Tag Archives: Mary Sharp

Preserving Memories, One Byte or Scarf At A Time

Grotto May Pole

May pole dance in Mount Mercy Grotto, May Day 2012.

Memory was the theme of the day for me.

For one thing, I read this excellent post, which is mostly a presentation made by Mary Sharp, a very sharp woman who is always worth listening too. As she notes, the digital age can shift information instantly, but it can also change it while it shifts it.

My son’s Microsoft friends are fond of saying “The Internet never forgets,” but Mary legitimately notes that digital data can also vaporize forever in the blink of an eye. And it’s not just due to catastrophe or deliberate vandalism—merely shifting the format of digital data renders the stuff stored in the old format obsolete and potentially lost. Quick—find the nearest functioning 8-track player.

We know some of the most ancient languages ever written thanks to the Rosetta Stone. But, these days, do we set anything in stone? When I was a young pup journalist, I was known as a pretty good photographer—back in the days when photos were few and precious and expensive. You shot a self-rolled set of 36 frames on black-and-white film and thought you had covered that event pretty well, thank you.

These days, I tell my student photographers that electrons are free and they merely have to inconvenience a few thousand of them to create a photo, so they should inconvenience millions of them. Shoot, shoot, shoot. An 8 gigabyte SD card holds a lot.

Yet, back in my day, one of the chemicals we used to create negatives or photo prints was “fixer.” And when it was fixed, it was done, baby. It wouldn’t last forever, but it would last for years and it was set when it was fixed. Today, you can rearrange electrons however you want. Information is rarely fixed.

Thus our combined knowledge—the memory of our species—is mutable, easy to transfigure, malleable, slippery and elusive. Truth is hard to nail down.

I’ve noted before that in this information age, students seem to remember less and less. They can’t be troubled with learning when World War II started because Google rides around in their back pockets. But who watches the watcher? Who owns and can transform the stored knowledge of mankind—and who protects it if it’s merely inconvenienced electrons that can dance on command and also vanish?


I needed a break from this grim reality. Although I could not attend it all, I saw the May Day Celebration in Mount Mercy’s Grotto this afternoon and felt a little better. It was a recreation of a type of dance done there in the 1920s. It was living memory, and good to see. The stones of the Grotto will be there tomorrow, thanks in part of Jane Gilmor and the restoration work she has spearheaded.

Jane’s doing good work on Mary’s problem. She’s keeping some memories, patterned in stone, alive. More power to her.

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