In the decades after he returned from World War II, it seemed as if the movie camera was surgically attached to Christoffel Teeuwissen’s hand.
He carried it everywhere, trained it on everything. Film ebbed into video. He kept recording. When the VCR arrived, history programs, episodes of “The Lawrence Welk Show” and TV biographies were added.
Then, in 2005, Christoffel Teeuwissen died at 88. When Jon Teeuwissen and his two sisters began going through their parents’ ranch house, another story unfolded.
All over the house sat boxes of memories — dozens of 7-inch reels of film, smaller reels, Super 8s, audio recordings, VHS cassettes.
So they inventoried. They labeled. They assembled the recorded remains of their father’s time on Earth into what coherence they could. Then they put everything into boxes and sent it all off to an address in Arizona.
There, courtesy of a company called iMemories, the dusty personal archives of the Teeuwissen family are losing their physicality. Bit by bit, they are becoming DVDs, JPEGs and online videos searchable with a click.
With that, for Jon Teeuwissen, the march toward digital remembrances is under way.
Preserving the past
Things fall apart.
The ways we have recorded our personal footprints — on paper, tape and plastic, things we could hold in our hands — are forever stalked by time. That slow erosion is even more poignant when you consider that, today, we don’t have everything we might have saved. We had to choose what to keep.
The Information Age is changing all that. From the aisles of Best Buy to the pages of the SkyMall catalog, everywhere are gadgets that will transfer the trappings of personal existence into bits of data that are portable, reproducible and potentially infinite.
Sometimes cultural moments arrive stealthily. One of those is at hand. Memories, in all their forms, are shedding their containers and bursting forth into a new phase. This is analog’s twilight.
“We get fast food and we get instant information online. Everything is at our fingertips,” said Jennafer Martin, editor-in-chief of Digital Scrapbooking magazine. “So it makes a little bit of sense that our memories should be too.”
This is not solely a tale of technology. It is a story about how we interact with the items that surround us, and what it means when they change. It is about our hope that, through fire or flood or theft, the things we value will be around for our lifetimes — and for our children’s.
Paper isn’t going anywhere yet. There’s too much around. But the last decade has fundamentally altered how we capture things and preserve moments in time.
Film cameras are now a niche market. A digital camera can be bought for $19.95. Scanmyphotos.com will turn your entire stash of 1980s Fotomat prints into JPEGs. Digital music headlined by iTunes is so entrenched we forget we used to go to the record store for an LP. Your “inbox” means e-mail, not some wooden container with letters on your desk.
Polaroid instant cameras? Buh-bye. Bound books? Google is digitizing more than 3,000 a day. And between 2001 and 2006, sales of blank cassettes dropped by more than 60 percent as flash memory sales spiked, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.
The SkyMall catalog, available on airplanes, can outfit your home with devices to move vinyl to CD, CDs to MP3, videocassettes to DVD and slides and prints to JPEG.
SkyMall showcases “products that are at the early stage of their life cycle,” said Christine Aguilera, SkyMall’s CEO. “We have a ton of buyers out there looking for the product that consumers don’t know they need yet.”
Fujitsu’s goal is to help us get rid of our paper. Its ScanSnap, a scanner shaped like a printer, can transform the morasses of wood pulp that are out of sync with the encroaching digital world. You can load 50 sheets, push a button and walk away; when you come back, PDF files will be waiting.
It’s not new technology. Fujitsu is just framing the device as a “lifestyle product” and pushing the mind-set that physical documents like bills, newspaper clippings and random notes can be unwieldy. The pitch is gentle: “Go digital — where you want to.”
“I don’t think you can expect people to make a significant or radical transition in one step. It’s got to be done over time,” said Scott Francis, marketing director for Fujitsu Computer Products of America. His hard drive contains 6,750 PDF scans, including images of his kid’s schoolwork.
Put this all together and what do you have? Your computer contains the digital equivalent of you. And because this customizable photo album-movie viewer-stereo counts storage “space” as a virtual term — and because access to the contents are instant — our digital memories are way more complete than our physical archives ever were.
In your digital life, packrattery won’t crowd you out of your house. Sixteen variants of the same digital photo are fine, because you don’t have to print them. Downloaded movies don’t require shelves. And if you’re scanning documents, you might catch yourself saving pieces of paper that you might otherwise throw away.
There is something vaguely melancholy about leaving behind the physical past and looking to technologies that are less solid, less graspable, less tactile.
The question bubbles: What happens to the soul of something when its physicality is removed? Is a yellowed family portrait from 1897 that was held by your father, grandfather and great-grandfather the same thing as a passel of pixels arranged just so?
It’s not as if these are the first such changes to the fabric of our lives. Every invention that reconfigured our relationship with information, from the telegraph to the telephone to television to Facebook, was greeted with the suspicion that something of humanity would be lost.
The temerity of recording music so irritated John Philip Sousa that the bandleader denounced its very existence. “Music teaches all that is beautiful in this world,” he wrote in 1906. “Let us not hamper it with a machine that tells the story … without variation, without soul, barren of the joy, the passion.”
That suspicion endures.
“There is a sense of unease,” said Edward Tenner, author of “Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity.” But, he added, “We’re always in transition. There’s an illusion that there’s some stable future that we’re moving to. And I think the norm is that we always have this jumble of the old and the new.”
The difference is that until a decade ago, the personal wasn’t so portable. Now, on services like Flickr and Shutterfly, we can share our vacation slides with our friends and the world in real time — without the darkened den and carousel projector.
These online outlets are particularly useful given that decay is beginning to claim some of our oldest personal information. Sure, paper can last a century or more if cared for properly, but videotape’s shelf life is generally about 15 years and film’s about 30. Photo prints from the 1990s are already beginning to fade.
“There’s a lot of that content that’s at the fourth quarter, two-minute warning,” said Mark Rukavina, founder and CEO of iMemories, the Arizona company that ingests entire boxes of American memories, digitizes them and puts them online.
“We see film that’s beyond its life span. It’s gone. And there’s nobody on the planet that can bring it back. … And we have people in tears. We are now digitally aware, but you look over your shoulder and you see all the stuff that isn’t. And you say, ‘How can I get this into digital form?’ ”
But digital, too, has its pitfalls: It can decay, albeit in a different way, and it is often locked in a specific format — one that may not exist decades from now. Try opening a MacWrite file these days.
Which brings us to one thing about paper that is simply genius: You never have to plug it in.
[source: The Courier-Journal]