara Kneese spoke on the proliferation of “dead users” in the online world, particularly in social media. Social media is so embedded into our lives that it has become a space for ritualized mourning, memorialization and perhaps immortalization as personal profiles transform into actual shrines after users’ deaths.

But, not everything lasts forever in the digital world. Rosenzweig pointed out that the “life expectancy of digital media [can] be as little as 10 years, [and even so] very few hardware platforms and software programs last that long” (742). Platforms will eventually disappear over time. MySpace, Orkut, Friendster and OpenDiary are all remnants of the old digital environment. Inevitably, we have to address the issue of digital decay. In her presentation at the symposium, Robin Davis, an Emerging Technologies and Online Learning Librarian at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, proved the fragility of the digital world through her case study on the lifespans of digital humanities scholarship projects that were created in 2005. She found that only half of the 60 DH projects she studied were accessible online 10 years later. In some cases, she found that other projects had a shelf life of 5 years due to issues with hosting and the lack of funding while a couple of web projects were even taken over by fraudulent companies. Davis reiterated that digital scholars need to build a preservation plan into their projects and consider the longevity of their choice to create content for the web.

So, ultimately, our digital remains will disappear, but can individuals maintain and manage their own digital data in the hopes of living on as information after death? Is it possible to save everything? Rosenzweig wrote about “the fragility and promiscuity of digital data,” which requires yet more rethinking–about whether we should be trying to save everything…” (739). The debate over whether it is worthy or not to preserve everything was also discussed at the symposium. Overall, all of the speakers agreed that we do not have the proper tools or policies in place to be able to. And also that it is important to preserve more ephemeral data now in order to understand its significance in the future.  

According to Cloonan, “preservation must be a way of seeing and thinking about the world, and it must be a set of actions…[it] also has broader social dimensions, and any discussion of preservation must be include consideration of its cultural aspects” (232). Like Cloonan, Rumsey said that the primary issues of digital technology preservation are not just technical but are in light of larger political, economic, and education issues of our world. Companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook and libraries as well as government agencies need to put more effort into creating preservation programs. They also do not have the right capacity or policies of dealing with the ramifications of digital remains. If Verizon Media, the owner of Tumblr, were to step up and protect Elewa’s words from being misquoted as Kahlo’s, would it have stopped the proliferation of companies and individuals attributing the quote to Kahlo?

At the end of the discussion, Rumsey left us with a parting message–it is important for us to remember that there are people behind these machines or technologies. People program and create software and applications so that machines behave in a particular way, so it is only up to us to change how we use and think of digital technology. Technologies have no built in moral bias other than what we program them to be, but it is has become an expansion of who we are. The material and digital world are a connected space now. Therefore, we must take responsibility over our digitized selves.

References

Cloonan, Michele Valerie. “W(H)ITHER Preservation?” The Library Quarterly, vol. 71, no. 2, 2001, pp. 231-242. The University of Chicago Press, www.jstor.org/stable/4309597

Elewa, Oroma. “Elewa’s quote.” Instagram, 18 Mar. 2019,

https://www.instagram.com/p/BvG_v1YDnGT/.

Rosenzweig, Roy. “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era.” The American Historical Review, vol. 108, no. 3, 2003, pp. 735-762. Oxford University Press, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/52956

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