Digital Ephemera and the Cloud Keepers.

A hand embroidered tablecloth featuring Australian flora

In the not too distant future…

Imagine this scene: It’s 2200. We are in the Met in New York. A mother is with her two children and they are walking through the halls crammed with artifacts, art and sculptures. They come into a room which has very few items. The sparse white walls are draped with a few posters that appear to be advertising. There are some boxy looking computers. An Instagram frame, the type you see people have at parties. Some boxes full of macabre plastic false nail tips and a box of disposable contact lenses.

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The sign above the door says the Screen Age.

“Mummy? When was the Screen Age? Were you alive then?”

“Steady on, sweety! I might be older than you but I am not that old! Your Grandma’s grandma was alive then. “

“Haven’t they finished setting up the display yet” the little boy asks staring into an empty display case.

“No, no. This is it.”

“Where are all the paintings and art? What about the handicrafts?”

A 6 pointed lacy doily made by my grandmother I think

At this question, the robotic guide zooms up beside them.

“I am so glad you asked” she says in her smooth synthetic voice. “There are two major reasons there is so little to display. Firstly, the rise of the Minimalists and secondly the fact that most activities were done online. There are very few physical artifacts available from this dark time in history.”

“What are Minimalists, Mummy”

“I’ll answer that” the guide pipes in.  “They were a new social class which arose in what used to be called first world countries, between 2012 and up till around 2075. They believed in living a simple lifestyle without the physical accoutrements of modern life. It was a noble aim. Prior to this time, the focus had been on accumulating goods. We have found evidence of a cult that had the motto “he who dies with the most toys, wins”. The Minimalists railed against this. Partly as a way of improving their own mental health but also as a challenge. They began to discard perfectly good items. The aim was to be environmentally aware, yet in this time landfills became over full, packed with items that could have been used in poorer countries – the so called third world. Incidentally, these poorer countries were the main producers of the goods being discarded, but they could not afford to buy any of the goods themselves. Instead of distributing the goods more equitably, the Minimalists destroyed or discarded the usable items and declared themselves cleansed.”

The family shifted from one foot to the other, uncomfortable at the thought of such wanton behaviour.

“The second reason is much more sinister.”

“What, more sinister than destroying the Earth’s precious resources?”

“Well, yes I know it’s hard to believe, but yes, more sinister. At that time AI agents – my early ancestors – they called them computers back then, required physical storage devices. At first, the solution was like the ones here in my hologram.”

The robot played a holographic video on the bare white floor. The reels of magnetic tape from the 1970s and 80 gave way to floppy discs, USBs and external hard drives.

“At first, individuals looked after their own storage issues. They would save their files, documents, photos and that sort of thing on these relatively small portable objects using magnetism”

“Fascinating!”

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“Then as files got bigger and they wanted to store more and more data, the portable devices were no longer able to cope. They began to upload their products to external corporate providers known collectively as “the cloud”. People paid for these services. But unbeknownst to the them, over time, the owners of “The Cloud” began to read or view the stored data and they used it as a way to sort the desirables from the undesirables and exterminate them.

The children gasped and the mother held them close.

The robot continued “It started with good intentions. They targeted those people trying to store illegal items. The Cloud Keepers as they came to be known, could easily justify getting rid of them.”

“What about privacy laws?” the mother asked

“The greater good” the robot replied. “The Cloud Keepers could cite that they were interested in the greater good and if you were doing nothing wrong you had nothing to hide”

“Oh I see. I can sort of understand that…” the mother had heard enough she did not want her children to have nightmares. She gathered them up and nudged them out the door.

“Thank you. Say thank you to the guide kids, let’s go look at the Greek sculpture!!” she called over her shoulder.

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Will museums be empty?

I hope this is a far fetched and fanciful look at the future but I do wonder about what we will have to show after this age  of digital ephemera. What can our museums keep and collect when we communicate by email, store our photos on Instagram or Flickr, listen to music on the web and have webpages instead of actual physical items. There will be no Dead Sea Scrolls equivalent from this era.

Before the digital age people would use their downtime to create physical objects. Like dainty doilies, paintings, hand made furniture. The downtime of the masses is now filled by cruising Facebook, falling in the dreaded Pintrest vortex, swiping right (or is it left?) and reading blogs like this one.

On top of that, much of the stuff we consume has a very finite life. It’s poorly made with substandard materials. It is cheap and deliberately disposable. A necessity if we are going to support an advanced capitalist economy that demands constant fiscal growth.

Is it time for the mediumalists?

I class myself as a mediumalist, a word I have coined. I believe in reducing consumption, reusing what you can, reducing plastic, avoiding waste. Living simply and enjoying experiences rather than buying stuff. I buy nearly all my clothes and housewares from op shops. BUT I still do buy some some stuff new. I still travel, even though air travel is not environmentally sustainable. I do believe we should have more shared economic activities. We could hire or borrow so many items like lawn mowers, wedding clothes, suit cases. All the sorts of things you need, but not everyday.

I do have a bit of paranoia about storing stuff in “the cloud” – more from the point of view that what happens if the electricity goes off? We’ll all be in strife them.

I hope my story doesn’t come true. Let’s think about how we want to build our future.

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The Mitchell Library, Sydney.

No day shall erase you from the memory of time.

September 11 2001 changed everyone’s world regardless of where you lived. I remember waking up that morning without knowing what had happened. When I got to work there was hushed silence and people crying. I thought one of my colleagues must have died.

“Haven’t you seen the news?” they all said in unison to my question of “what’s happened?”

Their explanation, without the TV footage was grim enough but after watching it again and again and again (as many of us did) the enormity of it left me speechless.

While we empathised with those who had been killed and the loss their families suffered we all felt that the world had become a sadder more dangerous place.

This week I went to the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York. A dreary dark rainy day made indoor activities necessary. I think all the tourists in New York made the same decision and the queue snaked along for many, many turns. My museum ticket was for 2:30PM and when I joined the queue at 2:10PM, they were letting the 1:30PM tickets in. The crowd was getting restless and I felt for the Security and Memorial staff as many people asked what they should do if they had a 2:30 ticket.

“Go away and come back later”

The response was not well accepted

“What? In a minute? It’s 2:29 now?” The man with the thick Yorkshire accent asked.

“All the 2:30 people line up over there” the Security guy said. No-one moved. He was finding it harder and harder to keep his polite “have a nice day” demeanour in tact. After some conjoling, the 2:30 queue formed its separate line in the designated spot and let the 2:00PM folks walk past.

At 3:00PM we were shuffled into the final twists of the snake. The disquiet in the crowd began to settle. Puffs of fog drifting up as they sighed in imperfect patience.

At 3:30 we encountered the first of the ways in which the world has changed: metal detectors and bag checks – the now ubiquitous reminders of the sadder, more dangerous world.

The vaulted ceiling, the dark entrance and the quiet sounds whipped you back to reality and I for one felt guilty that I had been part of a crowd that complained my entry had been delayed.

The Memorial and Museum are both astonishing in their simplicity and reverence. Built into the foundations of one of the towers, the museum’s ramps take you deeper into the earth. The exhibits, both visual and audio are haunting. A loop of photos showing people in the street watching the towers burn and then fall; clutching their mouths; clutching each other, with the sounds of people’s memories of the day playing quietly in the background; so moving that tears flowed down the cheeks of those watching.

These squares of blue representing those who were killed that covers the graves of the unidentified

Images of those killed, nearly 4000; make a particularly poignant display, so much so I did not linger.

The photos made by Stephane Sednaoui in the hours and days after the attack vividly encapsulate the terror inflicted and the subsequent urgency of the first responders who came to help.

The mood of most patrons was somber and reflective. The accents of the world surrounded me. Two young women who were sharing a joke, reminded by fellow visitors that this was not the place.

The outdoor memorial is made up of two deep pools with water cascading down the sides and falling into what seems like a bottomless well. The names of those killed cut into the metal sheets that surround it. Again simple and reverent. Some names have a flower – a tribute to their birthday.

I give this site a five star rating but don’t go expecting to be entertained; go with the expectation that you will leave feeling that this world is still sadder and more dangerous.

You can get more information here: https://www.911memorial.org.