Emergent Archives

It’s fascinating to think about how much we give to the internet, and sometimes, how much it gives back. In my mind, there is a fairly direct historical connection between self-archiving practices from a couple of decades ago (keeping a diary, making photo albums, writing letters, etc.), to all the more recent variations on this idea (status updates, tweets, photo feeds, etc.). The difference is arguably in how much of the background work is taken care of for us, and the fact that we now make so much of this information public or semi-public. While many have explored the implications of this for privacy, security, and surveillance, there is another aspect that gets less attention: the automatic creation of our own archives.

One of the most interesting examples of this is Google’s visualization of your personal location data. We rarely think about that fact that, unless we explicitly disable it, our phones are constantly recording our location. This data is obviously being collected and stored by someone. In an unusually transparent demonstration of this fact, Google will show you a map of everywhere you’ve been since it started collecting your data. For many, this may be met with delight or trepidation, depending on your perspective. However, I think it’s fair to say that very few people personally thought through the idea that by sharing their location, they would enable the possibility that this kind of visualization could be made, years down the road.

In addition to being a possibly useful resource (when exactly did I go to China?), it’s also lovely example of how stories can emerge from a relatively straightforward aggregation of data. For almost every distant pin on the map, one can probably come up with some sort of story about it (oh yes, I was in Austin for that conference, and that was right before the election…). On the other hand, the more mundane patterns also tell a story, potentially revealing just how routine and predictable our lives are, how little we explore our own cities, and how much time we spend in the same small number of locations (our own little loops, as they say in Westworld).

The discovery that this map exists may prompt some of us to question if we’re comfortable giving others access to so much of our personal data. At the same time, however, it’s also so incredible cool, that we may be reluctant to disable it. Surely we will want to know, years from now, all the places we went in the year 2017? There are, of course, many ways of preserving such information, but the automaticity and convenience of this system might make it hard to resist. The fact that it operates almost completely in the background also makes it perhaps less likely to fall victim to our own attempts at manipulating our own future memories. For example, would someone go so far as to temporarily disable their location tracking if they were going to visit a place they wished to forget?

Facebook provides an interesting counterpoint. For those of us who use it, we tend to think of our timeline as an outward facing representation of ourselves, a curated picture of who we are that we show to others. At the same time, however, this collection of records forms a small personal monument to ourselves, an archive of a sort that brings together different parts of ourselves. Especially since Facebook has started reminding it’s users of “memories” (old posts from the past), people have become ever more conscious of this. For example, I know a number of people who now try to exploit this system, posting some things primarily for the purpose of (hopefully) having Facebook remind them of it at some point in the future.

On the other hand, the timeline is terribly designed (intentionally so, I assume) in terms of its utility as a reference. With no search functionality, there is no easy way to recover that link to that page we posted years ago but now can’t find. Rather, it acts much more like a photo album, allowing us to flip (scroll) through the past, letting things catch our eye and conjure memories for us, without trying to absorb all the details. Even in this form, however, the totality of our posts does tell us something. Patterns clearly emerge, even if they are primarily visual.

The past often seems strange when we encountered it again in the future. Reading an old diary always seems both revelatory and embarrassing at the same time. Was I really so obtuse about my circumstances and so capricious in my obsessions? Yes and no. We acknowledge the fact that we only ever record part of our pasts, and have presumably forgotten most of it. Perhaps more useful and interesting are the larger-scale patterns we discover — the fascinations that never seem to go away, the oscillation between happy and sad, the questions that keep being asked over and over again.

Although Facebook’s delivery of memories (or browsing through our own timelines) might provide some of these sorts of insights, it seems likely that they will give a much more baised view of ourselves, both because of what we choose to share with large numbers of near-strangers, and partly because of whatever bias is built into the algorithms. There will certainly be delightful discoveries of things we might otherwise have forgotten, but it seems less likely to be useful as a kind of meta-level archive.

In the end, there are obviously excellent reasons to be skeptical of trusting too much in these systems (not even getting into the more nefarious side of surveillance), but it is undeniably delightful when unexpected beneficial side effects emerge — in this case a fascinating kind of emergent archiving of our lives.