Your memories. Their Cloud. – The New York Times

Your memories. Their Cloud. – The New York Times

Your memories. Their Cloud. - The New York Times

I noticed a philosophical divide among the archivists I spoke with. Digital archivists are committed to preserving everything with the mentality that you never know what you might one day want, while professional archivists who have worked with family and institutional collections have said that it is important to clean up to make an archive manageable for the people who will consult in the future.

“It’s often very surprising what turns out to be important,” said Jeff Ubois, who is in the first camp and has hosted conferences dedicated to personal archiving.

He cited a historical example. During World War II, the British War Office asked people who had taken coastal holidays to send in their postcards and photographs, an intelligence-gathering exercise to map the coastline that led to the selection of Normandy as the best place to land troops.

Mr. Ubois said it is difficult to predict future uses of what we save. Am I doing this just for me, to reflect on my life as I get older? Is it for my descendants? Is it for an artificial intelligence that will act as a memory prosthesis when I’m 90? And if so, does this AI really need to remember that I Googled “starbucks ice cream calorie count” one morning in January 2011?

Before the Internet, we reduced our collections to make them manageable. But now we have metadata and advanced search techniques to sort through our lives: timestamps, geotags, object recognition. When I recently lost a close relative, I used Apple Photos’ facial recognition feature to unearth photos of him that I had forgotten to take. I was happy to have them, but do I have to keep all the photos, even the less flattering ones?

Bob Clark, director of archives at the Rockefeller Archive Center, said the general rule in his profession is that less than 5% of the material in a collection is worth preserving. He blamed tech companies for offering too much storage space, eliminating the need to deliberate about what we keep.

“They made it so easy that they turned us into unwitting data hoarders,” he said.

Companies try, occasionally, to play the role of memory miners, popping up moments that they think should be meaningful, probably aiming to increase my engagement with their platform or inspire brand loyalty. But their algorithmic archivists inadvertently emphasize the value of human curation.


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