The Art of Archiving

So... Much... Stuff...
So… Much… Stuff…

I’ve spent a fair amount of time recently performing another attempt at archiving my digital files.  There have been several major events in my life where I suffered extreme data losses, and it seemed reasonable to try and prevent this from happening again.  As part of this process, I decided to sort through some of the files themselves, a sort of digital spring cleaning.  I deleted a number of things, consolidated various folders all labeled “photos,” and attempted to properly label the many “untitled” documents I found, some of which contained some surprising (and forgotten) things I’d written.

It is difficult being a pack-rat.  Even the smallest attempt at eliminating possessions seems as if you are cutting off a limb.  While I have yet to really enter into the realm of hoarding, I definitely have an obscene number of boxes in storage that are labeled “stuff to go through,” that I keep promising I will deal with, and then don’t.  (Or, even worse, I open it, notice what is in it, and say, “Well, I can’t get rid of that.”)  However, in the digital realm – space not withstanding, which is less and less of an issue anymore – even when you create more files, they occupy the exact same amount of space.  Your computer desktop can be a mess, and yet the machine itself weighs no more than it did before.  It’s hard to feel like you need to do anything proactive, when there is no discernable physical difference.

To go further down the rabbit hole: I have been accumulating digital files since the early ’90’s, and while I don’t have everything I’ve ever typed or created, I started to notice that I did have files in formats I can no longer access from 1993.  In the last 20 years computers have progressed in unfathomable ways.  Just the fact that you can now store photos and music without too much hassle is light-years ahead of the text-only Inter-Web-A-Tron I used to cruise when I first started getting access in 1994.  But this problem of reverse-compatibility is something that is just going to (eventually) lead to another form of data loss.  Not being able to read these old formats is just as bad as having a corrupted hard drive: you still can’t get at the files.  I’m sure there are services to overcome this, but I wonder what the value of that might be given that loosing data is often a good thing.

In scrolling through the last 20 years of computing, it occurred to me that perhaps there is a reason that we can’t remember everything, or that some things just disappear over time.  In re-reading old journal entries, I was reminded of past relationships that I was devastated by, and yet haven’t thought about in the last five years.  I found records of stories I wanted to write that I’m very glad I didn’t, and the remains of photos of people that were practically my best friend and who I’ve seen very little of recently.  It’s not that all of these reminders were terrible; it has prompted an overall memory-recovery project, so that I can try and establish some of these lost connections again.  And there have been a few stories that I still think might be worth revisiting, with major re-writes, of course.

On the whole, there were a lot of things I was very glad to have behind me.  Depression is interesting, in that while you are in it, there is nothing else in the world except those intense feelings.  I am sure that everything I felt in those years were sincere, genuine, and mattered at the time.  But in looking at these documents now, it is hard to remember exactly why I felt those things, and as extremely as I did.  Which, of course, is at the heart of depression: you are miserable for chemical reasons, and not for the usual reasons.  Or, the smallest things become the biggest tragedies of all time.  All you need to do is combine depression and OCD into a detailed journal, and suddenly the entire microcosm of your emotional landscape is the whole of your entire life.

That is not to say that there weren’t actual things to be upset about.  Between the shitty jobs, friends and girls I had in my life against my own better judgement, there are plenty of things to really be depressed about.  But not for 10 years.  And certainly not several hundred pages worth of single-spaced journal entires worth of misery.  In a way, I’m glad this stuff is digital, because to see them in print would definitely be akin to Morgan Freeman finding the handwritten books in Seven.  You just shouldn’t see that much solipsistic text in one place outside of Proust.

One curious feature of sorting through these files is that I’ve found evidence of previous attempts to stay organized that failed miserably.  I would come across a folder labeled “Stuff To Sort.”  Inside would be a meticulously organized set of folders.  Inevitably I would find among them another folder labeled “Stuff To Sort,” which would contain an even older, yet also meticulously arranged, set of further folders.  As I did more investigating, it became apparent that there were a number of duplicated items, too.  But not completely duplicated, either.  Clearly, I would copy some of the files inside of these items to sort, and move them to the outer level of folders, without deleting the interior items.  Probably done in a drunken evening where I was looking for a specific thing and sloppily retrieved it from a system of which only I can make sense.

Part of me wonders what good this archiving will serve.  Clearly, these files are a glimpse into my own life and my own, disoriented, confused, and endlessly repeating thought processes.  But is this of any value to anyone other than me?  It seems unlikely that at some point in the future an actual archivist will dig through these, to find something that the world cannot live without.  Considering the glut of information that exists already, I will probably be lucky to be remembered as anything more than a memory and a tombstone.  Still, in the present, I feel the need to fix these files in a permanent way, to find a means of preserving them so that they exist in a more real form than just 1s and 0s on a hard drive.  A sort of way to prove that I really did experience everything I thing I have.

In a way, that is the entire function of an archive: it is an attempt to create a record of a time, a place, a person, or a thing that is no longer “here” but is relevant in the here and now.  But at what cost?  Consider the documents that were created by our parents.  Could they compete with the volume of documents we have created?  What about our grandparents?  There was a time not too long ago when trying to fix anything, in even a semi-permanent way, was beyond the everyday person’s ability.  Were their lives any more or less meaningful?  Now I can record nearly any kind of media I wish, in a number of different ways, and there is still this desire to create more.  Will this behavior make my life more meaningful?

Already, there is more work to be done.  Yesterday I noticed that I had mixed a number of radio-related files in one folder, where there needs to be a clear distinction between “old” files for archiving and “current” ones that are not complete.  And there’s still a folder labeled “Old Data” that contains several of those recursive storage arrangements I mentioned above.  But it is the self-reflection inspired by this spring-cleaning that has allowed me to recognize that real, positive, soul-improving change has occurred in the last 20 years.  As real as “the good old days” seem to be at certain times, and as much as I long for elements of the past that are completely irretrievable now, there are many things I’m happy to know are deleted from my mainframe, never to clog up my internal processes again.

And that’s a hard lesson to learn: the value of forgetting to be nostalgic.  Perhaps the perfect archive would contain nothing but folders, perfectly labeled to remind us of where we’ve been but without the minute details that allow us to feel things were better then than they are now.  It’s not that they were better, by any stretch of the definition.  They were just other times, when things happened that did affect us in a different way than “now” does.  Nostalgia, in a way, is just a convenient excuse to ignore today, and I’m not convinced that I should give up on today.

At least, not just yet.

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