I struggled a bit with how to answer this week’s question, as I have very little experience with ‘ownership’ in the digital sense – most of what I acquire and interact with (whether video games, audio material, video files, bookish things) are still very physical, tangible things. I haven’t had (although have heard of) the funny (and troubling) experience of having an e-book disappear from an e-reader, or not having access to something posted on a work website after the fact. I guess one example would be the issue of who ‘owns’ digital content posted to social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook, and all of the accompanying privacy issues. Still, I would like to focus on a different sort of ownership dilemma in this digital age. I visited family this Easter weekend, and while doing so, browsed a large number of family photo albums. I was reminded of the joys of days when pictures were taken, developed, and then (if someone was dedicated enough), curated and preserved in albums. This became a topic of discussion with my relatives – including all that we seem to have lost in the age of digital photography, where most of the time, pictures amass on smart phones, or rest disorganized in computer folders, never to be seen again. Even the act of ‘browsing’ digital photos on the computer (which I have been known to do during bouts of nostalgia) does not evoke the same feelings as the joy of perusing lovingly created physical photo albums. So, what does this mean for our ‘ownership’ of these aspects of our lives?
I also overheard this weekend that retailers will no longer be selling Fujifilm for instant cameras (http://www.cbc.ca/beta/news/canada/toronto/programs/metromorning/polaroid-protest-1.3501414; http://petapixel.com/2016/02/29/fujifilm-putting-end-fp-100c-peel-apart-instant-film/). Even with the slim (and expensive) mainstream film offerings, the disappearance of any place to print digital photos (apart from Walmarts or Superstores – and even then at a huge cost) has meant that for the most part, digital collections remain indefinitely digital. With a wedding coming up in four months, this is something that my partner and I have discussed – it is hugely important for us to have physical, bound copies of our wedding photos (to be held, shared, leafed through, and looked back upon).
One of the other albums that I browsed through is a collection of letters between my grandparents. Looking at this beautifully preserved piece of family history, I was reminded of a couple articles I came across earlier this year about couples and families having their text message and email threads printed and bound into physical books for preservation (http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-26182064) (for more examples of this check out platforms such as Memeoirs, Blurb, and txt-book). Looking at the album, it really struck me what has been lost (again) with the decline of paper letters – there were certain protocol I noticed (like peculiarities about addressing, adding the time and date) and generally the pace of letter correspondence. I remember laughing when I thought about an entire text message thread being printed and returned to in the same way. In the context of a relationship, this could include everything from the most intimate moments, to the most mundane (“Don’t forget to pick up cat litter.” – no, seriously). While you might argue that the same could be said of letters, I think we are in fact dealing with a different beast here. Perhaps there is an equal benefit to having these more ephemeral interactions preserved, so that one day our grandchildren can look back on them and observe (and laugh).
So, where I am going with this? I guess all of this made me consider what ‘ownership’ looks like in the long run in this digital age. While we may still ‘own’ (although even this is debatable) the content of our phones and computers, what happens to all of the stuff of our lives that rests in them? Even with the advent of a return to printed goods (those books are just one example, think items personalized with Instagram photos – http://mashable.com/2012/03/03/instagram-products-decor/, or a return to a Polaroid-like effect with smartphones – http://www.apple.com/ca/shop/product/HJJT2ZM/A/polaroid-zip-instant-mobile-printer) these still seem to be a niche market, and relatively small scale. This makes me wonder – even if we own these now, what will happen as forms of technology shift and become obsolete? Will we own this content five years down the line? Ten? Fifty? How many computer migrations will these digital files survive? To be honest, whenever I think about this I have a crazy urge to shell out the likely hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars it might cost to have each and every one of my photos printed – even if they never make it into albums, just having them all in a box somewhere would make me feel better – to have them somewhere, anywhere. To me, this form of digital ownership is a particularly frightening (and close to home) one. Browsing through these albums with my partner I couldn’t help but say, “what will our children have to look at?” While you won’t see me running out to print off every text we’ve ever sent (yet), part of me wishes that I had an answer to this question. Before you think this is some kind of sentimental, ‘think of the children’, nostalgia-driven paranoia, I really do feel there is something here about the future of our personal books (scrapbooks, photo albums, letter albums) and how digital forms of interacting and recording meaning are disrupting things like ownership, memory, and dare I say it, our history in the making.
BBC News. (14 February 2014). Man gives girlfriend 240-page book of text messages. http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-26182064.
CBC News. (22 March 2016). Save instant photos: Toronto photographer mourns coming end of Polaroids. http://www.cbc.ca/beta/news/canada/toronto/programs/metromorning/polaroid-protest-1.3501414.
Drell, Lauren. (03 March 2012). 13 Products You Can Make From Your Instagram Snapshots. Mashable. http://mashable.com/2012/03/03/instagram-products-decor/#bN3guPqKkiql.
Polaroid Zip Instant Mobile Printer. Apple. http://www.apple.com/ca/shop/product/HJJT2ZM/A/polaroid-zip-instant-mobile-printer.
Zhang, Michael. (29 February 2016). Fujifilm is putting an end to its FP-100C Peel-Apart instant film. PetaPixel. http://petapixel.com/2016/02/29/fujifilm-putting-end-fp-100c-peel-apart-instant-film/.