Little metal boxes
07 September 2023
Everyone has to pack up their life into boxes sometimes. The first time I learned this was fifteen years ago when I moved to university. Stuffing your entire life into the back of a Kia Sportage is no mean feat as an eighteen year old. Among the things from ikea were two Little Metal Boxes.
One of the Little Metal Boxes was taped shut with masking tape. It contained a bunch of seemingly inconsequential items: receipts from restaurants, a lanyard from the museum at the Kennedy Space Centre, a scribbled note in my dad's handwriting that says "Do a good show". It was a box of keepsakes. Things, items, and objects that I wanted to hold on to.
The other Little Metal Box was the size of a housebrick. It had its own power button and sounded like a light aircraft when you switched it on.
This was an external hard drive. It contained files. Thousands of them. Songs, videos and documents that I wanted to hold on to.
For half of my life, digital files were discreet things you downloaded, moved, and opened. When you got a new computer you copied and moved the file. If you wanted to share it with someone, you plugged in some sort of device and copied it across. As for the TV, films and music you loved? I grew up in the heyday of P2P and BitTorrent clients. Someone hosted a file, you downloaded a copy. If you were nice and had a stable upload speed, you hosted your copy of it in turn.
By the time I went to university I'd amassed thousands of digital files in this way, by burning CDs I had bought or by downloading them, er, legally (sorry, Musicians.) The hard drive also contained lots of files I'd made myself: documents, ideas, notes. Heading off to university tasked with packing everything important to me, I didn't think twice about taking the hard drive with me.
That was fifteen years ago. I've had to pack my life up a few more times since. As I write this I know exactly where my Little Metal Box of keepsakes is. It's still masking-taped shut in my attic. I've added a few new objects to it over the years. I haven't looked inside it in a while, but I like knowing it's there.
But what about the hard drive? That Little Metal Box itself is lost to me. Probably inside a landfill somewhere. But its contents are fractured and atomised among a thousand data centres all over the world. Around 2012, lots of services appeared offering automatic sync across devices. Variously, in the decade since, I have signed up for things like Dropbox, iCloud, Evernote and Google Drive, moving between devices and operating systems.
At some point, the documents stopped living on my hard drive. They were accessible (anywhere!) via my browser or by these services' apps.
As for media, I signed up for Spotify around 2015, and now all my music comes exclusively via their paid plan. Ditto: Netflix and Disney+ for films and TV shows. I still have some DVDs, but I haven't bought more than a handful in about 6 years. I sold or gave away most of my CDs. In just over a decade, my relationship with important digital Things has changed completely.
For the sake of convenience, economy and abundance, I have given up 'owning' copies of digital Things. It's now more like renting. 'My' files are now stored on these services' servers and streamed to me. But my ability to stream these files is contingent on me paying these companies each month. Or, most worryingly in the case of things like Google and Evernote, not contingent on me paying them at all.
As for the media I consume, Netflix and Spotify continually 'negotiate' with rights holders (ask the rights holders and 'negotiate' is not the verb they'd use to describe the interaction - sorry, Musicians) meaning licenses occasionally fall away onto other services I don't have. Some of my favourite media is now inaccessible to me. It's a cruel and perhaps fitting punishment that even though I bought After The Gold Rush by Neil Young in 2007, I can't listen to it right now because it's not on Spotify and I gave away the CD to a charity shop.
At least I have perpetual access - in theory - to the documents and files I created on places like Google Drive, Evernote, Dropbox and iCloud. Just as long as I have the internet. And I remember my password. And my account is still active.
Random access memory
When my mind wanders to The Little Metal Box of keepsakes, safely masking-taped shut in my attic, I can mentally catalogue some of the items inside. Big ticket items indelibly tied to times, places or events in my life I'm not likely to forget.
But I can only think of some of the items. If I make the effort to get the ladder out and clamber into my attic, maybe in search of Christmas decorations or a tin of paint, I might pass by the Little Metal Box and stop for a look inside. I am always pleasantly surprised to see things I'd forgotten I had saved.
I like to think of these objects as Memory Tokens, unlocking memories even I forgot I owned. One look at the token and my brain starts to reach back and figure out what the fuck this guitar plectrum is and why I saved it. The plectrum is small and purple and worn. Then, suddenly, I am back in 2007, in the middle of a neverending summer, stealing Pimms from the cupboard, putting it inside a sports bottle and cycling with my guitar up a giant hill to band practise.
The memories these tokens bring back tend to be obtuse experiences that have somehow broken apart into their constituent parts: snippets and feelings and visions. I'm thankful that at some point I thought to keep these objects to unlock memories for myself in the future. As I get older it's this kind of memory - one that I do not spend much time with - that I relish more and more.
But, there are loads of experiences and objects in my life that I do not have keepsakes for. At the time, I didn't think to store the memory in the object. Now it's too late. The memories are not necessarily gone, but because the token wasn't created there's no easy way to access them.
A thousand words
A photo makes a perfect Memory Token. But there are only a couple of photos in my Little Metal Box in the attic. These are very, very old (which to me means "from the '90s" and I'm sorry if that makes you reflect on your own mortality) and mostly come from my parents' collection. So where are all my photos?
The answer lies partly in my age.
I was 14 in 2004. I got MySpace that same year. It is there that my earliest photos were uploaded and shared. I don't have access to my MySpace account any more, and even if I did, the photos, music and almost everything from the time I used it was accidentally wiped forever in 2019. The snarky part of me is glad that pictures of my absolutely cringeworthy life choices from that era are gone. But as I get older, I think I'd relish even those sorts of memories, too.
In 2007 I got Facebook, and used it regularly until about 2015. Pictures from my late teens and early twenties - at least those I bothered to upload - are probably on my Facebook profile somewhere (do we still have walls?) I can't be sure, because I haven't logged in properly for years. Facebook used to be a crucial part of my social life, but now it's an irrelevance. Something I only keep to claim my identity.
Basically my entire adult life, my photos have resided variously on the devices that took them: smartphones. I must have had eight different smartphones with cameras. I think only the last two have been uploading everything automatically. One was an Android, the other an iPhone. So the photos that I didn't explicitly save are gone. And the most recent tranches are on two competing cloud services. I don't specifically save them anywhere.
I think the reason I don't have any special photos saved is the sheer number of them that exist. Relative to my friends and family, I take very few photographs of my life, but there are still thousands and thousands of pictures by me or of me.
Technology and our relationship with it changes so rapidly, it is hard to recognise the changes as they happen. Just fifteen years ago it would have been almost unthinkable to have nearly all my important files accessible to me immediately, wherever I am on the planet. Now it is unthinkable not to.
It's unthinkable, but that doesn't mean it's impossible - look at my relationship with Myspace and Facebook. I can't shake the idea that I'm living in some digital neverending summer, and that this perpetual abundance is really only a feeling, not a reality. That it won't last. I'm not talking about some cataclysmic international event, or someone attacking me and locking me out of my files. There are far more boring and likely ways someone like me could lose access to these services, and with it, my digital history.
The fact is that digital files are equally as 'real' and valuable to me as those physical memory tokens: the Google Doc I created to write my wedding speech, including the comments I left to myself as I was writing and rewriting it. The photo of my wife and my dog asleep the first day we got him. A screenshot of me beating a friend 7-0 on Fifa '15 (suck it, Dom.)
Perhaps the most terrifyingly mundane part of this is that, because I have effectively outsourced the storage of everything digital that I own, I've stopped making these memory tokens. I don't have a purposeful act of seeing something mundane, storing it, and in doing so, linking it with a memory for retrieval later, in the way I did when I saved that plectrum some time in 2007. The sheer abundance of digital Things has changed my brain into thinking that because nothing is scarce, nothing is special.
Another metal box
We are about to have our first child. Anyone who has been through this will recognise the sudden and sharp urges to change, to fix, to prepare, to nest. One of these urges led me to buying another Little Metal Box. This one is a TrigKey Mini PC and is sitting behind the TV in our front room. I call it our family archive.
This box is an Ubuntu Server I've hooked up to a Cloudflare Tunnel so I can safely access it from the internet. I've added some very basic file server software to allow me to save and retrieve meaningful or important files. The great thing about this is that my wife and I can both share the same archive. My intention is to maintain this for the long term. I'm not replacing the cloud services, but I'm making sure that the really important stuff is on a piece of metal I control.
I'm going to log back into my Facebook and download as many photos as I can from the 8 year period of my life catalogued through there. Then, I'll find as many files on Google, Apple, Dropbox, Evernote and any other platform I've outsourced storage to, and save to the archive anything that means something to me. This purposeful act of cataloguing and archiving parts of my digital life will, I hope, kick off the same neurons that fired when I saved that plectrum.
When our son is born, rather than Instagram or any other commercial social network, we are going to upload pictures of him to this archive via some simple private image sharing software I wrote. We'll make sure that we have a single place all our important pictures and videos can end up regardless of whether my wife and I have the same brand of mobile phone or are signed up to the same services over the coming decades. I might have a hole in my digital memories, but I hope my son won't. To see pictures of his childhood when he is 40, he won't have to go looking through the internet archive for my wife's instagram.
My hope is that eventually we can have a place where we, as a family, have stored the digital things that are important to us: videos, photos, documents. Huge swathes of our lives are digital now, so there needs to be a way to tell the digital part of the story.
I'm not naive enough to think that this doesn't come with its own risks: I have to navigate changing data formats, redundancy and security. I'll make sure that while the software I build can change, the data it stores must be future-proof and secure. Masking tape is not sufficient to keep this box safe.
It will be hard, and I'm sure I'll make mistakes. I will almost certainly end up backing some of this up into the same cloud services I have created it to get away from. We will forget to add some things to this Little Metal Box, just like how I forgot to add countless items to the one in the attic.
But there will be interesting objects in this Little Metal Box. Digital Things that are entirely ordinary, but mean something to us. Objects that help us access our memories, maybe even after we're not there to remember them. Take an object inside the box in the attic: I can't explain why this mundane item meant something to me. Unless I explicitly tell someone and they remember, or I write it down somewhere, eventually it'll just be a faded guitar plectrum, a lanyard, a note with a quote from Spinal Tap in some frankly terrible handwriting.
Maybe the digital archive offers a different possibility. Memory as metadata. Perhaps we can combine the mundane and the meaningful and find a way to catalogue and store memories in a way that is impractical in the physical world. Files contain metadata. We can use that metadata to tell the story of the file, in the same way you'd write on the back of old photos in family albums.
Your family tree and history is another area that has become entirely outsourced to commercial companies. You rent access to your own history from places like ancestry.com. Perhaps this archive is a better long term host for my own family tree.
There are loads of possibilities. Many things I could build. At this point I'm not entirely sure what I, or the people who come after me, will be able to do with all this.
But I think it all starts with making another Little Metal Box full of memories.